Running in the Age of Coronavirus

More than 40 years ago, pioneering author Jim Fixx’s best-selling book brought jogging to the masses, espousing its physical and emotional benefits. Now, those themes resonate more than ever with a homebound society.
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It was to supposed to be out and back. Ten miles or so.

Or at least that’s how far Jim Fixx usually ran. On this particular afternoon, July 20, 1984, he was especially eager to get moving. A thin, angularly handsome man of 52, he’d been driving for six hours, fighting traffic on his way north. Around 3:30 p.m., he’d checked into the Village Motel in Hardwick, Vt., and, as he had most every day for the previous two decades, slipped on shorts and running shoes—in this case, white Nikes with blue laces.

Once upon a time, like most of the country in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Fixx had considered running a grim pursuit, endured only in gym class or by athletes and soldiers. Until, that is, one afternoon in 1967, when, at the age of 35, 50 pounds overweight and frustrated by life as a deskbound editor, he had decided to go for a jog. This simple act triggered an unlikely series of events that led to Fixx’s becoming not only the sport’s most influential proponent, but also a millionaire author who received White House invitations and appeared in Super Bowl ads.

On this day, he ran alone, veering onto the shoulder of Route 15 and heading through leafy terrain. As he went, he let his mind wander. He had much to think about.

If anything felt amiss, he never let on.

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***

Consider the humble jogger: at times celebrated, at times maligned but, for the most part, taken for granted.

Not so of late. The past couple of months, as shelter-in-place guidelines took hold, forcing Americans indoors, you could walk many neighborhoods and not see a moving vehicle. Just empty streets, eerily quiet, devoid of motion. Except for the runners, that is.

Reliably, they passed by, AirPods in, head down, lost in their own worlds. They wore Nikes or Hokas or whatever shoes they found in the closet. They ran before sunrise, in the afternoon and late at night, headlamps leading the way. The diehards upped their mileage; the reticent runners returned to the sport; the novices gave it a shot. Most did so not in preparation for competition or to gain social status—if anything, leaving the house confers the opposite right now—but with the hope that covering three miles, or 10, or one, whether at a six-minute pace or a slow trudge, would in some way do them good, or make them feel better about themselves or the world, if even for a moment.

That this is now accepted wisdom—that running is a scientifically proven boon to both body and soul, equal parts sport and wellness—is due to the efforts of countless people. Many are names you may have heard: Phil Knight, Joan Benoit, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Prefontaine.

But it is Fixx, whose story is more complicated, and increasingly lost to time, who may have had the greatest impact. For this story, his family shared his journals for the first time, shedding light on a man who can credibly lay claim to being the father of recreational running.

Had you met Fixx when he was a boy, you’d never have pegged him for a future icon of sports—the only one he liked was tennis. Instead, he took cues from his father, Calvin, who came of age in the Depression and, lacking a college degree, hustled his way to a job as a senior editor at Time in New York City. A lifelong journaler, Calvin loved words—born a Fix, he added a second x because, as he told his children, “a person’s name ought to be a proper noun, not a verb.” At Time he worked long, stressful, hours, drank heavily, smoked voluminously and lived a profoundly sedentary life. By 35, mirroring a family history, he had suffered his first heart attack. Eight years later he suffered another. This time, he didn’t survive.

From that day forward, a clock ticked in Jim’s head. Following a stint in the Army, he attended Oberlin on the G.I. Bill, where he wrote for the local paper. After graduation he married his college girlfriend, Mary Durling, and moved to Sarasota, Fla., to write newspaper obituaries. A child, Paul, arrived in 1958, followed in short order by another son, John, and twins, Steve and Betsy.

A fluid writer and adept editor, Fixx landed a job back in New York City at The Saturday Review. By 1967, he had earned a promotion to editor of McCall’s, then the third-largest magazine in the U.S. The family upgraded from a walkup in Jackson Heights, Queens, to a two-story house with a lawn in Riverside, Conn. There, Jim lived out the torpid suburban existence of the ’60s, when less than a third of adult Americans exercised regularly. He took the train to the city, knocked back martinis at lunch and smoked two packs of Camels a day. His weight crept from 170 to 213, the pounds hanging thickly on his 6-foot frame.

