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. And in America, the metric system is basically kept alive by 5k races alone. But back in the 60s, 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, Ray Crothers was chased by five squad cars cruising the streets because he was running. Small town athletes suffered too, women especially. One woman wrote that there was nothing odder than a woman jogging in a small town.
She decided to swim instead. Athletes always ran, but for recreation, it was rare. Boxers, track stars, and soldiers, sure, but normal people rarely ran before the late 60s. It wasn’t just odd outdoors, either. The most infamous use of a treadmill wasn’t in a gym but in 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 it 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 reflected the sea 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 for jogging specifically goes to legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, who discovered cross-country jogging on a trip to New Zealand in 1962, after meeting with the pioneering runner and coach Arthur Lydiard.
Bowerman’s 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 70s running boom with his books. Around the same time, a young company called Nike, cofounded 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 that 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’s “here to stay.” It turns out they had a 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.” I’m a runner myself, really slow, but technically a runner, and that might be why I find some of these anecdotes amusing.
One of my favorites is from 1968 when Senator Strom Thurmond was running around Greenville, South Carolina and he was followed by a squad car because he was suspicious…jogging.
As found on Youtube