Where Runner’s World Went Wrong

In the early 1970s, I worked at Runner’s World magazine. It was the start of the running boom, which received a powerful boost from Frank Shorter’s marathon gold at the 1972 Olympics.

When I joined the magazine, it was still printed in black and white and had only 5000 subscribers. The readers were fiercely loyal, because Runner’s World spoke with their voice. I would learn that it was the voice of the editor, Joe Henderson, a wonderful man. Joe respected all those who were “stretching their edges” by running, whether they were Olympic champions or joggers.

Runner’s World was written largely by the readers. There was a wonderful community of feeling between the magazine and the runner-subscribers.

As Runner’s World grew, it changed. Today, the magazine retains a remarkable degree of connectedness with its readers, given that none of the original writers are still around. But much has also been lost.

A friend, Dean Ottati, is the author of a fine book on running, The Runner & The Path. In an article he wrote for Marathon & Beyond, “Fast Marathon Women” he talks about a visit with an old friend in Chicago.

“Cynical Bill” is an elder statesman in the local running community, and a keen observer of the running scene. Toward the end of their visit, Cynical Bill drags out a stack of Runner’s Worlds and runs through a list of what’s wrong with the magazine. I’ll quote from the book at length, because what he and Cynical Bill are saying is important and has relevance for all runners:

“I’m serious Dean, this is what it has come down to. The running press is all hot to recommend some new shoe that gets pumped out of an Asian sweatshop, or each new exercise gadget, or trivial bit of dietary advice, but you won’t find much of any real substance anymore. The only things runners care about nowadays are weight loss, a flatter stomach, what to do about the latest injury, and a better 10K time. There’s no concern for possibility and personal development anymore.”

“Now you’re being cynical, Cyn.”

“You don’t believe me? I put together a little travel package for you,” he said holding up a shopping bag. He reached down and pulled out an issue of a popular running magazine. A stunning blond with a bare midriff and perfect teeth ran out of the cover toward us. He pointed to the title of an article on the cover, written in bold letters: “Eat Better All Day Long – Don’t diet. With our new plan, you’ll eat more, run better, and still lose weight.”

“This article,” Cyn said, “dispenses the revolutionary diet advice that I should surround myself with good food, eat on a regular basis so I don’t get too hungry, and the best way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than I expend. Then, at the end of every day I’m supposed to ask myself ‘What went right with my eating today? What went wrong? How could I have eaten better? What can I do differently and better tomorrow?’ It wouldn’t be so bad, but none of it really works, and it’s the same advice every month. Close your eyes, and pick a magazine.”

I reached in and rummaged around in the bag. I pulled out an issue with another woman with a bare midriff and perfect teeth smiling out at us. This time, doing a sit-up toward the camera. Sure enough, above the name of the magazine appeared another article: “Your Guilt-Free Eating Plan – Yes, you can have eggs, nuts, and chocolate.”

“Ah, one of my favorites,” Cyn said. “The numbers issue.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at the titles of all the articles on the cover. ‘Great ABS! – Follow our simple 6 step guide, and they’re all yours.’ ‘Make Every Run Better – 5 new ways to improve your training program.’ ‘Never Slow Down – Stay younger and faster with our 6 proven strategies.’ ‘RUN MORE THIS WEEK – 10 ways to make sure you don’t miss a single workout.’ It’s as if runners can’t absorb anything more demanding than a short list of reminders.’ It’s all junk food.”

“I know what you’re saying, but they aren’t dispensing bad advice. There’s a place for this kind of material,” I said. I started running so I could lose weight, not for some other lofty purpose. It was pure ego, I wanted to look good for my wedding, so I can’t make too much fun. If I did, I’d be no better than the radio psychologist who uses a lot of words that begin with the letter c, courage, conviction, and commitment to dole out admonishments to people who make mistakes in their lives—all the while concealing that other c word in her life. Compromising, as in the positions she put herself in while her boyfriend took pictures. To make such fun would be to dishonor the very path I have followed.

“Besides,” I added, “who doesn’t want to eat all the Krispy Cremes they can stomach, lose 10 pounds in the process, have six pack abs, easier workouts, and faster times?

“I’d agree with you,” Cyn replied, “but you and I both know the trouble with these articles is they address the American lust for answers, but they don’t really satisfy. The same advice is recycled month after month, and after awhile it lulls you into thinking you know everything there is to know about running, and eventually you have to ask: Is that all there is? A kind of boredom sets in. Meanwhile the true meaning of the sport slips by unnoticed. These articles might help you get started, but they won’t provide enough sustenance for a lifetime of running. None of these articles addresses what seems so obvious to me. Running is about a search for meaning, finding authenticity, developing a sense of connectedness, and bringing the spirit of the running trail into all the corners of our lives. Without that it’s just another meaningless activity to fill meaningless time. As you say in your book, we need to talk about meaning more, which is why you need to keep writing—even if it doesn’t sell.”

A few moments of silence passed, and I stared out at the sun reflecting off the water. Then Cyn spoke again. “The search for meaning is about asking questions, not necessarily about finding answers, at least not of the variety that can be expressed in words. In our lust for answers, we ignore the experiences that deepen the mystery, enhance our joy, and fill us with wonder. A person filled with this kind of wonder doesn’t boast of his accomplishments, harm his neighbor, or despoil the earth. Such a person is naturally more sharing and caring. He is more moral.

“Running has the ability to deliver us to the doorstep of this kind of inner harmony if we let it. All that remains for us to do is go inside and experience it. Even when the sense of wonder passes, as it inevitably does, the person can remember the experience and conduct his life accordingly. Is it too much to say that running offers hope for our tired world?”

The same forces that changed Runner’s World threaten to drain the life out of our running. Too much concern with externals, with slick surfaces and the mechanics of our sport distracts our attention from the life within – from the simple, relentless urge that wants to find greater joy and lessen our sorrows. We can never fulfill that longing with heart monitors, iPods, high-tech running fibers, and $150 running shoes. The essence of running isn’t sophisticated at all. It’s running stripped to its barest essentials: a sunny day, a trail in nature, shorts, shoes, and a t-shirt, and a song in our hearts.

Dean Ottati’s book embraces the spirit of a runner. Highly recommended.

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