In praise of Jim Fixx – pioneer of running for the masses

One Sunday morning in the late 1970s, my dad suddenly appeared in the kitchen donning 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 see that he had a new spring in his step.

Unfortunately, Dad’s enthusiasm for running shrank faster than his polyester tracksters – most likely as a result of him attempting to practise his new hobby every morning and failing to allow enough time for his 40-something body to adapt to this new rigour. 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.

‘The purposes of this book are first to introduce you to the extraordinary world of running, and second, to change your life.’

And many, if not most, of them have one man to thank. Jim Fixx. Heard of him? His seminal work, The Complete Book of Running was released in 1977 and sold over a million copies, topping the New York Times bestseller list for months. Yet ten years earlier, Fixx was a non-runner who weighed in at over 15 stone, drank and smoked two packets of cigarettes a day. Running transformed not just his body – he lost more than four stone and went from last place in his debut 5-mile 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 The Complete Book of Running, 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. The only trouble is, seven years later, Fixx – the man who gave running to the masses – dropped dead while he was out running. He was 52 and had suffering a heart attack resulting from two blocked coronary arteries, forever proving to the lazy, the reluctant and the sceptical that running was a bad idea.

We are in the midst of another running boom, albeit a very different one from the first. And since its now forty years since Fixx’s book came out I opened it expecting to be amused, bemused, irritated and horrified by the advice and information it contained. And while it’s easy to snicker at statements like ‘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 the book’s content remains valid – as well as interesting, insightful and witty. We like to believe that our sport has undergone nothing short of emancipation in the last forty years. 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. But on the yellowing pages of Fixx’s book many of the running converts he quotes talk not about race times or pounds lost but about a sense of independence or freedom gained, a lifting of anxiety or depression, relief from tension and improvements in self worth.

Running IS different this time round. Nowadays, it is as much a social activity as a form of exercise, a way to connect, not compete, a road to self-expression, not self-improvement.

Thanks to technology, social media, initiatives like Race for Life and Parkrun, its many benefits have filtered through to more people, different people. And this time, we’ve taken all the alarmist ‘Too much running bad for the heart! Headlines in our stride. But Jim Fixx and all those he inspired to run 40 years ago were the pioneers – who were stared at, mocked, imitated and warned off – they opened the doors for us. Thank you Jim.

This is an extended version of a Murphy’s Lore column, published in Runner’s World magazine.

Author: Sam Murphy

Journalist, author, running coach and educator

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