His name itself spoke of positive change, of tinkering for the better, but the change that Jim Fixx wrought with the 1977 publication of The Complete Book of Running was revolutionary. He gave us back our bodies—to improve, to enjoy, to fret over. Sweat was suddenly sexy, and cardiovascular fitness was something you strived for or felt guilty for ignoring. "Running became mainstream," says Ryan Lamppa, of the Road Running Information Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Runners weren't freaks on the side of the road anymore."
The sport's growth was staggering. By no coincidence 1978 was the first year that the number of people finishing marathons in the U.S. topped 100,000, and that number has grown steadily, reaching 301,500 last year. Of course, Fixx was not the only fomenter of this revolution. Frank Shorter had given it a kick start when he won the '72 Olympic marathon in Munich, and wide-eyed little Bill Rodgers helped it along with four wins apiece at the Boston and New York City marathons between '75 and '80. So did Alberto Salazar, when he set a world record in the '81 New York City Marathon, a race that visionary Fred Lebow had turned into a mass spectacle. The late Dr. George Sheehan was the movement's craggy philosopher, and Dr. Ken Cooper had given it a physiological grounding in Aerobics, which was published in 1968 and rediscovered by Fixx.
Fixx, though, was neither a doctor nor a great athlete. He was a popularizer with an uncanny sense of timing. He titled his book's foreword "On the Subversive Nature of This Book." If you believed him, then you believed that running enhanced every human activity: Runners slept better (that made sense), digested their food better and were calmer than nonrunners. Even sex was better for runners. And Fixx delivered this gospel in strong, straightforward prose, rich in anecdotal evidence. The Complete Book of Running was published on Oct. 23, 1977—to coincide with the running of the New York City Marathon—and climbed onto the best-seller list a few weeks later. It reached No. 1 on Feb. 26, 1978, and was there for a total of 11 weeks. It has now sold 993,000 copies—all in hardback—making it the most successful running book ever published.
One of the most appealing things about the book's message was its messenger. "In a sense, Jim was Everyman," says George Hirsch, publisher of Runner's World magazine and a longtime-friend of Fixx's. "He was the overweight two-pack-a-day smoker. Running literally changed his life. Jim probably bought himself 10 years [by becoming a runner]. And he was able to translate that change to the mass of people." Fixx's "before" picture was not pretty. He was 32 when he took up running in 1969; he had worked for years in Manhattan as a magazine editor, and as he noted in his foreword, "one of my more pleasant duties was to entertain authors at lunches and dinners." Because the only exercise Fixx got was playing a "respectable if roly-poly game of tennis" on weekends, his weight had climbed from 170, when he was in his teens, to 214 pounds. He might never have discovered his calling had he not pulled a muscle in his right calf playing tennis. He took up jogging to strengthen it and soon was hooked. His first race was a local five-miler in Connecticut. He went on to run the Boston Marathon eight times, clocking his best time of 3:15:54 in 1975. Indeed, the great set of legs on the book's cover belonged to its author.
Fixx's influence extends far beyond running. The fitness industry is a vast empire: Lite beer and Lycra tights, StairMasters and aerobics classes, fear of cholesterol and fascination with whole grains—all are symptoms of our interest in cardiovascular health. And though lately there has been a rush to proclaim the running boom over in the U.S., the number of people running more than 100 days a year has held steady at about nine million.
One thing Fixx was careful not to promise readers in The Complete Book of Running was a longer life. When he died in 1984 of a heart attack, while running along a country road in Vermont, the industry he had helped create scrambled to explain this apparent refutation of his life's work. Fixx was only 52 years old. He was also, it turned out, a prime candidate for regular stress testing: His father had suffered his first heart attack at the age of 36 and had died at 43; and in the weeks before his death, Fixx himself had ignored chest pains. In the end Fixx taught us not how to make our lives longer—only how to make them better.