When I first heard that some guy had written a book about running — then known as jogging — I figured that the art of first person journalism had reached its ultimate limit. What did this guy Jim Fixx have to say about this ever so simple subject, and who would ever bother to buy the book, once the reviewers had boiled down its contents into four or five easy pieces?
Well, live and learn. Jim Fixx’s book, "The Complete Book of Running," became a national best seller in 1977. People couldn’t hear enough about the simple act of getting out in the neighborhood and running around for a half an hour or so every morning. What I had taken for granted, Fixx took as a richly-textured subject, with no detail too small to ponder, and filled 314 pages with his ruminations.
Jim Fixx became the poster boy for personal physical fitness, and millions of adults ran in his footsteps and hoped to emulate the physique he sculpted while going from a weight of 220 pounds to 159. When he died in 1984 — of a heart attack while jogging at the age of 52! — he became a poster boy for what happens when you don’t have a well-rounded health regimen. Fixx smoked until a few years before his death, indulged in junk food, and ignored warning signs of heart disease and genetic predisposition (heart disease ran in the family). Still, he managed to live nine years longer than his father. Credit the running.
I was never tempted to pick up Fixx’s book, not even after I took up a little exercise program of my own earlier this year, after staring down a 90 percent blocked artery leading out of my heart. Compared to Jim Fixx’s running regimen, my walking routine seemed profoundly simple: Wear good, comfortable shoes, put one leg in front of the other, repeat pattern for 30 minutes, and try to cover 2.5 miles in the process. Your heart rate will rise, and if you knock most of the fat and booze from your diet you will lose weight as well (20 pounds in 20 weeks in my case). What more can you say?
That’s what I thought until last week, when I stumbled across Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times comparing George Bush’s foreign policy to his exercise program. Referring to an exclusive interview the president had granted to Runner’s World magazine, Dowd said she didn’t know enough about Bush’s foreign policy, but knew too much about his running habits. Up until this year, I probably would have felt the same way. But now here I am comparing times with the president. He brags about doing three miles in a little under 21 minutes; on good days I do two and a half miles in 29 minutes. He’s doing 8.58 miles per hour; I’m doing 5.17. And I’m only walking.
Dowd quotes another article on Bush, which proclaims that the president "does not like chitchat when he jogs." Hey, I don’t like to say anything more than good morning to people I see on the street. And I can’t imagine wearing those earphone radios that people have. When I am walking, I want to walk — nothing more.
Walking, for me, has turned out to be a better form of mental relaxation than Transcendental Meditation ever was — remember the TM craze of the early 1970s and all the books and seminars it spawned? A good walk not only clears the mind, but it also opens up the neurons of the brain to all sorts of new connections.
A walk is a chance to discover hills and valleys in what you previously had considered a totally flat world. In downtown Princeton you discover that the stretch of Nassau Street from Vandeventer up to Witherspoon has roughly double the foot traffic on a Sunday afternoon compared to the block from Witherspoon over to Chambers Street.
And two and a half covers more ground than you would think. My stroll takes me from the east side of town (a little shabby here and there) to the elegant Western section and back through the John-Witherspoon area, once considered the "affordable" (read black and Hispanic) neighborhood but now showing much evidence of "gentrification" (read yuppie).
Maybe there is a book in this. I root around and discover "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," published in 2000 by Rebecca Solnit. Hers is more a meditation than a prescription for a fitness program: "I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour." Three miles an hour! Doesn’t she know George W. could run circles around her?
Solnit quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s essay on "Walking" — good stuff. But elsewhere she labors hard to fill her pages: "Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright . . . The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another . . ."
Maybe there is no book on walking waiting for me to write. But maybe I’ll be able to turn the subject into a column. I am going for a walk and I’ll think about it.