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From Issue #15 April 25, 2013

Second Wind

A running program designed for beginners takes people far beyond 5,000 meters.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

I started running in 2011 after my girlfriend dumped me for the fourth and final time. I needed something that was hard and physical and that I completely controlled. I needed a task that would push me to the edge of my abilities, and running did.

When Josh Clark began running in 1993 it was also a reaction to a bad breakup. He and his college girlfriend split up, and Clark ran around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston, kicking his way through the pain that every new runner feels when striking out without a plan or training.

Some weeks into his regime, Clark broke through the wall — he ran past the pain — and had a realization: running could feel good. That realization, and his invention of the “Couch to 5K” running program, changed not just his life, but the lives of as many as millions of new runners around the world.1

C25K

Clark designed “Couch to 5K” (often shortened to “C25K”) in 1996, three years into a regular running routine. Clark was following in the footsteps of roadwork advocates before him like Jim Fixx, whose The Complete Book of Running, published in 1977, turned running into a craze. Clark tried to make running approachable to those with no track or road history. He went further than most, distilling his lessons into a short list of steps: a plan of three runs a week for nine weeks, each with a progressive goal.

He had written C25K with his mom in mind. He saw that she could walk long distances and jog short ones, and he figured that combining the two could turn her into a runner. It worked: Clark’s mother followed the C25K program with her husband. They ran a 5K at the end, and she still occasionally participates in half-marathons 15 years after being among the very first C25K users.

You don’t need any technology to use C25K, but a thriving business in smartphone apps implementing the system (and others like it) has sprung up in the past half decade. After my breakup, I grabbed the first C25K app I found, strapped an iPhone to my arm, and jogged out the front door.

The first run of C25K is simple: “Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.” As easy as it sounds, by the middle of that run, my shins were on fire. A quick Web search helpfully informed me that I had “shin splints,” and I bought a giant gray foam tube that I awkwardly rolled my shins against after runs, in sort of a downward-facing dog yoga position. It helped until the next run, when the fires would start anew in my lower legs.

Despite the shin splints, the first runs of C25K were liberating. They were filled with small victories: completing each short run meant that I had beaten my own record for time, and sometimes distance. On the third week, I ran for three minutes straight. Those were the first contiguous three minutes I had run in my entire life. That part felt like a win.

In the iPhone app I used to track the run, I tapped out a hopeful note: “Hard but possible.” This is the genius of C25K: while it pushes the new runner forward each week, it also provides constant rewards. Each new run marks a success that makes the next run seem possible. In an interview, Clark tells me, “The whole idea of Couch to 5K was: Why don’t I just make it so that you can have that satisfaction by doing something that pushes you but doesn’t break you?”2

The fifth week of C25K is a killer. In the final run of that week, the jogging and walking is dropped in favor of a single 20-minute jog. Week 5 is infamous in C25K circles as the moment when people either make it or drop out. In my case, I made it: I huffed and puffed my way around a local park on a chilly Portland morning, feeling an intense sense of achievement when I hit the 20-minute mark.

During my C25K training, I met the woman who would become my wife. She would not dump me four times. And I could handle a 20-minute run. Even though it was hard, it was something I could achieve, something I could hold on to. The shin splints stopped, and each week I achieved a personal best. Things were looking up for me.

Kick it up a notch

A decade and a half before my introduction to running, Clark was living in a run-down Boston apartment near Cleveland Circle and working for the local public TV station, WGBH. He was a producer on the documentary series American Experience. He was helping other filmmakers produce their Ken Burns-flavored visions, and while that was okay for a day job, it wasn’t something he could own. It would be years before he could get funding to make his own documentaries for the show and tell his own stories. So he turned to the Web, which in 1996 had just broken out into wider consumer consciousness.

What Clark created was a story he could control completely: Kick was a Web site about running, and C25K was the thin end of the wedge. The Kick site quickly grew into a community, and Clark had to manage and cultivate its growth. He worked through technical issues, moderated squabbles on message boards, and had a trickle of income from ads. He moved to Manhattan in 1998 and made T-shirts for the site. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment surrounded by boxes of shirts promoting the site, slowly selling them to help pay the rent.

In 1999, an investor approached Clark and various other running site owners about funding a group of online communities devoted to health and fitness — a sort of Web ring, only with real money. Those hopes were dashed by the dot-com collapse a year later.

His girlfriend at the time moved to Paris in 2000 to research her dissertation in art history, and Clark found himself alone in Manhattan. “My running route then was along the East River, and I ran through Alphabet City,” he says. “On more than one occasion I had kids throw glass bottles at me as I ran past. That definitely helped boost my pace.”

