In The Complete Book of Running (Random House, $10) author James F. Fixx embraces the virtues of exhaustiveness. He details the beneficial physical and emotional responses that sustained running can induce, always with an eye to tempting the reader. There are chapters on getting started, on training, diet, equipment, injuries, racing and some of the notables in the expanding world of running. Especially good is his presentation of medical questions. What is running's effect upon mood, sex, weight and women? (All advantageous.) Does it enhance longevity or prevent heart disease? (The results of the studies are conflicting.) A fine appendix makes sense of difficult aspects of sports medicine, and there is a spectacularly broad bibliography.
The urge to list is strong in Fixx, sometimes too strong. In the chapter on coping he tells how to deal with heat, humidity, cold, high altitude, rain, snow, ice, hail, wind, lightning (kneel and pray), sand, slush, mud, rough terrain, hills, darkness, fog, cars, dogs and people, both the harmless and the hell-bent. Much of this space is taken up by the obvious, as when he writes. "Be particularly careful not to step in a hole, trip on a fallen limb, stub your toe against a rock or slip on wet leaves." One can't help but appreciate this earnest and watchful concern, but the reader wonders whether the book has to be that complete.
One chapter that could have been omitted is a mile-by-mile description of the Boston Marathon course, with a paean to our most tradition-laden run. "Boston," says Fixx, "is the single race that captures and summarizes most of what is excellent in marathoning." It is not. Such has been the growth of running that it is no longer accurate to subject Boston to such praise. The New York Marathon has it all over Boston for spectacle and organization. Honolulu, where last year 97% of the 1,600 runners finished the 26 miles and 385 yards, uses the slogan. "Our course records are 2:17:24 at one end and 8:08:18 at the other, and you are cordially invited to break either." Boston, on the other hand, places a qualifying time limit on entries (three hours for men under 40, 3½ hours for men over 40 and women). What Boston has is history, the nostalgic spectacle of the same runners returning year after year. If even a tenth of the 65,000 who purchased Fixx' book in the first three weeks of publication should appear at the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass. next Patriot's Day, what was a madhouse this year will be an impossibility.
Like a good, thorough bloodhound. Fixx pounds along any number of trails, often finding them opening out into worlds even he hasn't got space for. A wide-eyed, oversimplified account of vegetarianism includes a friend's wheat loaf recipe.
A chapter on Dr. George Sheehan is vaguely unsatisfying. Sheehan, a New Jersey cardiologist, may be our most important philosopher of sport. His prose is elegant, his ideas on play and the practice of medicine are profound and accessible. Fixx appears uncomfortable with the rather personal nature of Sheehan's work and is altogether too accepting of Sheehan's self-effacement. The reader who finds Fixx distant and superficial is urged to seek out Sheehan's books, for he is exactly the opposite.
Fixx himself is a runner of 10 years' experience but little formal training, which ideally suits him, perhaps, to address the beginner. Unfortunately, he shows some weakness in basic technique. For example, he writes. "Just keep your body straight and your head up, and lean slightly forward." Physics and the carriage of Olympians argue for running perfectly erect, so a plumb line may be drawn from the ear through the hips to the heel as it passes beneath the center of gravity. When a runner leans forward, he constantly wastes energy by having to catch himself to keep from falling.
On several occasions Fixx remarks on lengthening one's stride as if it were a good thing to do. In fact, distance runners improve as their strides shorten and quicken, a finding substantiated by a study of four-minute milers at the University of Oregon, all of whom had longer strides as freshmen than as seniors, when they ran their best times. A good, smooth runner just looks as though he has a long, floating stride, an illusion that surely deceives Fixx when, commenting on a run with Olympian Bill Rodgers, he says. "With each step his legs cover so much pavement that I take three steps for each of his two."
Asked about this, Rodgers says, "I remember that run. I don't think our strides were that different in length. It was just that he wasn't efficient. He really wasn't very graceful." Whether he be feather-footed or not, an overstriding runner wastes energy and may increase the chance of foot injury.
One assumes the license to be this picky about technique because everything Fixx says about the salubrious and freeing nature of running is true. But the transition to lithe runner from inert lump is difficult. Those attempting it deserve all the help they can get. Once on the road, of course, they will find that there can be no truly complete book of running. Each begins his or her own book, and such is the runner's strange imperative to communicate that the shelves will soon be filling up with second-generation running books. Perhaps their editors will be a little tougher than Mr. Fixx'.