from First Marathons, by Gail Kislevitz
Who Wants Steinfeld?
Allan Steinfeld is the man
responsible for ensuring that every November approximately thirty-thousand people
run together in a smooth and orderly fashion. Not only does he orchestrate the
New York City Marathon and over a hundred of other road races sponsored by his
running club, he is also a sports administrator whose talent for finances, organization,
and marketing make him a sought-after consultant. So what does he think of the
New York Marathon? He has never run it. In fact, Allan has only completed one
marathon. Growing up, he went from the skinny kid no one wanted on their team
to one of the fastest runners on the track. Along the way, he received a masters
degree in astronomy and physics, started on his doctorate, and finally met the
man who would have the greatest impact on his life, Fred Lebow. Allan has what
many of us would consider the greatest job: working with runners all day, just
one block away from Central Park—where he can at any moment choose to go out for
Growing up is never easy, but it can be damn hard if you
are a skinny little kid in the Bronx and have to get up at five-thirty in the
morning to travel to Brooklyn for school. While all my friends were attending
Bronx Science, I had to travel down to Brooklyn due to an antiquated and now-obsolete
ruling about entrance applications to schools. I was becoming an outsider in my
own neighborhood. To make matters worse, I wasn’t very good at sports. Any game
that required eye and hand coordination was my downfall. I couldn’t catch a baseball
or sink a basketball, although I was great at defense and rebounds. In football,
the all-American pastime for everyone but me, I could run a good defense, but
again, couldn’t catch the ball. I was the cartoon character kid who gets sand
kicked in the face and the reality of it was, no one wanted me on their team.
It was tough growing up in a city neighborhood, being the guy who was uncoordinated,
couldn’t participate in sports. Of course it bothered me; I was the last one chosen.
I can still hear the big shots calling out, “Who wants Steinfeld?”
The irony of it all was that I knew I was fast, could beat
all those other kids in any race, but no one raced. Our games were played on the
streets and neighborhood empty lots. If you couldn’t play baseball, you were a
nobody. And with such a long commute from school, I couldn’t join the track team
at Brooklyn Tech and still get back home in time to get all my studying done.
It’s funny how life decisions, even at such an early age, form us for the future.
I hated the fact that I was viewed as an outsider in my own town and I had no
friends at Brooklyn Tech because there was no time to socialize. I didn’t really
come of age with myself and friends until college. That’s when running saved me
and changed my life forever.
My metamorphosis from the neighborhood nobody to a track
star started at Hunter College and continued when I transferred to City College.
I was running the two hundred meters and quarter mile and all of a sudden I had
lots of friends who just happened to be athletes. I was no longer observing life
from the sidelines, waiting for the moment when a school-yard friend who was out
on the field would wave or say hello. The days of being snubbed by the other kids
were over. I finally made it to the other side and running brought me there. I
was now an athlete.
My family of running friends began to grow. Not only was
I best friends with the college track team, but as we competed with other schools,
I met new people who became part of the circle. In fact, the captain of my track
team at Hunter is still a good friend that I see often. This became my rallying
point, the beginning of a new life where I saw myself differently. I started doing
weight training, running faster and training harder. At 5'8" and 117 pounds, I
was a very fast sprinter, but also strong, doing two-hundred-pound squats and
carrying a hundred pounds on my back while running the giant, concrete stadium
steps. We had a great coach, which was a double blessing for me as I tend to have
a problem with authority figures. There is a rebel hiding inside me that gets
me in trouble every now and then.
I also tended to view running in a different way than most
of my teammates, focusing more on the cerebral side of the sport. It’s not all
about speed. It’s viewed as boring because it’s not necessarily a fun thing, but
it is very intense and involves more of the body than any other sport. I’ve run
sprints so fast I throw up, but go back for more. I’ve run till I can’t breathe,
yet go back for more. You can’t put it all out at once and at the same time you
can’t go too slow. There’s much more strategy than people realize. It’s not just
running fast; it’s cerebral.
I’ll tell you my personal secret to successful running, which
I discovered during a critical track meet that we were doomed to lose. Even the
coach anticipated a loss. My personal goal at the time was to do the quarter mile
in better than fifty-seven seconds, but I was having trouble breaking it, a block
of some kind. I decided at the meet to go out relaxed, with an “I don’t care”
attitude. My attitude also tends to get me in trouble, but this day it did the
opposite. Before I knew it, I was running neck and neck for first place, drawing
even, and somehow, somewhere out of me, I pulled ahead to win and broke fifty-three
seconds. I’ll never forget that day.