Then, one day, while playing tennis with a friend, he hurt his calf trying to run down a ball. Annoyed that his body had betrayed him, he researched ways to strengthen his legs. Reluctantly, he decided to try running.

Today, this isn’t unusual. At the time, however, Americans viewed running as monotonous, difficult and potentially dangerous. Roadwork, boxers called it. Men like Roger Bannister were to be admired, not imitated. To enter the Boston Marathon was to endeavor to win it. Who in their right mind would run 26 miles for any other reason?

Elsewhere, however, a niche movement was afoot. In New Zealand a track coach named Arthur Lydiard, fresh off leading three runners to Olympic medals, hit on a then-novel concept: to “run for fun, and from the fun will come the will to excel.” In 1962, Lydiard persuaded 30 sorta-in-shape men to go for regular runs, dubbing the group the Auckland Joggers Club. Inspired by a visit with Lydiard, Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman returned to the States, intent on spreading the message. By ’64 he had partnered with a former Ducks middle-distance runner named Phil Knight, and the duo began selling Japanese track shoes out of their car trunks at meets, calling their operation Blue Ribbon Sports.

Fixx knew little of this. His only running experience had come in basic training, and he hated it: boots on, men shouting, Kentucky heat bearing down. Still, he was desperate. So, one afternoon he put on shorts and, he would later say, pulled out his old Army boots, lacing them up tight. A bit embarrassed, he tromped off down his suburban Connecticut street. He made it half a mile. His leg still hurt.

But Fixx preferred to finish what he started. He also had a tinkerer’s mind: He loved puzzles and, like his father, record-keeping, having picked up the skill taking notes for his sergeant in the Army. Now, he bought a small notebook and began logging his runs as they increased in duration: a mile, then two, then three.

In neat script he also kept detailed notes. Thursday, Jan. 14, 1970: “1) Don’t stop. 2) Don’t get bored or discouraged. 3) Run on flat places if possible.” And, later that month, after a Monday outing: “What did I learn from this run? 1) it’s harder to run alone than with someone 2) and slower 3) three tootsie rolls seemed to help, but only a little.”

Fixx kept at it even if, at the time, anyone leaving their home to jog in shorts was viewed as an eccentric (or, as neighbors deemed him once, a burglar on the make). Better, Fixx learned, to sneak out the back door. Or, when at work, to lie and say he was headed to lunch and instead change into his gear and head to Central Park. As he later wrote, “In most American business offices it is perfectly alright to come back from lunch with your brains so shriveled by martinis that you can hardly find your own desk, but it is considered frivolous to spend an hour in a sweat suit.”

Fixx didn’t care. Running made him feel better, physically and mentally. He shed pounds, dropping below 200, then to 180, then lower. He stopped smoking. Began running shirtless. Eventually, he mapped a 10-mile route near his house, tracking each run by painting mile markers on the route and reconfiguring a device meant to count bicycle wheel revolutions so it could act as a pedometer. Sometimes, Paul and John biked alongside on 10-speeds and, when they got older, joined him on runs. In 1970, Jim won his first medal (“136th place”) in a 10.5-mile race in Meriden, Conn. Still, he ran not for competition but because, as he wrote, it made him feel “calmer and less anxious. I could concentrate more easily.”

By 1977, Fixx had run to the forefront of the nascent jogging movement.

By 1977, Fixx had run to the forefront of the nascent jogging movement.

On the outside, he seemed a success. Fixx was often the life of the party, funny and engaging and self-deprecating, delighting in telling the story of women he overheard at a cocktail party making mocking reference to “that man who runs in his underwear.” His journals, however, suggest he was hard on himself. He worried: about his career, his relationships and whether he was wasting his days. In 1972, he and Mary divorced. Two years later he married Alice Kasman, a book publicist. The next year Fixx turned 43, the age his dad died. Jim waited to meet the same fate. But 43 came and went. If he was ever going to get on living, he’d better start.

Meanwhile, competitive running was gaining traction. Marathons had launched in Seattle, New York City and Atlanta, providing structure to what had been a loose community. The numbers were small—in the hundreds in many cases at first, with no women allowed—and prize money was banned. Then Frank Shorter of the U.S. won the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That same year the Boston Marathon officially opened up to women; eight began the race and eight finished, led by Nina Kuscsik, a 33-year-old mother of three. Sensing opportunity, Knight and Bowerman renamed their company after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. The moment was ripe for the sport to cross over. All it needed was a leader.

