Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Best Sellers

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1977.)

UNTIL 1977, running writers had mostly been runners first and writers second – better versed in the nuances of the sport than the niceties of journalistic and creative writing. Jim Fixx took the opposite career path: a writer first, who became a runner, and only later a running author.

The first time I saw his name, it was atop a letterhead page. He told me in his 1976 letter how Runner’s World was “my favorite magazine” and how he considered me his “coach.” He said he would travel soon from his New York home to the San Francisco area and asked if we could meet.

Sure, I said, just call when you get here. Then I forgot about him and had to search my memory when a few weeks later the caller said, “This is Jim Fixx.”

We ran long that Saturday morning. That’s when I first learned that he was on sabbatical from magazine work, researching a book about running.

He had landed a contract with Random House, which allowed him “to indulge myself in my hobby for the better part of a year.” He expected to return to salaried work after the book’s publication in 1977.

Jim said, “I’m starting at the source, RW, and by talking to the editor, you.” I was flattered and didn’t feel the least bit threatened. I’d seen the running books that companies besides our own put out, and they weren’t much competition.

He spent that afternoon at my house, taping a long and rambling interview. That Sunday we raced a fun-run together, and on Monday we met again for a run. Then we said good-bye.

I didn’t think much more about Jim for several months, except to guess once that he might have dropped the book idea. Then he sent a copy of the chapter on RW and me for fact-checking.

Pretty good, I thought. I still felt flattered, not threatened.

Later, galley proofs of the book arrived. Jim asked me to look at them, then make a comment of support for the back cover. I did, without thinking this aided the competition.

The Complete Book of Running sold 85,000 copies its first two weeks. It climbed to number one – for all types of books, not just sports – on the New York Times best-seller list by the time its author returned to the Bay Area.

This time he came for a national book convention. He sat at an autographing table, signing for a long line of customers who wanted their copy of the Next Big Thing.

I greeted Jim with congratulations and stopped there. I didn’t tell him that we were now competitors – and that he was running away with this race.

I didn’t admit to jealously. I certainly didn’t charge that he had moved into territory that we runners-first, writers-later had staked out years earlier.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Jim Fixx’s blockbuster did everyone in running writing a favor. His book would fill the pool of potential readers for all running books, and magazines as well. I would thank him for that the rest of his too-short life, and beyond.


JIM FIXX wrote a good book that benefited from great timing. Good books had been written before – Dr. Sheehan on Running, for one – but the time wasn’t yet right, in 1975, for it to sell really well. Just two years later George Sheehan would say, “The pond is so full of fish now that they’re biting at any hook we writers toss into the water.”

Fixx’s book stayed atop the national best-seller lists for almost a year, and eventually sold more than a million copies in hardback. Sheehan’s Running & Being joined The Complete Book among the top sellers, as did The Runner’s Handbook by Bob Glover and Jack Shepherd.

Runners, most of them new to the sport, leaped at any bait dangled before them. I too profited from their hunger.

A quickly produced text titled Jog Run Race, which I privately disparaged as “only a recipe book,” didn’t come close to matching the best-sellers in popularity. But this book’s first half-year royalties exceeded my full-year’s income from the day job at RW. Sales of my older books also surged, though JRR would top all the others combined in total copies sold.

That year’s explosive growth in running, and running publishing, led me into trouble with my boss, Bob Anderson, who was rightly upset that the chapter in Jim Fixx’s book about Runner’s World featured me and not Bob, the magazine’s founder/publisher/owner. So raw were the feelings over this misplaced emphasis that I started looking for ways to escape the editorship.

My soaring book royalties seemed to offer a way out. I imagined this income would stay high enough to support my family indefinitely. Maybe I could leave the growing pressures of my office job and retire into writing before my 35th birthday, coming in June 1978 at the height of the running-book boom.


Photo: Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running took on books for all subjects – and won the sales race.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Montreal Moments

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1976.)

THE FLAG-WAVING comes before the races, at Opening Ceremonies, and afterward, for the medalists. But while running on the Olympic tracks and roads, the athletes compete for themselves and against each other. They have enough to worry about without carrying the weight of their countries on their shoulders.

Nationalism, carried too far, interferes with the competition. We see this by who’s missing from the Opening Ceremonies.