I guess it was also my cocky attitude that brought me to
Boston, in hopes of running the 1966 Boston Marathon. I was coming off a high
from winning my first New York Road Runners Club race, a handicapped race, keeping
a steady six-minute pace for eight miles. I figured if I could keep that pace
for eight miles I could keep a seven-minute pace for twenty-six miles. I must
have been really full of myself, because I didn’t prepare, didn’t even read a
book about marathon training. Deep down inside I think every serious runner aspires
to do Boston and this was my shot. There was no qualifying time requirement, so
I just went. It was a lark, I’ll admit, but I was young, wild, and crazy. I held
my seven-minute pace for ten miles and then started to slowly fall apart. I got
slower, and slower, then started to jog, then walk, then came to a complete stop
and couldn’t move. I had to lean against a telephone pole to hold my body upright.
One lane of cars was allowed on the course back then and out of desperation I
flagged down a driver for a ride. A man with two kids in the car picked me up,
put me in the backseat, covered me with a blanket, and drove me to the finish.
I felt badly, but I certainly wasn’t devastated. As I said, it was a lark and
I blew it. End of story.
After college I attended graduate school at Cornell in astronomy
and physics. I kept running, training with the track team. Actually, my running
was one of the main reasons I went to Cornell. One of the interviewing department
heads was a previous all-Ivy two-mile champion and shared my love of the sport.
After my masters, I wasn’t quite ready to work yet but it was also the time when
Nixon was escalating the draft for Vietnam and most of my graduate school friends
were heading for Canada. I decided to continue my schooling and went to Alaska
for my doctorate, working on a thesis involving the northern lights. While in
Fairbanks, I put in five to ten miles a day running cross country in one of the
most beautiful settings in the world, in full view of Mount McKinley. It was a
real trip to look out and see that mountain range. I stayed for about one year
and realized I was in the doctoral world of publish or perish, so my team produced
over two dozen papers of which I was part of the research team. However, when
the papers were published I was acknowledged but not given any authorship. It
is customary in scientific research papers to list all the members of the team
by name as authors. When I asked why I was inadvertently left out, being the low
man on the totem pole was the lame excuse given. I was very annoyed, didn’t want
to play their academic mind games, so I left.
Back home from Alaska in 1972, I was tired of academia and
didn’t want to work. I just wanted to have fun and run. But I did need some kind
of income just to exist so I took a position in the Rye Neck school district,
teaching high school physics and math, also signing on to be the assistant track
and cross-country coach. Running was still a focus in my life, a main ingredient
that defined who I was. I wanted to learn all I could about the art of running,
as opposed to the sport of running. I took up dance to learn about movement and
fluidity, to become more aware of my body and how it connects and works. I wasn’t
quite comfortable performing on stage, but I loved the course. It was like poetry
to me, so free and unstructured. I became very aware of my body and stopped being
ashamed of it, of being skinny. I actually got to like the performances, and thank
God I didn’t have to wear tights.
The best part of living back in New York City was resuming
my daily runs in Central Park. I joined the New York Road Runners Club back in
1963 while at Hunter College and could now benefit from my membership and join
all the races and club activities. The club was growing in leaps and bounds and
Fred Lebow, the founder of the club, was orchestrating the first marathon that
would go beyond the boundaries of Central Park. I volunteered, starting out at
the bottom of the pack stuffing envelopes and moving up to become the official
I kept volunteering, doing more and more, and by 1978 Fred
asked me to be his official assistant. I asked him what the job paid, and he responded
by asking me my current salary. I was making twenty-five- thousand dollars teaching
and he countered with less than half of that, twelve-thousand. I didn’t even negotiate,
just took the job right away, crazy enough to give it a shot. My decision was
based on two things: my love of running and my respect for Fred. He was so charismatic
and persuasive. And finally, I knew I would have fun. This wasn’t work, this was
One of my first assignments was flying to Honolulu with Fred
to consult with their road runners club on how to improve their fledgling marathon.
