Sunday, November 04, 2007


In the 1977 New York City Marathon, a friend and former colleague of mine was disappointed by his worst performance in five years. But there was an excuse. He had spent a sedentary year gaining stomach flab and losing cardiovascular fitness, writing a book that was to be published that day.

His name was James Fixx, and the book, "The Complete Book of Running," was to become one of the best sellers of all time. Less than seven years later, he would die at age 52 of a massive heart attack after his daily run on a rural road in Vermont.

The pang that comes with each year's running of that race is more acute today after news of the collapse and death of a 28-year-old marathoner, Ryan Hall, during the Olympic Trials in New York's Central Park yesterday.

When Jim Fixx and I were atop the McCall's Magazine masthead in 1967, he was an easy-going man who weighed 214 pounds and smoked two packs a day. A decade later and 60 pounds lighter, he became rich and famous for The Book that, along with its sequel, sold more than a million copies.

One of the smartest people I ever knew (a Mensa member who had written books of games for the "super-intelligent"), Jim was also far from being or becoming a driven type-A. After the running books, he wrote a memoir mocking his sudden success and fame.

But in an age that insists of an explanation for everything, deaths such as those of Jim Fixx and Ryan Hall are jolting reminders of how thin the crust of earth on which we walk, or run, every day really is and how easily any of us, even the most highly conditioned, can fall through and disappear.

As we admire the winners and marvel at the grit of all those who run the course, the Marathon can be a moment for forgetting differences and savoring our fragile common humanity.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Stein,

How fun to see your posting and remember those days at the birth of The Complete Book of Running. I remember Dad's time at McCall's, those I was young, and I especially remember publication day during the 1977 NYC Marathon. Random House had issued Dad's four kids copies of the red book and we were told to walk around the start and finish that year holding it in a certain way so that runners and their families culd see the title and cover.

There is no way, as you shared in your blog, to have sudden death of athletes make sense. Yes, the earth's crust is thin. Time, like an ever-rolling stream...

Take care. Thanks for remembering Dad as a colleague.

John Fixx

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note. You accidentally write twice that Ryan Hall died when, in fact, the victim of the heart attack was Hall's friend, Ryan Shay.

Ronnie said...

Ah, The Complete Book of Running. I have such fond memories of that red book. A 1978 move to Long Beach, Long Island gave me, a Manhattan born and raised girl, a good case of anxiety. Then Jim's words of wisdom - and those wonderfully conditioned legs - became all I needed to take advantage of a beautiful boardwalk and shoreline. Before long, I had Long Beach sand in my running shoes.