It was 35 years ago, on July 22, 1984, when famed runner and author, Jim Fixx, died while running. Fixx wrote the bestseller, “The Complete Book of Running,” in 1977, with its iconic red book cover showing a runner in mid-stride. Fixx and his book kicked off a running craze in America at the time that can still be seen today.
It’s hard to imagine, given how prevalent running is now, that before Fixx’s book, running for fitness was not widely known or practiced. In the 1970s, such running was often seen as eccentric. What few runners there were mainly ran competitively, and recreational runners were known then as “health nuts.”
At the time exercise for its own sake was not widely understood. Fixx and his book changed all that because it was geared for people who were not particularly athletic or physically active, but showed them how they could change this through running.
The book’s success was propelled by the fact that Fixx himself came to running late in his own life, at 35. He was overweight and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day when he first started to run. Fixx and his book were not the only causes for the 1970s running boom, but they were the most visible, and generated considerable media coverage.
Unlike other pop culture phenomena of the 1970s (like custom vans, CB radios, and disco), running had legs and kept on drawing ordinary Americans into the activity. Fitness running got another enormous boost when Oprah Winfrey famously ran the Marine Corps Marathon (her first and only), in 1994. Oprah was 40 and she lost 70 pounds during her training. Oprah lent considerable media attention to her training and well-earned accomplishment via her own enormously popular television show, inspiring millions more to become runners.
Today, there are an estimated 56 million Americans who participate in some form of running. Every year, there are about 30,000 running events, including 570 marathons (a marathon being 26.2 miles). In 2017, people spent $115 million on running shoes alone, a figure that seems low to me as I look around my own home at the dozens of pairs strewn everywhere.
It’s ironic that Fixx died running from a massive heart attack. This prompted many naysayers to wrongly observe that running killed him. In fact, Fixx was genetically predisposed to cardiovascular disease and his history as a smoker did him no favors.
This much is known medically: “Endurance exercise substantially reduces the risk that someone will develop heart disease,” says Dr. Paul D. Thompson, emeritus chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, as reported in a recent New York Times article. And overall, running’s physical and mental health benefits are well known and generally far outweigh any risks. Running is inexpensive and requires no formal skill, it is accessible to millions and can be done virtually anywhere. Running can be hard, especially at first, but it can also be easy and a lot of fun.
Running did not kill Fixx. As observed by the then-president of the New York Road Runners Club, Fred Lebow, “Maybe if Jim Fixx didn’t run, he’d have died five years ago.”
I am 52 years old, the same age Fixx was when he died, a fact not lost on me. When I run this July 22, I’ll dedicate it to Fixx’s running legacy.
Phillip Trobaugh, of St. Paul, is running director of the BFM Running Club.