Back when the investor was courting Kick, Clark started editing a magazine called The Next Big Thing that turned out not to be. (He left in 2001 before it folded.) Kick brought in some ad and T-shirt revenue, but it couldn’t sustain Clark. Around the time the magazine work was ending, he agreed to merge Kick with Cool Running, a larger, New England-based running site that had been approached by the same venture capitalist two years earlier.

Clark helped merge the two communities. “It was a difficult transition,” he said. The hardcore competitive runners of Cool Running were there for different reasons than the runners in what Clark described as his “warm and fuzzy” band from Kick, who were there to help each other out.

And then came September 11, when he lost his friend Waleed Iskandar. Iskandar and his fiancée, Nicolette, had dinner with Clark on the night of September 10; the couple playfully argued about wedding cakes and honeymoon plans. The next morning Iskandar caught a flight solo, bound for Los Angeles. It was American Airlines Flight 11.

Shocked by the loss, Clark promptly moved to Paris. “I realized that life is short and uncertain, and it should be spent doing things you love with people you love,” he says. But in Paris, Clark isolated himself: he choose to work as a freelancer, and he spoke little French.

Clark focused on building a content management system called Big Medium, derived from the system he built to power the merged Kick/Cool Running site. He launched Big Medium as a product in January 2003. Shortly after that, Clark sold his stake in Cool Running along with the rights to the Couch to 5K program for a very modest sum, but one he was happy with.

Big Medium never took off, but Clark stayed in Paris until 2009 working with clients and collaborators he rarely met in person. He never put down roots.

The middle path

Within the C25K community, runners fall into three categories:

  1. People who try the program but quit before completing it (or before actually running a 5K).

  2. People who succeed at running the nine-week program, complete a 5K, and stop.

  3. People who succeed at the program and catch the running bug — these people often go on to run marathons.

I am one of those middle-path runners. After I crossed the finish line of my first (and still only) 5K in 2012, I stopped running. In the same way, Clark crossed a line with his running Web site and simply stopped. He had achieved the goal he set for himself in 1996: to share the story of running with the world. Once it was done, he moved on.

After the iPhone came out and apps began to appear that implemented C25K, Clark was encouraged by several publishers to write a book about it. But he had already crossed his own finish line, and that tone pervades our discussions. The simple truth is that his goal was to share his love of running with the world, and he achieved that. He turned down the offers. Like all middle-path runners, when Clark crossed the finish line of his C25K career, he stopped.

Family ties

Clark moved back to the US in 2009, and found the sort of success he had missed out on in his previous careers. He wrote a set of books about mobile apps that sold well, and in 2010 began speaking about interaction design in front of large audiences. Just like his early running experience, it was awful at first.

“When my heart beat, it would make my whole body sway,” he says. “I needed a stool up on stage just to keep from falling over. I was terrified.” But he stayed with that pain, talking tech, selling books, and generally taking control of his latest career as a mobile interaction designer.

And just like with running, he broke through the wall, stubbornly kicking his way past the public speaking pain. He lost his stage fright, and in 2012 gave 50 talks. He racked up 200,000 air miles on Delta in one year. “I found myself in another kind of bubble. When you talk that much, you’re up in the air all the time, you’re isolated from the people around you.” It was France all over again.

When I spoke to Clark in 2013, his focus had again shifted. “I don’t see myself doing as much public speaking,” he said. “And last weekend, I turned off my phone for 48 hours. That’s the first time I’ve done that in a long time.” That weekend of disconnection from his technological tether actually moored him to his family: “I spent the time with the people I love.”

Clark says he has been a “bad New Yorker” for the past few years, having spent so much time away from the city traveling for work, or in the city but stuck indoors. He now lives in Brooklyn, and he has recently taken up running again, although he hasn’t run an official 5K in a decade. “There’s a lot of new in my life, and I like all of it. I’m in it for the long haul.”

My wedding will take place not long after this article appears. For our honeymoon, my wife and I will visit the Oregon coast, where we’ll spend a couple of weeks in a cottage that has no Internet access, no cellular signal, and — as far as we can tell — no street address. It’s the first time I can remember that I’ll be disconnected from the electronic world for so long. And I just bought a new pair of running shoes.

This article comes with Special Features.


  1. Clark never required registration, and C25K is a freely available set of concepts (though its current owners do have a trademark on the name). Nobody I asked would provide an estimate of C25K usage except for Clark. “I’m pretty confident it’s in the millions, but there isn’t a way to know,” he says. “All we know is the number of people who actually see the thing and talk about it.” For some math on why I think this “millions” estimate is valid, see Special Features

  2. I asked Clark whether he thought C25K smartphone apps represented a kind of gamification of fitness. He responded, “I would say it’s gamification in the best way. I mean, there’s a lot of talk now about gamification giving people empty badges. It’s like, Great, you’re the mayor of your dry cleaner! That’s not an accomplishment.” 

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