In 1972 it was the white-ruled southern Africans. In 1976, most of black Africa. (And in the next two Games it would be the American-led boycott of Moscow in 1980, then the retaliatory Soviet bloc absence from Los Angeles in 1984.)

The last time before 1976 when I wasn’t in an Olympic Stadium for Opening Ceremonies was 1964. That year the ceremonies were televised live in the United States, at two o’clock in the morning in my time zone. I woke up to watch.

The latest ceremonies from Montreal started at noon on California TV. Instead of watching I went to the zoo with my wife and daughter.

My change of heart about these ceremonies in just 12 years wasn’t a rejection of the sport and its athletes. If anything I was more excited than ever about their part in the Olympics.

I would be in Montreal to see that part. But the other part, the political part that marches out most obviously on opening day and later for the victory laps and medal-giving, had lost its allure.

Twenty-six holes appeared in this latest opening parade where athletes from that many nations, mostly African, should have been. Among the absent were at least a dozen runners picked by Track & Field News as medal contenders, and dozens more who should have followed human pace-setters at the Olympics instead of their national leaders away from there. We’re taking these Games too seriously if we and they think that athletes can change the course of world politics by running or not running.

Jim Murray, the witty and wise columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote before the Montreal Olympics opened, “Do teams refuse to play Notre Dame in football because of the Pope’s stand on birth control? Does Notre Dame cancel a series because a rival coach is an atheist? Does Michigan refuse to play Ohio State because [that state] voted Republican?”

He concluded, “Sport as an instrument of international policy is spitballs against a battleship.” As messy and as futile.

Olympic athletes in this boycott-ridden age don’t so much separate into winners and losers as survivors and victims. The survivors who marched into Montreal’s stadium to open these Games survived the political shenanigans.

Now they could run as free agents, not as nationalities. Now, finally, they could start winning and losing on their own, the right way.


THE CLOSEST I ever came to running on an Olympic track was 33 years after the fact, in Tokyo when I ran a token lap while vacationing there. At the three Games I attended, a concrete moat topped by spikes separated the runners from the viewers in Mexico City, and my seats at Munich and Montreal were at least 50 rows removed from the action.

I didn’t get much closer to the marathon courses at my first two Olympics. Mexico City’s route was too crowded to run any other time. Munich’s streets were too far from my housing.

In Montreal, though, marathon road ran right past the house where I stayed with RW tour leaders Bob and Rita Anderson. I ran often along the blue line, including race morning.

Loud slapping sounds woke me before dawn that day. Below the bedroom window I saw a truck, flashing emergency lights, moving slowly down the street. Workmen dropped no-parking signs onto the shoulder. Another crew followed, washing the roadway.

The marathon wouldn’t start for another 12 hours. By then this street would be closed to traffic and guarded every 100 yards against intruders. Tables and chairs now awaited the officials. A TV platform sat empty at a nearby corner.

Here was my chance to run on the Olympic course on marathon day, before the Olympians did. I ran back from the “5K” painted in front of our house, past Olympic Village, through Olympic Park, down the ramp to the locked Marathon Gate of the stadium. Then I ran up the long and steep ramp, taking the same route as that the marathoners would see in their early kilometres.

That evening I watched the runners disappear out marathon gate. Inside the stadium we heard little about what was happening along the blue line for the next two hours.

Then little-known East German Waldemar Cierpinski broke the suspense by returning to the track first, just as his national anthem for the women’s 4x400 team ended. He relegated defending champion Frank Shorter to silver medalist. My favorite runner here, Don Kardong, ran the race of his life – coming within three seconds of the bronze medal that went to Karel Lismont of Belgium.

Later I walked back to our house along what had been the marathon course. The no-parking signs, barricades, tables, chairs and platforms were gone. Rain and darkness left the blue line invisible. Traffic was back, and this was only a city street again – except in the memory of anyone who had run here.


Photo: Don Kardong runs through the Montreal rain toward his near-medal finish.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Two Docs

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1975.)

A LOVELY feature of published writing is that you don’t need to read and heed it right away. It’s there, waiting, whenever you’re ready for it.

My introduction to Dr. Ernst van Aaken came in 1960, when he penned the first article for the first issue of a magazine called Track Technique. I skimmed the first paragraph of “Speed or Endurance Training?” – which seemed to have little to do with me – and rushed on to his advice for serious athletes.

