Sam salutes Jim Fixx, running pioneer
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.