Made with Pride: Runner's World founder Bob Anderson Talks 5-Star Sneakers
Inspired by his dream of competing in the Boston Marathon, Bob Anderson started Distance Running News in 1966, while he was still a high school student. Retitled Runner’s World in 1970, the magazine played a pivotal role in establishing running’s credentials as a legitimate sport. Feature articles on training, diet, race tactics, and hotly contested reviews of sneakers delivered Runner’s World an audience in the millions, before the company was sold in the mid 1980s. More than 40 years later, Bob is still an exercise evangelist and a serial entrepreneur. Just don’t call him a jogger, he was only interested in racing!
Why do you love running so much?
I love running simply because it gives me a lot of self-confidence. Plus you can run anyplace, anywhere, anytime — all you need is a good pair of shoes! It’s just you and your body in the fresh air. I also love that feeling when your heart’s pumping, things are clicking and you’re running as fast as you can. It’s an adrenaline rush. I’m 70 years old and I still run about 35 miles a week.
That is an amazing effort. Back in the early 70s, running wasn’t considered a sport in the way that football or baseball is, was it? How would you describe it?
Well, my dad, when he was in his 40s, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pair of running shorts outside, it was just way too weird! I grew up in Kansas and ran cross-country and track in high school. But once the season ended, there was nothing, and college running was really only for superstars. People just didn’t run for fun and fitness. There were a few pockets of hardcore runners, and the Boston Marathon was around, but only a few hundred people entered in those early years.
A lot of things conspired to create the jogging boom in the late 1970s. How did the marathon become a phenomenon?
I have to say one thing about jogging — I’ve never jogged a mile in my life! I run, and I run races! Anyway, what really helped put running on the map was when Dr. Kenneth Cooper came out with the book Aerobics. A few years earlier, President John F. Kennedy started the 50-mile hike challenge. Those two events really jumpstarted the running scene in America.
In January 1966, I published the first issue. Even though I only printed a thousand copies, lots of people wanted to read it. The next thing I knew, people started sending in subscription money. New Balance was one of my first advertisers. I think they paid $10 for a little ad.
Did you have a grand plan for the business?
Not really. I was still in high school at the time! I was interested in running the Boston Marathon but had no idea how to train or go about it. I was reading every single word I could find about running, which wasn’t much. On the way to a cross-country meet one day I said to my friend, ‘I want to start a magazine about running. We’ll call it Distance Running News!’ In January 1966, I published the first issue. Even though I only printed a thousand copies, lots of people wanted to read it. The next thing I knew, people started sending in subscription money. New Balance was one of my first advertisers. I think they paid $10 for a little ad.
It started with two issues a year, then we went from four to six, then monthly. We went from black and white photos to colour. I started with a hundred bucks, and by the time I sold the magazine in 1984, we had 2,500,000 readers! We changed the name to Runner’s World in 1970, and the magazine became the Bible of running.
It sounds like the magazine fostered a great sense of community.
Absolutely. You’re right, it was all about bringing people together, which is exactly what social media does for people today. A kid living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who absolutely loved running, but was into it by himself, was suddenly able to find out what was happening in the world of running by reading the magazine.
We covered all sorts of topics, including articles on how to break through the pain barrier when you hit the wall at 20 miles, training information, dietary advice, running after 40, and women’s running. When I started Runner’s World, a woman was not allowed to run more than a half-mile.
Whoa! I have never heard that before.
I mean, it’s hard to believe that was the case, but a lot of people thought the female body was just not made to run beyond a half-mile. As far as I was concerned, people are people, and it didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman. I didn’t care if you were 10 years old or 75 years old — or even 100 years old! — the fact of the matter is running should be for everyone. I remember Kathy Switzer was thrown out of the Boston Marathon in 1967. It was crazy, but women were not allowed to run 26 miles at that time. That rule didn’t change until 1972. Anyway, those are the sorts of things we were dealing with in those early days, and we covered it all.
The athletic brands were also in their infancy during this period. Did you have any inkling how big brands like New Balance would become?
I wish I could say I did. [laughs] At the time, the sneaker companies were really small firms. New Balance was based up in the North East of the USA and other brands were dotted around America. To put things into perspective, back in those days, a best-selling running shoe maybe sold a thousand pairs. That’s how small the business of running was. Before I started the magazine, I asked some experienced runners if 10,000 subscribers was possible. They told me that figure was just unbelievable and that I’d never reach it. Those people I talked to clearly thought I was just a kid with crazy dreams, but I didn’t start Runner’s World to make money — I just wanted to help the sport! In my mind that was a much bigger goal.