Now I’m rereading the introduction by the medical doctor and coach whose last name rhymes with “gone walkin’.” He wrote, “The play of children is nothing more than a long-distance run, because in a couple of hours of play they cover many kilometers with several hundred pauses. The play of children is a primal form of interval training.”

In 1960, I thought I’d outgrown my childish ways. My running was no longer playful, and I was into serious interval work. I never walked between the fast runs.

Fifteen years later I’d come around to van Aaken’s way of running, quoting him to support my practices. I was working on overcoming my own lingering resistance to taking walks during runs when a pair of events aligned perfectly during a single week in 1975.

One was my first meeting with Ernst van Aaken, during his West Coast lecture tour where Dr. Joan Ullyot served as his host and translator. He delivered his talks from a wheelchair, the result of losing both legs after being struck down by a car while running three years earlier.

Van Aaken’s topics ranged widely in his San Francisco lecture and our personal conversations, lasting eight hours in all. He breezed through the subject of run-walk intervals in five minutes, repeating what he’d been saying for years but I’d only recently been ready to hear.

I might have missed Dr. van Aaken’s point yet again if not for an episode that same week. A sore calf, injured in a race earlier that month, stopped me two miles into a Saturday group run. I waved the other runners on, then swore and kicked at the ground for having to quit the highlight run of my week.

Walking sullenly back toward the parking lot, I realized that the pain had eased. I ran again until the muscle threatened to spasm, walked until it loosened, ran a little farther than before, and ran-walked some more while letting the tender leg dictate the mix.

This slow-interval session ended up lasting the full two hours that I would have gone with the group. My leg felt better at the end than it had at the start.

I’d taken 15 years to appreciate what Ernst van Aaken had written in 1960: If you want to go long, you need to stop once in a while. The pause refreshes.


GEORGE SHEEHAN is a physician, and his patients think he’s one of the best. Yet “doctor” is one of the last things I think of when I picture him.

Runner, yes. Writer, absolutely. Practicing eccentric, to be sure.

Dressed in long-johns and ski mask, he once ran past a family moving into his neighborhood. They stared at him. He shouted, “Go back! Everyone in this town is crazy!”

In a field that trains its people in scientific reasoning and laboratory-tested fact, Dr. Sheehan ventures guesses and trusts what he learns in his “experiment of one.” He says, “The doctor is educated in the treatment of disease, not in health.”

George Sheehan was meant to write, and we were fated to get together. I was the new editor of Runner’s World in 1970, and George was fairly new to writing.

When I asked him to write for RW, he said, “Ask for readers’ medical questions and I’ll answer them. Print some of the better ones.”

Letters arrived by the dozens each week, and George answered them all personally… plus writing a weekly column for a newspaper (the Red Bank Register) in the New Jersey town where he practiced medicine. The best of these found a second home in Runner’s World, and eventually in his books.

George lived across the country from me, and I heard from him by letter or phone almost every workday. But only twice had we gotten together to talk in recent years. Both times he was speaking at sports-medicine seminars.

At the first of those talks, he said, “I’m not here as a doctor but as an athletes’ representative.” And he talked athlete-to-athlete and athlete-to-doctor, not doctor-to-doctor.

I noticed then how little importance he gave to appearances. He wore a faded blue shirt with a frayed collar. A paper clip held his narrow tie in place. Later his speaking uniform became even less formal.

He wrote, “I now wear skin-tight Levi’s, over-the-calf hose, old running shoes and a cotton turtleneck shirt. Anything added to this is simply for concealment.”

The second time I heard him speak, he had lost his reading glasses ($2 Woolworth’s specials), so he spoke without notes. The talk was to be on heart abnormalities of athletes, but he barely brushed that subject.

Instead he spun out the Sheehan Philosophy. The audience, numbed by a day and a half of clinical lectures, loved what George had to say.

The statement that stayed with me the longest: “For every runner who tours the world running marathons, there are thousands who run to hear the leaves and listen to the rain, and look to the day when it all is suddenly as easy as a bird in flight. For them sport is not a test but a therapy, not a trial but a reward, not a question but an answer.”


Photo: George Sheehan (un)dressed for the stage.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]




Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Women First

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1974.)