***

When Fixx hit upon his book idea, he had no intention of changing the world, or becoming a spokesman. Rather, to hear his children tell it, he acted out of a primal human motivation: desperation.

By 1975 he had tired of editing. What if he lived off a book advance? A Mensa member, he’d written two books of puzzles, Games for the Superintelligent and its sequel. In ’76 he sent a proposal to his Doubleday editor. The idea: a lifestyle book about running. Plenty of serious guides existed, written by serious men with impressive credentials. Fixx envisioned a book by one of the masses, for the rest of the masses. It did not land well. Editor-in-chief Sandy Richardson told Fixx, “To be perfectly candid, we don’t feel that book on a sport like running has much sales potential.”

Truth was, neither did Fixx. He just needed enough advance money to tide him over until his next move. He pitched Random House. The editor, Joe Fox, offered a $10,000 advance and royalties. Good enough, he figured. So Fixx holed up in a tiny upstairs room, armed with three typewriters, an electric pencil sharpener, a radio and a shelf of reference books. He planned to write a quick, breezy book, full of service-y elements. Curiosity took hold, though, as it often did. He pored through issues of Runner’s World, tracked down experts. Soon, he had filled a row of cardboard grocery cartons with files. The manuscript grew. He convinced Random House to pay for extra pages.

If nothing else, Fixx figured it would look imposing.

***

The organizers of the 1977 New York City Marathon had no idea how many entrants to expect. The year before, at the race’s inaugural, 2,200 runners had signed up. Now, here it was, the morning of Oct 23, 1977, and more than double that awaited at the start line, on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

As it happened, that same day Random House released a new 314-page title: The Complete Book of Running, by James F. Fixx. The cover featured a tan, fit pair of legs—Fixx’s—in motion against a red backdrop.

The book included chapters on how to run, where to run, who should run and, most of all, why you should run. Conversational and almost comically comprehensive, it made running both accessible and aspirational. Jogging, Fixx promised, was not a hobby but a way of life, a gateway to health, happiness and longevity—a natural tranquilizer, an “enhancer of sexual pleasure” akin to “transcendental meditation.” He assured readers it would help them lose weight, stop smoking and feel less anxious. He encouraged women and children to run, against prevailing sentiment.

Fixx cited doctors and studies and quoted everyone from Bannister to Hippocrates to William F. Buckley Jr. He cited the then-novel concept of “flow state” posited by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and espoused vegetarianism. He argued that speed did not matter—“If you feel that you’re running, no matter how slow you’re going, no one can say you’re not.” Neither did the length of runs;
15 to 20minutes, three times a week, would be enough to reap the sport’s benefits.

He included a chapter subtitled “Sometimes a Heart Attack Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened,” which included a detailed chart covering heredity, blood pressure, cholesterol and how to “rate your heart attack risk.” He took aim at running’s critics, who were legion at the time, including Charles E. Schmidt, a doctor in Indiana who in 1976 wrote an article in Playboy titled jogging can kill you! Schmidt argued, among other claims, that running is “one of the most wasteful and hazardous forms of exercise” and it could “loosen the linkage between the sacrum and the hipbones, cause slipped discs, contribute to varicose veins, dislodge the uterus from its ‘perch,’ produce droopy breasts and, in men, bring on inguinal hernia.” Fixx swatted away the claims and concluded that, while he couldn’t definitively say running made you live longer, “many scientifically sophisticated students of the subject think this is true.”

Most important, though, Fixx wrote about himself, detailing his own journey from overweight schlump to that guy on the cover, a middle-aged man who felt better, looked better and was extending his life. If Fixx, a “completely unexceptional person,” could do it, then so could you.

Fixx had put his heart and soul into the book. Still, he worried the Doubleday editor was right. No one would buy it. Anxious, he ran his worst marathon time in five years.

***

Within days, the Random House editors knew something unusual was happening. The phones wouldn’t stop ringing. Despite lukewarm early reviews—“The essential information it contains could probably have been squeezed into a pamphlet,” wrote The New York Times—booksellers couldn’t keep The Complete Book of Running in stock. Random House had printed 35,000 copies; 85,000 orders arrived in the first week alone.

