Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Nike's Magazine

(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 1980.)

EVER FEEL that you’ve made a big mistake by changing jobs? And that it’s too late to turn back?

That’s how I felt while visiting the Running magazine office for the first time. There, during the Olympic Trials-to-nowhere, I met the full staff and felt little part of it.

By now I felt as if Nike and Running hadn’t hired me to write but only not to write for its competitor. My writing had gone nowhere since I finished my latest book, The Running Revolution, which itself was going nowhere. My style of writing – sometimes instructional, often personal, always conversational, and built from simple words and short sentences – wasn’t the magazine’s.

The editor, Paul Perry, envisioned this as a literary magazine about running. I can’t fault him for that. It would be a noble effort and an artistic success.

Each issue would include at least one major article by a writer from outside the sport: Hunter S. Thompson’s manic take on the Honolulu Marathon, Ken Kesey’s whimsical view of newly opened China. At best these writers offered a fresh take on the sport, But not all of them succeeded. At worst they lacked insight into running and passion for it.

At the least, Running needed a balance of articles and columns by runner-writers that the magazine lacked at first. My pieces hid in small, dark corners of each early issue. That was just as well, because I wasn’t proud of what little appeared under my name.

The managing editor had come west from Sports Illustrated and tried to bring SI’s ways with her – while seeming to look down on everything that wasn’t New York publishing. She clearly didn’t like my style or content.

Editor Perry required her to accept my byline, but she used my original copy as little more than an outline to produce a revised (and shorter) piece, which read fine but wasn’t mine. Without anyone ever saying so to me, her heavy edits signaled that my writings weren’t good enough for this magazine.

On this first visit to the small suite of offices on the Willamette riverbank, quick greetings were exchanged. Then the staffers went back to work.

I had nowhere to sit and nothing to do. No one wanted or needed my advice. No one asked me to stay when I started to leave.

I retreated next door to write more of what the magazine couldn’t use. Sitting on the deck at the North Bank cafe, I alternately scribbled on a diary page and sipped iced tea while watching Olympic Trials athletes and commoners run past on the bike path.

This was the writing that I did most and liked best. No one saw most of it, but it was as much worth doing as when tens of thousands read it.

I realized while sitting in the summer sun, looking out on the river, on a weekday, that my (non)job at Running magazine came with good (non)working conditions. I would accept them for now.

If I made a mistake in signing on with Running, Nike made one too by agreeing to pay me for doing next to nothing. I decided to ride this gravy train a few stops longer before climbing off to find a real job.

WHY I WASN’T summarily fired for disloyalty, I’ll never know. By mid-1980, I’d accepted several Nike paychecks.

I sported the Swoosh most of each day but still wasn’t wearing Nike’s signature product, its running shoes, on my runs. My brand of choice was Brooks, the worst choice politically because this was then Nike’s most bitter enemy in the business.

Understand here that I wasn’t flaunting my footwear. Nearly all runs were by myself, often under cover of darkness.

Then I went to the Olympic Trials in Eugene and had nowhere to hide. Running on Pre’s Trail one morning, I came upon a Nike exec. We stopped for a howdy.

His gaze went straight to my shoes. His silence and eye-rolling said more than words of censure could have.

Soon I was running in Nikes, and company loyalty came at a price. A foot started hurting almost immediately, and would keep hurting until I left that company’s employ – and switched to another brand. For almost two decades I ran in Converse, Asics and New Balance, but never Nike.

I was slow to adopt Nike shoes for the simple reason that they didn’t work well enough for me. This reflected the weirdness of my feet and not the quality of the company’s shoes.

My loyalties are two: to my right foot and my left. I wear whatever works, regardless of brand name. For the longest time, to my regret, this wasn’t Nike.

Then I was reintroduced to one of its early failures for me: the Pegasus. It had passed through many updates since I worked for that company, and 20 years later the Pegasus passed my road test, which is: Does the shoe treat me so kindly that I’m hardly aware I’m wearing it?

If the shoes “speak” to a runner, it’s usually because they’re causing problems. These Nikes ran so “silently,” as did some later models, that the loyalties to my feet finally matched those to the company nearest to home.

Photo: Shirts on sale at the Trials to Nowhere, which took me to Eugene in summer 1980.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from 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.]

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