On any given day, New York City’s Central Park is swamped with runners of all abilities, ethnicities and genders. Races across the country are vibrant hubs of inclusiveness and people can be seen running everywhere, from forested trails to city streets.

But 50 years ago, that wasn’t the case. In fact, back then, you would see very few runners anywhere but on a track. That’s because running on the roads was seen as a fringe activity, especially running long distances. “Free To Run,” a documentary making its U.S. premiere on July 15 at the IFC Center in the New York City’s Greenwich Village, uses historical footage and interviews with change-makers who inspired the first running boom, to look at the evolution of the sport from an elitist activity to something that can be enjoyed by anyone who wants to put in the sweat effort.

"Free to Run' debuts in the U.S. on July 15 in Los Angeles.
“Free to Run’ debuts in the U.S. on July 15 in New York City.

Directed by sports historian and filmmaker Pierre Morath, “Free To Run” tells the story of running’s evolution in the U.S. and Western Europe due to the efforts of the late Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, Noël Tamini, editor-in-chief for the now defunct Swiss running magazine Spiridon, Kathrine Switzer, who became the face of the women’s running movement after race director Jock Semple tried to physically remove her from the 1967 Boston Marathon, and legendary American middle-distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

Morath began running in 1985 at the age of 15. He was one of the top Europeans at the 1,500m and eventually competed in duathlons, winning the European Cup in 1996. Growing up an athlete, he thought everyone always had the right to run, but discovered otherwise during research that led him to become a sports historian.

“I assumed everyone had always run that way—freely,” says Morath, who grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. “I realized I had only begun to scratch the surface of the incredible and little-known history of popular running: the history of a real revolution in mentalities, of a long struggle for the most basic right to run without being a champion athlete.”

The film begins in the 1960s, when road runners would routinely hide from passing motorists for fear of being stopped and harassed, to Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer proving women were in fact capable of running 26.2 miles without dire physical consequences, to the early days of the running boom with Prefontaine’s confident swagger and Frank Shorter winning gold at the 1972 Olympic marathon Munich. It continues through the growth of the New York City Marathon and the marathon becoming a fixture in most major cities up until the delayed cancellation of the 2013 New York City Marathon due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, raising questions about purity of the sport, financial gain and running’s place in society along the way.

In addition to tracing the days of running from a solitary pastime to a universally popular sport, Free To Run gives viewers a glimpse into running gear throughout the decades—thank goodness for wicking fabrics!

Additional showings are planned around the U.S., including Santa Monica (July 22), San Diego (July 29), Denver (Aug. 5), Santa Fe (Aug. 5), Eugene, Ore. (Aug. 19), Portland, Ore. (Aug. 19) and Anchorage (Aug. 29). It will also be available via view-on-demand soon.