I knew I made the right decision to take this job! We were invited back the next
two years in a row to make further improvements. In 1979, my wife and I decided
to take our vacation in Hawaii and went out two weeks early. I knew the marathon
course by heart and one morning decided to take a ten-mile run through the cane
fields and kept a six-and-a-half-minutes per mile pace. When I got back to the
hotel room, I told my wife I was going to run the marathon. She gave me that “you’re
crazy” look and asked why. I simply said, “Because it’s there.” I knew it was
a nutty decision, but that’s the way I do things. Besides, it was a beautiful
run, I was in good shape, and it seemed a fascinating idea. I also set a goal
for myself, to finish in three and a half hours. If I went beyond that, I would
stop wherever I was and get a ride to the finish. I wasn’t going to be stupid
this time around. When I registered, by chance I received the number 66, which
I thought was fate, that being the year of my ill-fated attempt at running the
At 6 a.m. on that December morning, in pitch black darkness,
the Honolulu Marathon began with a wicked display of fireworks that signaled the
start for seven thousand runners to begin their journey on a course that covers
Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and Koko Head Crater. I couldn’t break loose from
the crowd and was running behind schedule so I had to increase my pace for a while.
At mile six the climb up Diamond Head starts and proceeds for about one mile until
the crest of the volcano comes into view. As I approached the top, the sun was
coming up over the water, illuminating Diamond Head, a glorious scene of sparkling,
incandescent light. It was magnificent and I was feeling as radiant as the sight.
Then the downhill starts and the halfway point is at the Hawaii Kai Hotel, made
famous from the Hawaii Five-O series on TV back in the seventies. There was an
outcry of “Book ’em, Danno” as we passed by. The one thing that is unique to the
Honolulu Marathon is the entertainment provided at the water stations. Hula girls
dance and hand out leis. It is such a scene, I had to fight my way in to get water.
I started to do every other water station so I wouldn’t lose time.
By now I was getting hot, tired, and tiny blisters were beginning
to blossom on my feet. It was getting to be that point in the race when I entertained
the thought of quitting, but then I would look down at my number, remember Boston,
and keep going. Then I would look up at the sky, appreciate the beautiful day
and cloudless blue canvas, take a deep breath, refresh my mind, and feel good
I was constantly calculating my time, making sure I was on
target, trying to keep to my goal of 3:30 or bust. As I started to climb the far
side of Diamond Head, ten seconds after cresting my quads jammed. It felt like
somebody put the brakes on and I came to a sudden stop. I was really pissed. I
couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I started to pound furiously on my
legs with my fists, angry at them for failing me, and also trying to release the
tension. I’m sure it was due to dehydration after missing half the water stops.
I couldn’t kick-start into a run, so started walking, then jogging, then did something
resembling a run, but it felt and looked more like the character Fester, on Gunsmoke,
who had a bum leg that he dragged along as he walked down the street, calling,
“Hey, Mr. Dillon?” Well, that was me.
Finally, at twenty-five miles, my body started to relax and
run at a normal gait, if you can call that normal. I kept pushing myself to finish.
I could see the finish line, and saw Fred and all the race directors I had worked
with lined up waiting for me. As I crossed the line, they announced my time at
I didn’t collapse, as expected, but walked through the chute
and took a shower, which was hooked up for the runners for a quickie cool-down.
Then all the finishers were presented with a finisher’s shirt and a lei of cowry
shells, draped over our necks with a kiss from one of the hula girls. I kept that
necklace for years until it simply disintegrated. Then I took a shiatsu massage
and went to find Fred. One of the benefits of finishing a race early is that there
are no lines at the massage tent. Completing the marathon and keeping to my goal
was a great feeling, very special, but I never thought of running another. Then
something happened to make me change my mind.
When Fred Lebow ran the 1992 marathon in remission from cancer,
with Grete Waitz at his side, and he was sixty years old, there wasn’t a dry eye
in Central Park. That’s when I decided I would run the marathon when I turned
sixty, in memory of Fred. I made that announcement with many people in attendance
but I don’t think they took me seriously. But mark my words, I will run my first
New York City Marathon in the year 2006.
Having run one marathon and planned and orchestrated many
more, and witnessing millions of people cross the finish line, I know how much
a marathon impacts and changes lives. Just for the training alone, people alter
their eating habits, sleeping habits, what they do, when they do it. It’s a huge
commitment. Part of the inspiration to run my first marathon came from Grete Waitz,
who was invited to run the five- borough New York City Marathon in 1978. Grete
was a great track runner, but had never gone beyond ten miles. At her first attempt,
she won the race, which ultimately launched her incredible marathon career.
I have always respected the marathon. I tackled my first
with sixteen years of serious running behind me, mentally tough from competition
and always staying in shape. Running defines me. It is a euphoric feeling I look
forward to every day. It keeps me connected to life. And every November I get
to witness the outpouring of compassion and spirit that this city gives to the
thousands of runners who tackle our marathon. Being in the lead car, I get to
see at close range the faces of the runners, witness their fears, their anxieties,
their dreams, and their determination. It’s a great, great job and I wouldn’t
trade it for anything.
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