Go to any grocery store or convenience store and look at the magazine racks. You’re likely to see an issue of the magazine Runner’s World sticking out among the hundreds of other glossy covers. But you’re not likely to know the humble beginnings of the publication.
More than 40 years ago, Runner’s World was known as Distance Running News and looked very different. It was published in plain black and white print, devoid of advertisements, by a Kansas high school student. That young man was Bob Anderson, and in about 20 years, he would turn Distance Running News into a publication worth $25 million.
Anderson was born in Manhattan in 1947, but his family moved to Overland Park shortly afterward. He attended Shawnee Mission West High School where he ran on the cross country team—it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession.
“I got so addicted to running,” Anderson said. “Running was just the most important thing in my life.”
The late ‘60s were a very different time for publishing and running. There was no Internet. If you wanted information on a particular subject, you had to look for a periodical. Anderson ran into a slight problem, though. There were no magazines dedicated to the subject of running at the time.
“When I was 17, I was interested in running, but I couldn’t find any information,” Anderson said.
Running wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today, and running beyond the high school or college track team was almost unthinkable, especially among older generations.
“My dad wouldn’t have been caught dead in running shorts,” Anderson said.
Yet Anderson knew there were others like him. He started writing other runners to ask for advice. He wanted to share that information to create a community, a place for runners. He started the magazine his senior year with $100 he saved from mowing lawns and baby sitting. The first issue of Distance Running News was 28 pages, put together only with a typewriter.
Early on, it was only printed twice a year, but the magazine really gained momentum once Anderson left to attend Kansas State University.
Anderson came to Manhattan in the fall of 1966 for what he described as a “general education.” He ran part of a season on the K-State track team, but quickly became invested in expanding the magazine. Dean Coughenour, the former manager of Ag Press, gave Anderson his “big break.”
“I was a college student, 20 years old, and I came down and asked if I could work there part time,” Anderson said. “At that point, I had published a couple issues just typing it up on a typewriter.”
Coughenour agreed to print the magazine and entrusted Anderson with a spare key to Ag Press. Anderson was busy with school and work during the day, so it only left the hours of the night to work on the magazine. He came in after business hours and would work into the early hours of the morning, which suited him just fine. Sitting still has never appealed to Anderson, who has worked between 60 and 80 hours a week for many years.
Working alone in the empty building, Anderson figured out the basics of putting a magazine together. In his words, he “learned how to do layout the right way.”
“If he had not loaned me that key to the building, I don’t know how I would have got the magazine out,” Anderson said.
With access to a printing press and a grasp of how to put his magazine together, the next step became increasing the circulation.
“I started telling runners, ‘Why don’t you encourage your friends to subscribe?’” Anderson said. “This is a magazine for runners about runners and we need your support.”
Most subscribers to the magazine—paying a modest fee of $3—were high school track coaches and their runners. Anderson also saw a boost in subscriptions thanks to what he believes was the only other running magazine out at the time, Track and Field News. He rented the publication’s mailing list and got a 25-percent response rate.
“A track coach would send me a list of 20 of his runners with a check,” Anderson said.
Word of mouth about Distance Running News continued to build. Anderson was working long hours and keeping his personal expenses low by eating cheaply and living in a tiny basement apartment for $45 a month. That way he was able to “reinvest every penny” into the magazine. His strategy paid off. By 1969, 10,000 people subscribed to Distance Running News. It had gradually increased to six issues a year as well.
“I was spending so much time with the magazine, actually, I did not finish at Kansas State,” Anderson said. “I had to drop out in ‘69, and then I moved to California.”
Anderson moved to Mountain View, California, on Dec. 28, 1969, when he also changed the name of the magazine to Runner’s World.
As impressive as it was for essentially a one-man operation, Anderson knew 10,000 subscribers wasn’t going to cut it.
“Right off the gun, I said, ‘Gosh with a subscription rate of $3 with 10,000 subscribers that’s only $30,000 a year,’” Anderson said. “So what can I do to bring in additional revenue?”
Selling advertising for a magazine focusing solely on a niche market such as running would have been difficult, so Anderson looked for other ways. He found several books on the subject of running published in England and bought large quantities at wholesale prices. Then he sold them through the magazine to bring in an additional $30,000.
Anderson also started publishing books about running and selling running shoes, opening one of the first running shops in the country in 1971. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the magazine and its staff was also an important element to the magazine’s growth.
“I was an okay writer, but I wasn’t necessarily a great writer,” Anderson said. “As soon as I could afford it—that was one of the reasons I moved to California—I hired an editor.”
Despite the success, not everyone was supportive.
“In 1970, my mom came out to California and she said, ‘You know, your dad and I have been thinking some day you’re going to want to settle down, have a family and get yourself a real job and you need to go back and you need to finish school,’” Anderson said. “I said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand, this is a real job.”
It didn’t deter Anderson because he desperately wanted “live and breathe running.” He kept building and building until eventually selling the magazine in 1984 to Rodale Press for $25 million.
“It seemed like everything we were doing was worth it,” Anderson said.
Runner’s World has provided Anderson with a number of priceless experiences over the years.
“One of the dreams that I had when I started the magazine was, maybe I could actually meet a world record holder, maybe I could actually go to the Olympic Games,” Anderson said.
As early as 1972, Anderson fulfilled that dream. He was at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, in the press box.
One of his most memorable moments came in 1984. Before he sold the magazine, Anderson was invited to the White House in acknowledgment of his efforts to increase wellness in the country. He interviewed President Ronald Reagan for the magazine while he was there.
But his greatest reward was furthering the sport of running and cultivating a community and culture for like-minded individuals.
“For sure, Distance Running News and Runner’s World had a great deal to do with the running boom—the first running boom—because we communicated,” Anderson said.
Now, Anderson is the CEO and chief photographer of a fashion company called Ujena. He is also starring in and producing a documentary called “A Long Run” with the help of his wife, Catherine, and his son, Michael.
The film follows Anderson as he competes in 50 races this year. Recently, he ran in Kansas City’s Rock the Parkway half-marathon and found time to revisit his roots in Manhattan.