Later, peers and observers would debate whether Fixx triggered the jogging craze or merely rode a wave. Either way, by the end of the month, his book had hit the Times bestseller list, at No. 12 in nonfiction. By February, it took the top spot, staying there 11 weeks total. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk to Fixx. TV shows dispatched limousines. The Times sent Anna Quindlen to write a profile. People published a spread of Fixx and family at their Riverside house. Even The New England Journal of Medicine weighed in, deeming the book to be “highly recommended to all health professionals.” By late 1978, sales surged toward half a million. That year, for the first time, 100,000 Americans finished a marathon.

To his great shock Fixx became a bona fide celebrity. Passersby stopped him, asking for autographs or advice or just wanting to shake his hand. His likeness appeared in a New Yorker cartoon. People named him one of the Most Intriguing People of the year, alongside Brooke Shields and Meat Loaf. Wrote The Washington Post, “By now, Jim Fixx’s legs are almost as famous as Betty Grable’s were during World War II.” In January 1979, the Cowboys faced the Steelers in the Super Bowl; at the end of a quarter, there was Fixx onscreen, jogging by the Eiffel Tower in a white sweat suit for an American Express commercial.

To Fixx, it was like a dream. It’s hard to overstate how different this is from the experience of most middle-aged freelance writers. “So much is happening so fast these days,” he wrote in his journal. And: “It still seems unreal.”

That year, running shoes, once a small fraction of the market, made up half of all athletic shoe sales. A fad had become a craze. And, as with all crazes, a backlash loomed.

***

It should have been one hell of a photo op. Imagine: the leader of the free world, fit and vibrant, racing alongside the electorate. Or at least that’s what Jimmy Carter’s team must have hoped when the President entered the 10-kilometer Catoctin Mountain Park Run in rural Maryland in September 1979. At 54, Carter had been running for only a year but he took to it with great passion, telling the Times, “I start looking forward to it almost from the minute I get up.”

So, on a balmy morning, he joined more than 900 other runners, wearing a yellow headband, shorts and, regrettably, black socks. Dr. William Lukash, the White House physician, joined him, as did a Secret Service detail. Carter’s goal in his first road race: shave four minutes off his PR of 50 minutes. He came out fast, logging a sub-eight-minute first mile. Then the terrain began to take its toll.

Just past the two-mile mark, a steep incline loomed. Some runners walked the end of it. Carter pushed through but, near the top, began to wobble. The wobble became a stagger and then, as if in slow motion, the President collapsed.

Carter’s collapse during a 10K led one expert to posit that running was worse than heroin.undefined

Carter’s collapse during a 10K led one expert to posit that running was worse than heroin.undefined

All might have been fine if a Running Times photographer hadn’t captured the sequence. In the series of shots, later published around the world, it looks as if Carter is dying in front of your eyes, falling, mouth agape, as Lukash and a Secret Service member rush to hold him up. Within minutes, an ambulance arrived.

That Carter never got in the ambulance, and that he showed up at the awards ceremony an hour later looking fine, mattered little. The photos told a different story: The leader of the free world almost done in. By running.

Critics took aim at both the sport and the man whose book Carter had used to train: Jim Fixx. A week later on PBS, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report assembled a panel to discuss running’s safety. Richard Restak, a neurologist at George Washington University Hospital, addressed Carter’s collapse as “the kind of dangers and problems that can be gotten together when you’ve got a man of 55 years of age who in less than two or three years is encouraged to undertake such a foolish and foolhardy effort.” Restak targeted “certain people who seem to have a fixed interest in pushing a myth, which is a very dangerous myth.”

Privately, Fixx had worried the public had misread his book and viewed running as a panacea. Carter’s collapse, however, seemed to him to have an obvious cause. At the end of the segment, Fixx got a chance to respond: “If you go out and try to run faster than your body will permit you to run, it rebels and you go into the oxygen debt. There is in fact a marvelous protective device in the body. . . . Something else will give, as sort of a circuit-breaker, first; and I think that’s what happened to Carter.”

This sounded reasonable, but Fixx was no doctor. Meanwhile, a vocal minority in the medical community sounded alarms. A Cornell professor published a book called Running Addiction: A New Syndrome. A social psychologist at Columbia University Teachers College told Sports Illustrated, apparently with a straight face, that running “can be more dangerous to physical well-being than heroin.” His reasoning: “Assuming that the heroin user has sterilized needles and pure drugs and is on a good diet, I’d say that heroin would do a lot less physical damage to a drug addict than running does to a running addict.”

