The legacy of Jim Fixx

Dead runner: Four letters. Twenty years after his death while running, is Jim Fixx any more than an answer in a crossword puzzle?

James F. Fixx authored The Complete Book of Running, at the time of its publication in 1977 the best-selling non-fiction hardcover book ever. The book's bright red cover featured Fixx's own running legs. The Complete Book of Running, still in print, eventually sold a million copies, both benefiting from and helping to launch the running boom.

Writing from personal experience, Fixx trumpeted the health benefits of running. After starting to jog at age 35, he quit smoking and shed 50 pounds. Yet at age 52, Fixx collapsed while running on a tree-shaded road in Vermont. He was found lying beside the road, dead of a heart attack. The date was July 20, 1984.

Two decades after an event that might have halted the running boom mid-stride, what remains of the legacy of Jim Fixx? Have today's runners even heard of him, and do they understand the reasons for his death?

This year, 75,000 runners applied to enter the New York City Marathon, which uses a lottery system to accept half that number. The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon limits its field to 40,000. In 1984, the year of Fixx's death, 170,000 runners finished American marathons. By 2003, the number had jumped to 400,000, according to figures from the USATF Road Running Information Center.

Check the running paths in any major city, and you can see that Jim Fixx lives -- at least in spirit.

Running can be dangerous, concedes Paul Thompson, M.D., a cardiologist from Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, who cites studies from Seattle and Rhode Island that identify the number of individuals who die annually from heart attacks while exercising as 1 out of 15,000.

But the studies are old, preceding even Jim Fixx's death, and reflect very few incidents: 10 in Rhode Island, 9 in Seattle. A somewhat later study of runners in the Marine Corps and Twin Cities Marathons between 1976 and 1994 suggests 1 death per 50,000 participants.

Dr. Thompson admits that runners are more at risk during the hour or so a day they train and particularly if they run marathons. But the remainder of the day, he says, they are much less at risk than the general population and can actually extend and improve their lives and lifestyle.

In his classic study of Harvard alumni, Ralph S. Pafffenbarger, Jr. M.D. found that we can live an extra two-plus years if we do even minimal exercise. Other researchers, including those connected with Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., believe that we actually may be able to extend our lifespan six to nine years through exercise and attention to diet!

Jim Fixx may have done just that, given the fact that his father died of a heart attack at age 43, and he survived nine years longer to age 52. He might have lived longer had he listened to Dr. Cooper, who urged him to take a stress test during one visit to the Cooper Clinic in Dallas.

Despite having cholesterol levels above 250, Fixx demurred for reasons we can only guess at. In the several months before his death, Fixx ignored what hindsight reveals were the warning signs of advanced coronary artery disease. An autopsy revealed blockage in Fixx's three main arteries of 95 percent, 85 percent and 50 percent.

While running lost a great advocate, Jim Fixx's four children lost a friend with whom to share their achievements. His six grandchildren lost the ability to ever know him. His son John, who serves as headmaster of a school in Connecticut, reflects on how his father might have viewed the last two decades:

"My father would be thrilled to see what has happened with women's distance running, at older runners re-defining what it means to age, and how Olympic athletes have stretched the limits of human endurance and achievement."

John Fixx said that on the anniversary of his father's death, he might take a long run around Tod's Point in Old Greenwich, a favorite course described by Jim Fixx in The Complete Book of Running. "And I'll think about him."

Maybe we all should.

Hal Higdon, Contributing Editor for Runner's World and author of

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