NEW YORK -- Fred Lebow figures that when he runs the New York City Marathon today, far behind most of the 26,000 runners who will flood the city streets, no one will notice his plodding effort just to finish the race that he single-handedly made into a city-wide running extravaganza.
"By the time I come, the crowds will be gone," Lebow said last week while in his office at the New York Runners Club building, just across from Central Park, where the final miles of the marathon wind through.
Never, in all of his crazy life of proving the pundits wrong by making road running, whether a one-mile race on Fifth Avenue or a 26.2-mile trek through the streets of New York, into events of global proportions, has Fred Lebow been so wrong about anything.
"He is going to hear it for five hours, from the Verrazano Bridge start to the finish line," Stan Saplin said of the fan response waiting for his longtime friend and business associate as he runs the race for the first time.
Allan Steinfeld, Lebow's right-hand man and technical coordinator of the marathon, figures he will break into tears, and so will others watching Lebow cross the finish line, however long it takes.
Lebow's effort tugs at the heartstrings.
In 1989 he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and doctors gave him six months to live, leaving him with a sickening thought.
"The New York City Marathon has consumed me more than anything else in my life," Lebow said of the race he took out of Central Park and expanded across the city in 1976 and which then expanded to claim worldwide notoriety.
"Yet, when I got cancer the thought occurred to me that I had run 68 marathons in all the major capitals of the world yet I had never run the five-borough New York City Marathon.
"The thought occurred to me, but I didn't do much about it. But, as I got better and when I turned 60 [in June] I told my staff no parties, no presents. I would just give myself a gift to run the New York City Marathon. It is my birthday gift to myself."
Though Lebow asked for no presents, the incomparable Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz, winner of nine New York City Marathons, couldn't resist offering a special gift to her dear friend. She would come out of retirement and run alongside Lebow step by step.
"I saw him at the 1990 marathon and I was shocked to see him," she said.
"I worried for him. I didn't think we would be running a marathon two years later. If somebody had told me, I wouldn't have believed it."
Lebow was overwhelmed by Waitz's offer.
"How could she want to run twice as slow as she normally does," said Lebow. "If I finish the marathon I will declare her the 10th winner of the marathon. I have that in my power."
Lebow once ran a 3-hour, 30-minute marathon, and in his last race in 1988 he clocked a 3:47. But he has no delusions of how long it will take him this time.
"I would like to break five hours, 5 1/2 , even six would still be fine," he said. "In my mind, all I really want to do is finish."
Saplin has no doubts that Lebow will do what he has set out to accomplish, because he has watched his friend do that in every venture he has pursued.
"When he says he is going to run 26 miles and not be a DNF [did not finish], he'll do it," said Saplin. "He is an incredible man."
Lebow already has planned his incredible finishing touch, one that will be sure to get him noticed.
"I will kiss the finish line when I cross it," he said with a smile.
N.Y. Marathon facts
When: Today, 10:48 a.m.
Starting field: Approximately 26,000.
TV: Chs. 13 and 7 from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
1991 champions: Men: Salvador Garcia, Mexico;
Women: Liz McColgan, Scotland.
Course records: Men: Juma Ikangaa, 2:08:01,
1989; Women: Allison Roe, 2:25:29, 1981.
World records: Men: Belayneh Densimo, 2:06:50,
1988; Women: Ingrid Kristiansen, 2:21:06, 1985.
Prize money: Total of $130,900, with $20,000 to the first men's and women's finishers, plus a new Mercedes-Benz sports sedan; men's and women's prizes will be awarded for places 1-5. There also will be bonuses for world records, course records and clockings under 2:15 for men and 2:33 for women.