When Running Was for Weirdos


For a long time, running was for weirdos. It wasn’t always like it is today. Today we’re used to people pushing past us on the sidewalk, dressed in neon and kitted out with iPods and FitBits. It’s normal that everybody looks like cyborg highlighters.

In America, the metric system is basically kept alive by 5k races alone. But back in the 60’s, running was so unusual that it had to be explained to people.

On October 15, 1968, the Chicago Tribune devoted an entire page to a strange new trend—Jogging: The Newest Road to Fitness. A typical recreational runner, Andre Mandeville, ran 11 minute miles. He also smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day. That same year in New York, runners like Dick Cordier got ticketed for “illegal use of the highway by a pedestrian.” And in Connecticut, another man was chased by 5 squad cars cruising the streets because he was running.

Small town athletes suffered too, women especially. One woman wrote that there was no thing odder than a grown woman jogging in a small town. She decided to swim instead.

Athletes always ran, but for recreation, it was rare. Boxers, track stars, soldiers—sure. But normal people rarely ran before the late 60’s. It wasn’t just odd outdoors either. The most infamous use of a treadmill wasn’t in a gym, but in a prison.

In 1895, the Chicago Tribune described a treadmill for its readers. It was the great “bugaboo of the English convict.” The prisoner in that case? The writer Oscar Wilde who was serving a two-year sentence for sodomy. His hard labor included the treadmill.

Long story short, you did not jump on the treadmill while watching House Hunters after work. Treadmills had been used as a power source for thousands of years, but in the 1820s, the Brixton Prison made them famous as a tool in jails. If there was nothing for the treadmill to grind, they had to power a fan to grind the wind. Yes, even prison treadmills had a difficulty setting.

And while treadmills were used by medical professionals and athletes in the 1900s, the prison treadmill was a symbol of what running meant. At worst? Torture. At best? Training. But by 1969, treadmills were being developed for home use. And that represented the integral change that ultimately made jogging mainstream.

The New York Times reported the reason inventor William Staub believed his mainstream treadmill could work. A 1968 book, Aerobics, convinced him of the health of an aerobic workout, and it was one of many books that pointed to jogging as a way to get fit.

Much of the credit of jogging goes specifically to legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, who discovered cross country jogging on a trip to New Zealand in 1962 after meeting with runner and coach Arthur Lydiard.Bowerman 1966 pamphlet was a hit, and it was followed by a massively popular book.

Others followed. Runners like Steve Prefontaine became celebrities and writer/runners like Jim Fixx continued the 70’s running boom with hit books. Around the same time, a young company called Nike, co-founded by Bowerman, had financial incentives to push the new sport forward. Nike and other companies also meant those early jogging shoes and outfits got a lot better, and it’s continued its way to the present.

Race participation alone has quadrupled since 1990, and there’s almost no shame about incredibly colorful tights and talking about your quads to strangers. It’s become a sign of political vigor.

But even in the 60s, people like Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall were confident that jogging is here to stay. It turns out they had good reason. As another runner put it in 1968, “At first, you think everyone is staring at you—and they are. After a while, you enjoy jogging so much that you don’t give a damn.”

For years, Kevin Jones has written for NordicTrack, Proform, and number of larger fitness-specific websites, lending his expertise and research in nutrition and physical activity. As a husband and father of two, Kevin has grown to love helping his family stay healthy and active together. He has mastered the ability to juggle work, family, and the gym and seeks to share his tips for success with others looking to do the same. Connect with him online; LinkedInTwitter

Kevin Jones is a freelance writer, researcher and fitness instructor/consultant. He had helped hundreds of people find ways to become more fit and healthy through a balanced life focusing on an individualized approach to their nutrition and fitness. In addition, Kevin has written extensively in the fitness and health industries, including writing for companies such as a ICON Fitness brand NordicTrack. Connect with Kevin online; LinkedIn - Twitter