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.]