The skeptics’ ultimate ammunition was still to come, though.

***

By 1981, Fixx should have been riding high. The warnings had largely been ignored. The Complete Book of Running proved an unqualified blockbuster. Printed in 16 foreign editions, sales now topped 900,000. It ultimately became the most lucrative nonfiction title ever published by Random House and for a while, depending on whom you believe, the best-selling hardcover after the Bible. Meanwhile, the running boom continued. Between 30 million and 40 million ran regularly. Marathoners became celebrities: including Cuban-born Alberto Salazar, who won three consecutive New York City Marathons from 1980 to ’82. Salazar trained unlike anyone before, running 105 miles a week on a stress fracture and, in one race, pushing himself until his body temperature reached 108°, at which point he collapsed, was packed in ice and administered last rites. For this, Salazar was praised.

Fixx proved more popular than ever. The Associated Press called him the “Dale Carnegie of the health-conscious” and “your basic, easygoing guru to millions.” Airline pilots snuck back to meet him on flights. Boxes of letters arrived—people thanking him for helping them to kick smoking, or to build a sense of community, or to find peace. Fixx felt humbled. “Because of the book many people seem to almost revere the author,” he wrote.

Through it all Fixx ran—3,847.2 miles one year, 4,035.3 another. Only now he often did so to escape. Public appearances proved particularly vexing. Early on, he’d attended a phobia clinic in White Plains, N.Y., and, since then, had popped Valium to calm his nerves. He also battled a feeling of inadequacy at times. His marriage to Alice turned sour. In 1981, they began a long, bitter breakup. Being rich, he realized, didn’t necessarily make life easier.

Three years passed. Life simplified. The divorce came through. He sold a new book idea on sports performance. He also reconnected with Peg Palmer, his first girlfriend, who had lived across the complex in Jackson Heights. They had roller-skated and square danced at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and snuck away to kiss. She’d given him a silver bracelet; he’d led her treasure-hunting in the city dump. Like him, she was now divorced, with grown kids.

By 1984 they became more serious. They planned to spend the summer together, first with his family on Cape Cod, then the two of them on Caspian Lake in Vermont.

First, though, Fixx had to send in his manuscript. Progress had proved slow. One night in the rental house with his family, he awoke just after midnight in a panic. “I had the sense that I couldn’t breathe,” he wrote in his journal. “I got out of bed, staggering with a sense I couldn’t stand up.” The next morning Palmer said she thought it “might have been caused by anxiety.” She told him to see a doctor. Jim countered that he was in the best shape of his life.

On July 20, Fixx left at 10 a.m. for Vermont in his Volvo station wagon, a Sunfish sailboat on top. The plan: spend a week in Hardwick, working at a motel, then meet up with Palmer. Reading his journal, one gets the sense he considered taking the next step. “I am becoming increasingly fond of Peggy,” he wrote. “She is a good, honest person.”

That afternoon he checked into the motel, put the key on top of his car tire and went for a run. Around 5:30 p.m.,
a motorcyclist noticed something unusual on the side of Route 15. A man slumped on the steep hill, almost vertical,
grass adhered to his back.

An ambulance arrived. Paramedics administered CPR, to no avail. Doctors at Copley Hospital in Morrisville pronounced the man dead upon arrival. The apparent cause: a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, with the help of the motel owner, police identified the body.

***

The news pinged around the country. dean of jogging dies in vermont, read the AP headline. Few missed the irony: The man who convinced a nation that running prolonged your life had died doing that very thing.

Three hundred mourners attended the funeral at St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church in Old Greenwich. Observers noted the unusual attire of one contingent, men in suits and ties with white running shoes on their feet. Indeed, running royalty had come to pay respects: Shorter, Fred Lebow, Bill Rodgers. Hal Higdon, author, marathoner and Runner’s World scribe, said, “This is the death of the president for us.”

The family grieved. To Paul, Jim had seemed “invincible.” The children thought back on Jim’s lifestyle: regular exercise and a diet that eschewed white flour and sugar. They listened as others questioned whether running, rather than saving their father, had done him in instead. That week John went out for a run in Greenwich. As he passed a country club, he heard a man yell at him. “Hey, don’t you know running will kill you?”