Well, I’d say you had the last laugh. Do you remember when the first sneaker edition was printed?
Oh yeah, our first shoe issue came out in 1967, and we reported on all the brands. As the years went on we did it annually, and it became the biggest issue of the year by far, with close to four million readers. We hired Peter Kavanaugh at Penn State University — who we paid $25,000 for equipment — and sent him all the shoes to test. We included feedback from readers in the results too. We would end up ranking the shoes starting with the number one running shoe of that year.
Sounds like a recipe for drama and intrigue.
Yeah, it was. [laughs] Because we rated a shoe number one, the controversy was never far away. Some brands felt we had too much power and … actually one company thought that we were being ‘influenced’ and decided to pull out of the shoe issue, thinking that their second place ranking should have been higher. Funnily enough, we sold more copies of that October shoe issue than we ever had because the controversy made the national news. We were fully investigated and cleared, of course, because we were doing nothing wrong. We just presented the facts as we saw them.
The New Balance 990 was the first shoe to hit the $100 price point. Do you remember anything about that?
I really don’t remember too much, other than the fact that New Balance offered their shoes in different widths, and I believe the 990 offered that option as well. I don’t have the details in my mind, but I remember the 990 cost a lot. Was it the most expensive running shoe to that point?
Absolutely. New Balance were never afraid to push things to the limit.
Right, actually, I was just bringing the 990 up on the computer screen here. It looks like there are now four different versions of that shoe?
Yeah, there are four versions and they keep getting chunkier. Have you heard about the ‘dad shoe’ thing at the moment? The New Balance 990v4 is a classic of that style. Big and bulky, but that’s the fashion.People love them because they’re sturdy and beautifully made.
Well, looking at the New Balance 990 here on the screen, yeah I definitely remember this shoe. It’s a lot of shoe, but people like a lot of shoe! For me, it’s probably too heavy because I’m just a little guy and I like training and racing in a light shoe. I wonder what the original one weighed?
I’m not sure. The original 990 was pretty slim, it was all about EVA foam with the Motion Control Device in the heel. At the time, the 990 was considered pretty high tech.
Yeah, I definitely remember that very well.
What are your memories of working with Jim Davis?
First of all, Jim was very personable and he didn’t need to be in the limelight. He seemed like a really hardworking guy who really cared about running shoes and making the very best product that he could. I was very impressed, and you just got the feeling he was gonna make his brand work. He made and sold shoes in different width sizes, and he was willing to roll the dice on that. And here we are today, New Balance is a huge company. It’s a very impressive story.
You sold Runner’s World by the mid 1980s, by which time you had 300 employees…
We had 350 employees actually. [laughs] I was going through a divorce at that time and needed to sell the company. It’s funny, I started the magazine because I wanted to run the Boston Marathon, but I literally became a weekend runner only because my day was pretty full from six in the morning until eight at night. However, I was still able to run sub-six-minute miles in races on the weekend.
That’s quite ironic, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. I wish I had followed my own advice. As I’ve gotten older, when I look back, my whole life was Runner’s World before the age of 35. Instead of taking off for an afternoon run, I just worked really hard. Luckily I’m still running 30 to 35 miles every week. I finally ran the Boston Marathon in 2013. It only took me 45 years to get there!
And was it as amazing as you thought it would be?
Oh my gosh, I’ve run close to a thousand races in my life but the Boston Marathon is number one. It was just an incredible experience and I was thrilled my wife and son were with me that day. At the same time, that was also the year of the terrible bombing. Luckily I finished about a half hour before that happened. I ran 3:32:17 that day at age 65.
I didn’t connect that tragic year with the Boston race. That should have been a great day for you and a lot of other people.
Yeah, it was great, right up until the point the bomb went off. The experience of finally running through Boston and seeing the crowds was just beyond words. That doesn’t overshadow the victims and all the other people whose lives were destroyed that day, but the Boston Marathon is still an incredible race. What a tragic contrast to the joy that running brings.
Photo Credits: Scott Goulet and Dan Purnell
This feature was originally published in Sneaker Freaker's New Balance 997 book. For a look at the 997's history, read about its journey to cult status and our interview with designer, Steven Smith. For a look back at United Arrows' 997.5, read our interview with UA's director, Poggy, or delve into the minutiae of the 997 back catalogue with Matt Kyte. We also broke bread with Kith's Ronnie Fieg to chat about his love for the 997, and talked NB colabs with Concepts creative director, Deon Point.