Running Times

It's a testament to how well Runner's World does its job that runner-ish folks like myself generally know nothing about Running Times. Or at least I didn't until I went looking for a running mag to keep me focused on Sunday's 26.2-mile stroll about town, and secure a cheap introductory column hook in the process.

(Seriously, I'm running -- no pun intended, sort of -- out of things to say in these pieces. It may be about time for me to ditch the writing thing and return to my first love, cosmetic dentistry.)

Running Times doesn't provide all that much fodder for discussion. It's a perfectly functional magazine, full of words and pictures and tear-out subscription cards. Unfortunately, placing it next to Runner's World is like placing a pleasingly dimpled, sturdy-shouldered gal next to Elle Macpherson: there's just no comparison.

Since I don't feel like writing my 344th mash note to Runner's World ("Dear RW, U totally rock!!!! Luv, Larrycakes"), I'll ditch the this-versus-that format and concentrate instead on the title at hand. And there are many things to like about Running Times, especially its strict adherence to the "runner's best resource" positioning. Every item in the December issue toes that tagline, whether an extensive survey of poor-weather shoes or a guide to 2007 training programs by former Olympian Pete Pfitzinger.

In doing so, however, Running Times makes only the most token of efforts to entertain readers, and that's a mistake. The flat, didactic tone serves its purpose in the more technical stories, but it renders the mag's race reviews and runner profiles hopelessly dull. The "Should've Been There" report on a Minnesota 5K/10K not only fails to capture anything vaguely resembling a local vibe, but actually makes the race seem indistinguishable from the tens of comparable ones that take place every weekend. Given the choice between the event as described and an afternoon at the Great American Mall, I'll take the food-court lard and the cell-phone-accessory kiosks.

Running Times also has the unfortunate habit of shooting itself in the foot. A useful piece on big-city running courses isn't especially well served by the small, grainy photograph that accompanies it (nor by the "San Fransisco [sic] Bay Trail" photo caption). The mag presents a holiday gift guide for runners but does little with it, cramming 24 product shots onto two pages and offering exactly zero product details. And as a rule, gift-giving guides should include items that one would, you know, actually give as a gift. While I'm not the most imaginative shopper, even I can think of a better way to say "I care" than via the gifting of a 32-pack of Hammer Gel Recoverite.

Then there's the two-page "Hit the Trails" spread, which teems with detail -- including a colorful bit about ensuring that "grazing bovines" don't mess with race signs -- but ultimately comes across as a transparent plug for race sponsor Gore-Tex ("the Alps, with their snowy peaks and capricious weather, are the perfect Gore-Tex testing ground"); Gore-Tex also supplies photographs. It should be noted that "Hit the Trails" is edited by Adam Chase and its two stories are written by Adam Chase, who gets Adam Chase bylines at the bottom of each. Clearly Adam Chase enjoys seeing Adam Chase's name in print. Adam Chase! Adam! Chase!

Still, Running Times conveys more than its share of useful information. Despite my general distaste for gimmicky last-page features, the mag connects with its back-to-back back-of-book columns. The second, on "purpose runs" (e.g., running to the store to grab some milk, or a copy of Swank), offers an unusual and clever perspective. The one that precedes it works even better, confirming what Uncle Mal told me about having two different pairs of running shoes (for purposes of biomechanical support, not color-coordination). Running Times does flippant pretty well; the problem is that smirks and guffaws don't have much of a place under the "runner's best resource" banner.

There's a place in the market for a mostly sober-minded publication like Running Times. As much as I may dig... that other magazine (whew, caught myself), a substantial audience of runners out there likely finds the "running lifestyle" positioning either tiresome or overstated. Still, I don't think Running Times can survive without a charisma implant of some sort. Presenting reams of information is all well and good, but it ain't enough.

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