In the months that followed, an isolated incident began to look like a trend. That October, Jacques Bussereau, a 48-year-old Frenchman, collapsed during the New York City Marathon, the first death in the history of the race. Five months later Jack Kelly, an Olympic rowing champion, died at 57 while jogging to the Philadelphia Athletic Club.

The alarm bell sounded anew. Henry A. Solomon, a Cornell cardiologist, wrote a book called The Exercise Myth. The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper titled “Running—an Analogue of Anorexia?” The counterpoint came from Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who re-investigated Fixx’s death and wrote Running Without Fear, revealing that Fixx, an old friend, had visited Cooper’s lab the previous fall. Cooper had urged him to take a stress test. Fixx, perhaps overconfident, had declined.

Fixx may have projected confidence, but his journal entries suggest it was a facade. “My neurotic blood pressure anxieties, occasioned by feeling tense these past two months are, apparently without foundation,” he wrote of a doctor’s visit the spring before his death. “Maybe the problem is nothing more than hypochondria.”

Jim’s children believe he was caught up in dread, denial and the burden of his fame. “I think watching his father waste away and die gave him a fear of heart disease, and that prevented him from really getting himself looked at,” says Paul.

John thinks it was an accumulated toll. “Obviously you don’t die of stress over a month. It’s built up.” He recalls his dad talking about a “tightness” in his chest on a run. Jim assured him it was “just an allergy” and that, if it didn’t go away by the time he got to Vermont, he’d see a doctor. “Just think of the tremendous pressure he must’ve felt because he represents so much about running,” says John, “to admit that you can ostensibly look good outside, you’re going eight, 10 miles a day, yet inside would still need doctor’s care. I guess the irony or frustration is how much good he could have done if he had responded, right?”

As for Palmer, Fixx’s death hit hard. Earlier that spring, she had given him a silver bracelet, similar to the one she’d given him in 1946, when she was 14. It felt as if life had come full circle. But she did not fool herself. “Clearly there was denial going on the last months of Jimmy’s life,” she writes in an email. “He and I and others around him shared a hubristic view of his health.”

Fixx may have made mistakes—ignoring warnings, believing exercise provided benefits beyond what it did, not going to doctors. But this did not mean running was to blame. Some months after Fixx’s passing, the family received the full autopsy report from Vermont’s chief medical examiner, Eleanor McQuillen.

In it, McQuillen mentions five other running deaths over the previous seven years in Vermont. “It becomes apparent in the light of these reports that, while exercise, including running, is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, it does not prevent, halt, or ‘wash out’ coronary arteriosclerosis to a significant degree.” Neither, McQuillen wrote, did the opposite hold: “Finally, running did not cause the death of Jim Fixx . . . severe and silent coronary arteriosclerosis did.”

***

Connecticut, 2020. From afar, he is the spitting image. Thin, full head of hair, angularly handsome, big smile.

“Did you bring your shoes?” asks John Fixx.

It’s a February afternoon on the campus of the Country School, a small private K–8 in Madison, a month before COVID-19 renders much of the country inert. At 59, John, now a head of school and cross country coach, has outlived his father and grandfather, as have all his siblings.

Of the four, John has most carried on his father’s legacy. He’s the one who helps keep the annual Jim Fixx Memorial five-miler in Greenwich going; the one who, in 2016, helped publish a children’s book Jim had envisioned, The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t. Just as Jim once completed his father’s work, now John does the same.

Even so, the Fixx legacy fades with each year. After his death, the sports world changed profoundly. Running was no longer a craze, or a miracle cure. But neither did it die. Instead, it evolved. In 1977, 25,000 Americans finished marathons; By ’94, more than 300,000 did. In ’94, Oprah ran, and completed, her only marathon, spurring a boom among those who felt the feat previously unreachable. By the turn of the century, how you ran mattered as much as whether you did. Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run spurred thousands to tromp through the woods barefoot. Ultramarathons gained in popularity. Rock ’n’ roll marathon and fun run entered the lexicon. By 2011, women accounted for close to 60% of the finishers in half-marathons.

