Infiltrating the Runner's World "Join the Movement" issue (I)

A thorough exploration of a print running magazine reveals lots of stories, the most instructive being about the industry itself.

In August, I learned that Runner’s World would include in its November/December print edition (preview) a modified version (same) of an already revised version of an article I wrote about tempo runs for the December 1999 issue of Running Times. The same kind of workout has been described in the accompanying subheads as “specific—and very useful” (1999), “very specific and seriously beneficial” (2018) and “like a shortcut to speed” (2020). So just think of it as a specific and useful shortcut to some serious speed, and remember where you read about it first.

This post has been fermenting for a while, and crept in various directions before I collected various stray bits of it and corralled them into what looked like the right places. As a result, it got section headings. Then I realized it was long even by my profanely grandiloquent standards, and decided to bust it into separate posts, not all of which are complete yet. I also don’t feel like wrapping the concluding parts of the series most of the time, because I’ll look meaner than I am to a small but energetic subset of readers, and when I do, it’s with an excess of critical zeal. So a serial roll-out lets me kick that wormy can down the road without being idle about the entire project.

In any case, here’s how it’ll all look.

This post:

  • A Brief Personal Recapitulation

  • Running Mags Are Different (and Would Be Gone If They Weren’t)

Next post:

  • People Who Do Road Races Used to Be Honest Weirdos

Third post:

  • The Issue’s Five Anti-Harassment Profiles

Fourth post:

  • A Word on “Reputable Outlets” from a Shameful One

Those headings are helpful to me, but not enlightening on their own, and I am finding I make too many assumptions about readers’ backgrounds. So, in short, I started writing semi-regularly for running magazines 22 years ago, and these writings will represent my thoughts on how these magazines and everyday road-racing have evolved, along with my tepid opinions on which trends seem more useful to a greater share of runners than others. I think I’ve had well north of a hundred pieces that qualify as articles published by entities that compensated me for my gushing — if you care, most of these are accessible here — or, in other words, about as many full-length books Matt Fitzgerald will have written about running and eating by the time he’s 55.

These posts will include observations culled from social-science types that affirm, in some many words, that Twitter and similar online phenomena have not only allowed and encouraged bad actors to become worse actors, but have led fundamentally decent (or at least indifferent) people to choose cowardly mob-justice tactics over respectful analysis (and by “respectful,” I don’t mean the language, I mean respect for facts). Again, the similarities to hyper-moralizing, openly dishonest, craven, with-us-or-against-us religious sects are unmistakable. I’ll speculate — though I think it’s more substantive than that — about why running seems more awash in this sewage than other sectors of society.

A Brief Personal Recapitulation

If you’re among my older readers who doesn’t really follow running anymore, or traveled here from around 2005, the news about this tempo-run article showing up when and where it has might be good for a “Huh?” and maybe a bleak chuckle.

When I started hectoring magazine editors with article queries as a previously unpublished medical-school dropout soon after the 1998 New England High-School Cross-Country Championships, Running Times was Runner’s World’s sole competitor; the circulation numbers weren’t close, but by the end of the 20th century, RT had positioned itself as a choice primarily for people serious about racing, whereas RW could be counted on to offer tips on what makeup to wear to races and articles on the etiquette of greeting unfamiliar runners as you pass them, along with solid if comparatively sparse content about professional racing.

I became a senior writer for RT in 2000, but this was a masthead title, not a job. (Over the years, a few people tried to get me “fired” anyway, although one of those episodes was mainly about a strong desire for sex. Such cavalier assaults on people’s livelihoods were harder to perpetrate pre-social media, because back then — hell, even ten whole years ago — you had to produce a plausible reason for punishing a total stranger rather than just assemble an online mob of random, visually impaired aggressors.) This “senior writer” status contractually limited me from writing for RW, but the kind of stuff I was producing then was essentially antithetical to the increasingly casual offerings of that magazine anyway.

The idea that RW would one day own RT, thus bypassing any kind of discussion about a shift in editorial direction, never entered my mind in those days. It wouldn’t have given me the fainting vapors if it had, but I’m guessing most of you older types never knew one entity had become the property of the other, the reason for my “bleak chuckle” comment above. In 2007 or so, RW bought RT and thus now owns the rights to the dozens of bits and pieces I wrote for its competitor between 1999 and the acquisition, ingestion and excretion of RT that took place between about 2007 and 2012.

Running Mags Are Different (and Would Be Gone If They Weren’t)

The November/December 2020 issue became available six weeks ago. After tracking down a copy, a surprisingly arduous task even in Boulder, and reading though the entire thing (something I haven’t done with a running magazine in at least ten years) I was struck most not by any of the individual stories — some of which I’ll explore fully in (glances up) follow-up post number two — but how much citizen running has changed, not for the better, over the twenty-plus years I’ve been occasionally writing for “reputable outlets,” a term we’ll* have fun with shortly. What I have always written about for such outlets is not what we* need to be broadly thinking about as citizens of Earth as we engage in the act of moving our limbs in the company of our fellows, but the associated, increasingly divergent phenomenon of competitive distance running. Considering that the folks running these operations now are both part of the ugliest culture wars on offer (on the editorial side) and eager to mine this rage-fest for profit while it lasts (the venture capitalists on the publication side, showing up every few years to keep outlets like Outside on life support), none of this is especially surprising.

It has always been the case that running magazines don’t reflect the habits, wants and ideas of most everyday Americans; today, none of these publications seems to accurately represent the habits, wants and ideas of a majority of runners.

Now that RW is published six times annually — Hearst bought the publication from Rodale a little over three years ago — each issue, even more than in decades past. emphasizes a particular, moderately controversial theme. For example, the May/June issue’s cover stressed the importance of “streaking,” another word for not taking days off. It’s a stance that no adviser with a brain actually holds, but it makes the point that consistency is more important than any one magical workout. (I don’t think I have missed a day of running this year myself, but it’s different when you’re a jogger who rarely wakes up tired or sore from a workout and have no defensible reason for dodging a free mood-enhancer.) This issue’s theme is runners working to end the harassment of women and minority runners, all of whom happen to be women, and one of whose inclusion as a progressive, reasonable, inclusive voice resonates with all the authority of a contestant on SNL’s version of Celebrity Jeopardy and none of the middlebrow humor.

Overall, I think that the magazine, in terms of its forced evolution and with this issue specifically, is doing exactly what it needs to do to attract enough readers to keep a print version viable, even if I don’t see this or any strategy working past 2023 or so. It uses an emotional hook to draw readers into content that is running-specific and honors the hook, even if that in itself might be a questionable way to promote running.

I admit to being melancholy at being identified as a senior writer for Runner’s World when that title was given to me by Running Times — where I started with a great editor and ended with one who went from inexperienced to delightful in a pretty quick minute — and really no longer applied once Rodale had control of that magazine.

This whole assessment perhaps sounds like damnation by way of faint praise, but in reality, you’re not going to retain a readership with a print running magazine unless you can grab people by the emotions. Next time around, though, rather than get too deep into that thesis, I’ll marvel and gawk in detail over how much running, or at least the event scene, has changed since I picked it up, this time from the perspective of doing it rather than reading about it. Remember, I perpetrate all of this from a position of love, however canted, sickened, lustful and perverted it might be.