Sam salutes Jim Fixx, run­ning pi­o­neer

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - BY SAM MUR­PHY Sam Mur­phy tweets @ Sam­mur­phyruns

One Sun­day morn­ing in the late 1970s, my dad ap­peared in the kitchen dressed in a track­suit and tow­elling head­band and an­nounced he was go­ing jog­ging. He re­turned 20 min­utes later, red-faced and sweat soaked, but by the time he’d come down from his shower even a Beano- read­ing nine-year-old could reg­is­ter the new spring in his step.

Dad’s en­thu­si­asm for run­ning shrank faster than his polyester track­sters, but his brief foray into the sport did give me a glimpse of the run­ning boom that swept our na­tion in that era, a boom that – ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­ducted at the time – saw two mil­lion Brits don­ning their train­ers at least once a week.

And many – if not most – of them have one man to thank: Jim Fixx. Heard of him? His sem­i­nal work, The­com­plete­bookofrun­ning, was pub­lished in 1977, sell­ing over a mil­lion copies and top­ping the Newyork Times best­seller list. Yet 10 years ear­lier, Fixx was a non-run­ner who weighed 15 stone, drank and smoked two pack­ets of cig­a­rettes a day. Run­ning trans­formed not just his body – he lost over four stone and went from last place in his de­but race to win­ning a state cham­pi­onship in his age group two years later – but his whole life. It was with the zeal of the newly con­verted that he set about writ­ing his book, which states in its in­tro­duc­tion: ‘The pur­poses of this book are first to in­tro­duce you to the ex­tra­or­di­nary world of run­ning, and sec­ond, to change your life.’

No won­der mid­dle-aged men and women world­wide – es­pe­cially those who had never dared to be­lieve they could be run­ners – were lac­ing up their train­ers in their droves. Sadly, how­ever, seven years later, Jim Fixx – the man who gave run­ning to the masses – dropped dead at the age of 52. He had suf­fered a heart at­tack. And the cruel irony is that he was out run­ning at the time. It was a vi­cious twist of fate that ‘proved’ to the lazy, the re­luc­tant and the scep­ti­cal that run­ning was a bad idea.

But here we are, 40 years later, in the midst of an­other run­ning boom, al­beit a very dif­fer­ent one. Now, run­ning is seen as a way to so­cialise as much as it is to ex­er­cise, a form of con­nec­tion, not com­pe­ti­tion, a road to self-ex­pres­sion, not self-im­prove­ment. You no longer have to be skinny, fast, male and com­pet­i­tive to be a run­ner – any­one can wear the la­bel proudly, even if they have no in­ten­tion of ever pin­ning on a race num­ber.

I opened Fixx’s book ready to be amused, be­mused and hor­ri­fied by the ad­vice it con­tained. I was dis­ap­pointed. While it’s easy to snicker at state­ments such as ‘ the cure for an in­flamed Achilles ten­don is to run only on hard sur­faces,’ or ‘if you want to run well, try not to be sat­is­fied with stay­ing at a nor­mal weight,’ much of its con­tent re­mains valid – as well as in­sight­ful and witty. I’d ex­pected to be telling you that our sport has un­der­gone noth­ing less than an eman­ci­pa­tion in the last 40 years. But the run­ners’ sto­ries that ap­pear within the yel­low­ing pages of Fixx’s book sound sur­pris­ingly like our own: they talk not only of race times or pounds lost but about a sense of in­de­pen­dence or free­dom gained, a lift­ing of anx­i­ety or even de­pres­sion, relief from ten­sion and im­prove­ments in self-worth.

Of course, there are ways in which the run­ning boom is very dif­fer­ent this time around. Thanks to tech­nol­ogy, so­cial me­dia and ini­tia­tives such as Race for Life and Parkrun, run­ning’s ben­e­fits have fil­tered through to more peo­ple – and dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But Jim Fixx and all those he in­spired to run were pi­o­neers; they were mocked, stared at and warned off their new­found pas­sion, but they opened the doors for us, and in do­ing so changed not just their own lives, but ours, too. Thank you, Jim Fixx.

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