In the process, we lionized the founding figures.
Knight released a best-selling memoir. Prefontaine got two movies. A new crop of gurus and idols emerged: ultrarunners like Dean Karnazes and Ann Trason; marathoners like Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi. Salazar, now coaching, pushed his runners as he once famously pushed himself.

Only that’s not how humans prefer to run: under threat, or fearful. In 2019, USADA banned Salazar four years for doping. Not long after, two women came forth, saying Salazar pushed them too far, which led to his suspension by the U.S. Center for SafeSport. More broadly, athletes began to question the no-pain, no-gain ethos. Wasn’t running supposed to be, at the core, enjoyable?

This was always Jim Fixx’s credo. Today, John embodies it. He’s been running for 51 years, since a first four-miler with his dad. He doesn’t intend to stop. On this afternoon, he leads the Country School teams, the Owls and the Flying Owlets, through a training session, taking the students, who range from third to eighth grade, through fields and forests and up asphalt streets.

To watch the younger Fixx coach, encouraging and geeking out on strategy, is to see a man who really, really loves what he does. It is as close a glimpse as we’ll get of the enthusiasm that drove his father’s appeal. Goofy. Earnest. A salesman and storyteller at heart. Occasionally, John says, someone will recognize his surname, but less and less often. The book is no longer in print; these days, John says it actually loses sales, as remainders go back. “You’ve got to be old to remember it,” he says. And those who do recognize the family name often do so for another reason. Isn’t that the running guy who died running?

John was 23 when his father passed. He occasionally thinks of what might have been. A few years back, talking to his cardiologist, he lamented this, saying, “He could have done so much good if he’d just responded.”

The cardiologist looked as if he’d been cold-cocked.

“What are you talking about?” the doctor said. “Your father’s done more good through passing than you can imagine. This is all you learn about in cardiology school. How do you get people to respond to something more subtle? We studied your father’s case.”

The story comforted John, in a weird way. His father’s legacy persisted, if not the way Jim intended: remembered not for how he lived, but how he died.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that.

At the height of the craze, Fixx told Newsweek, “The hoopla will die down.” One day, Americans will “run the same way we brush our teeth—every day, without a fuss.”

One of the few approved reasons for going outside in recent months is to get exercise, as mask-wearing members of the Brooklyn Track Club do.undefined

One of the few approved reasons for going outside in recent months is to get exercise, as mask-wearing members of the Brooklyn Track Club do.undefined

To read his book now, as I did recently, is to see how much Fixx foresaw. Certainly, parts are dated. But much of it reads as visionary. Cut out white flour and sugar? Practice self-care? Find a flow state? Exercise regularly, even for short amounts of time, to live better and longer? It’s like reading 20 years of modern studies 40 years before the fact. Fixx wrote about the barefoot-running Tarahumara decades before Born to Run. His contrived mileage counter was basically an early Fitbit. He was right on the big points too. A Stanford study found jogging is effective in increasing lifespan and mitigating the effects of aging. Running can help ward off all manner of diseases—including lowering the risk of lung, prostate and colon cancer. And, in a study the Times covered in April, “among a generally healthy but sedentary group of adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s, working out lowers levels of depression, hostility and other negative feelings.”

And yet, the book passages that resonate most now, as we hunker in our apartments and houses, battling anxiety, boredom and fear, are not the prophecies but the simple truths of the sport. “Only running can be done anywhere, requires practically no equipment and costs almost nothing,” Fixx wrote. “You can go out your front door right now and get started. You don’t need a bicycle, a swimming pool, a boat or a court. You don’t need a track, either; running can be done anywhere. I have run on paths, roads and highways, in parks and fields, and on the main streets of New York, London, Florence and Vienna. You can run at dawn, at midnight or whenever it suits your schedule and your fancy. I have run—and enjoyed it—in snow, sleet, wind and hail and on the most forbidding hot days of Florida summer.”

As I read this, I sat in a makeshift home office. I thought about my closet, and the running shoes within, and all that weighed me down—the tanking economy, coronavirus anxiety, my 80-year-old parents, my brother working as an emergency physician, what the future might look like. I earmarked the page and put down the book.

An hour later I was up in the hills, running neither fast nor slow, with no real purpose or goal. The dirt was a bit wet, the trail winding, the sky overcast. Minutes passed; my pace evened out. As I went, the clouds lifted, outside, and in.