Visiting Moose Jaw a few years back I went for a sightseeing run through the city. Coming after a long winter, this first jaunt in the warm spring sun was divine. Afterwards, in the public library near my hotel I found a book I hadn’t seen in decades.
The Complete Book of Running by James F. Fixx was a million-seller in 1977. An enduring classic among running books, it was still being referenced decades later (including by Roger Bannister in his 2014 autobiography, Twin Tracks). Rightly so, because in its day it was the Bible of running knowledge.
Leafing through the worn copy in Moose Jaw I was surprised at how well its prophetic offerings had weathered the test of time. It was also a delightful blast from my own past. I’d run through much of the history contained between its covers. Most intriguing of all, though, it contained a compelling message for older runners today.
The Complete Book of Running came out when the initial North American running boom was in full swing. Athletes and duffers, women and men, kids, teens and middle-aged adults were taking this new activity to the streets. For the first time in history, masses of people were getting into running.
Whether training for races or jogging for fitness, most were doing so with little knowledge of it. A nation crying out for running information found that The Complete Book of Running answered their call. It informed, educated and changed attitudes.
Fixx was pioneering his way through his own experiences with the sport while combining personal observations with anecdotal and medical evidence of running’s benefits. He was preaching to a larger American public that was still wary and sceptical of the growing armies of men and women wearing little shorts trotting around its parks and streets.
Fixx presented road races, marathons and jogging as normal and beneficial to health, not aberrations performed by a few fitness freaks. He was fighting a vocal chorus of naysayers, including medical doctors, who believed running was unhealthy, unnatural and perhaps even the sign of a demented mind. (My Grade 8 teacher rebuked me in front of my entire class after he saw me running on the street near our school!)
Time hadn’t yet disproven what many North Americans believed: That recreational running was just a craze, a passing fad. Playboy magazine published a piece titled Jogging Can Kill You! Fixx countered these claims with studies, research data and interviews with runners. Ahead of his time on the science, he was also socially progressive.
He dedicated an entire chapter to promoting women runners, attributing to them a better stride and greater stamina than their male competitors. This just five years after women were banned from running the Boston Marathon. In the mid-70s, only five percent of race entrants were female. Picture road races with starting lines of 300 runners and only 15 are women. I can. I was on those starting lines.
At a time when suggesting so was tantamount to medical heresy, Fixx wrote that jogging could be beneficial to those who have suffered a heart event. The Complete Book of Running delved into running’s esoteric aspects: What it does to you psychologically; that it would extend your life; and that it could enhance sexual pleasure. Fixx even described the two-footed sightseeing he did in cities he visited, as I had just done in Moose Jaw.
The Tarahumara runners of Mexico got a mention, 32 years before Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Illustrations accompanying his text emphasized inclusiveness. They depict men and women, African Americans and white people, star athletes and the chubby, kids and old shufflers. We’re all in there. Fixx built a big tent.
Of course some 44-year old information about running is out of date. I grinned at a few entertaining throwbacks: Running in cut-off blue jeans (quite a few people did); a discussion about whether jockstraps were the best underwear for male runners; if female joggers needed extra chest support.
There’s little advice on running shoes or supplements, because not a lot was known about either. In 1970 I ran a 20-mile race in Regina without the benefit of a single water station. Later that decade I finished near the front of the Melissa’s race in Banff wearing tennis shoes. At the time, neither of these experiences were abnormal.
Yet Fixx was unintentionally prescient about running footwear. The shoes worn by the runner on his book’s iconic red cover are nylon Onitsuka Tigers, the same shoes I wore for many, many miles in in my youth. Onitsuka Tigers – take note here you barefoot and minimalist shoe people – had extremely little construction, all of the built-in support of a pair of bedroom slippers.
Fixx came to running from a bad place – obese, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and working at a stressful journalism job. His only previous experience with it was in military basic training, so he did his first training runs in army boots. What shines through on every page of his famous book, though, is his love and heartfelt gratitude for running.
Most remarkable of all about The Complete Book of Running is its promotion of running for seniors. Much of this jump-off-the-page wisdom reads like it was written yesterday.
We meet a 64 year-old man who runs the Boston Marathon in under three hours. This is remarkable, the author points out, only because he is an American, as Europeans consider activity in older age to be more acceptable.
“In this country we have some odd ideas about how older people, even those barely into their forties, ought to behave.” Fixx wrote. He quoted medical authorities to back his claim.
“Our attitude is one of overprotection,” says Dr. Theodore G. Klumpp, a New York cardiologist who hopes to establish a nationwide exercise program for the elderly. “Our middle-aged and older people are encouraged and virtually compelled to reduce their physical activities to the point where atrophy sets in, with damaging if not disastrous results.” Fixx then dialled up a higher authority.
“Disuse is the mortal enemy of the the human body,” says the U.S. Administration on Aging. “We know today how a person lives, not how long he lives, is responsible for many of the physical problems normally associated with advanced age.” Fixx brought more ammunition to his argument, writing:
“Exercise – in particular running – can do a lot to reverse the long-term effects of smoking, drinking and overeating, the salient conditions of twentieth century living. Studies have shown that sedentary older people who start training can become as fit as long-time athletes.”
Even octogenarians, he maintained, can increase their physical capacities enormously. Then he quotes an anonymous doctor, “Most of us don’t wear out. We rust out.”
This out of print book poses an awkward question for baby boomers today. Have we taken to heart its words of wisdom about running into old age? Has Fixx’s pertinent, advanced and encouraging advice to senior runners – delivered nearly a half century ago – been received? Are we acting on it?
No, we’re not. Too many of us have simply given up on running toward personal lifelong fitness. Returning to my hotel that day, the inviting pathways through Moose Jaw’s Crescent Park were conspicuously free of joggers. Over the three days I was in this lovely city of 33,000, I didn’t see a single runner, young or old. Not one.
In 2021, we need to find a new Fixx for this.
Jenkins has finished his book Jogging Through the Graveyard: Running For My Life After 60