WHO LINES up on which side of an argument can be confusing. I saw this at a National AAU convention when the debaters seemed to have joined the wrong teams.

This was 1970. The men’s long-distance running committee, chaired by Browning Ross, was nearly unanimous in their praise and support of the women joining men in road races. The women’s track and field committee, headed by Nell Jackson, was nearly as unanimous in its opposition to “integrated” racing and to females running marathons.

Give Dr. Jackson credit. At this convention she appeared before the long-distance committeemen to field often hostile questions and charges on this subject.

In essence she said: I’ll have none of it. And she had the power to keep the women from having full access to long races.

“We’ve approved 10 miles,” she said, “but we’ve never been submitted [requests for] anything longer. I wouldn’t give permission to run a marathon. It’s not in the best interest of the national program, and I’m very concerned about the effects of these long distances on females.”

So that was the first argument: she and her committee were “protecting” women. Another: AAU rules specifically forbade mixed female/male competitions.

“By running together,” Jackson said, “not only does the woman or girl threaten her own eligibility, but also that of every runner in the race. I have no objection to distances up to a certain point, but men and women must run separate races. I think it’s a sound rule.”

During this convention Jackson’s committee formally extended the maximum allowable women’s distance to 10 miles. The two-mile was added to the track program, “and the three-mile is permissible” in special cases.

But she warned that “those who are running longer distances without permission are working in opposition to our program. They don’t need to be in the AAU.”

Then came her most inflammatory – some would say ridiculous – statement: “We’re not concerned about those who want to run long distances. There aren’t many of them. We’re more interested in the masses of younger people, the hundreds of little girls running track and cross-country rather than a few older women out for a lark.”

Apparently she included in the latter group women like Sara Mae Berman and Nina Kuscsik, both mothers in their 30s who trained 80 miles a week – and ran 26 consecutive miles faster than many of the little girls could run a single one. Berman had won the last three unofficial Boston Marathon titles. Kuscsik would become the first recognized Boston winner after women had triumphed over the Nell Jacksons of this sport.


EVERYONE WITH a sense of history gives Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer their due for what they did in the 1966 and 1967 Boston Marathon, and well beyond.

But do you remember Nina Kuscsik? You should. Her efforts reach back nearly as far as Switzer’s.

Kuscsik was one of the earliest sub-three-hour marathoners, with 2:56 in 1971. She was the first Boston women’s winner to be credited as such, in 1972. She led a sitdown strike in favor of women’s running rights at a New York City Marathon, also in 1972, and would lobby for full inclusion of women in marathons until they won an Olympic race.

I knew Nina’s racing history already, but the first time I got to know her as more than a name on a results list was at the inaugural women’s national marathon championships, in 1974. As important a milestone as this was for the sport, the event itself was little more than a regional event.

One of the few non-West Coasters to appear was Nina, who flew out from New York City. This wasn’t a good time for her, but she couldn’t miss this moment when women took another step toward equality.

In November 1993, Nina had run a 10K race in Puerto Rico, collapsing on a 90-degree day. That experience, along with family turmoil afterward, had jolted her confidence. She’d cut her mileage in half and even doubted her future in running.

Now, two days before the national marathon, she said, “I’m still scared of running. The race in Puerto Rico didn’t hurt me so much. It’s just that my head has been mixed up.”

I asked if she felt ready for this race. “No,” she said, not in the way that runners usually downplay their chances. This was a sincere, concerned no.

Judy Ikenberry, with the fastest PR coming in, left with the first title. Later she told reporters, “I’ve been running for 18 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever won anything. I guess if a person keeps looking long enough, she can find something she can do.”

Then, thinking this sounded too serious, she added, “That’s my sermon for today, folks.”

Nina Kuscsik was in tears as she walked through the chute after finishing fifth, 10 minutes behind Ikenberry’s 2:55. This was a relieved cry.

“I’m so pleased with today,” she said afterward. “My friends in New York had to badger me to come. I know now that this is what I needed. It gave me back my confidence to know I ran this fast when I was out of shape.

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t run here. I would always have wondered what I might have done, whether I might have won. This way I know. I’m so glad I came.”

It wouldn’t have been a true national championship race without this pioneer.


Photo: Nina Kuscsik, a prime-mover in the push for women’s marathon rights, won the first official Boston title and ran in the first national championship race for women.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]