When David Willey ’89 described his early experiences with running, one word in particular came to mind: punishment.
“I was not really a runner growing up,” he said. “When I was at Williams, I played football; running was always a means to another end.”
Now, he has eight marathons under his belt and is the editor-in-chief of Runner’s World.
Willey first discovered his love for running during his junior spring abroad in London. “I just had this physical craving to get exercise, and I just went out for a run in the park near where we lived,” he said. “The lightbulb just kind of went off for me on that first run in London.”
He continued to run throughout his semester abroad and into his senior year at the College. After graduation, Willey became a subscriber to the very magazine he now edits. “I wanted to continue to be an athlete, and I was living in New York City and working like crazy. All that time, I was also exposed to Runner’s World,” he said. “When I moved to New York, I became a subscriber. I was training for marathons and reading Runner’s World cover-to-cover.”
While running became an instant passion of Willey’s, his path toward Runner’s World was more winding. Willey, a political science major, had initially considered becoming a lawyer during his first few years at the College. However, after graduating, Willey decided instead to begin a two-year analyst program on Wall Street.
“What interested me about that job was moving to New York and learning something about business,” he said. “I found out pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me. In fact, the only times I really excelled at all in that job was not when I was crunching numbers or doing corporate finance or accounting-related stuff, but when I was researching and writing.”
Willey relocated to Chicago for his second year of the program. While he was there, he began to pursue a graduate degree in journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. “I realized that [journalism] was something that I was better at and enjoyed more.”
After graduating from Medill, Willey realized that he wanted to work in magazines and moved back to New York. After doing some freelance work, he eventually got a job at Men’s Journal. “I was there for eight and a half years or so, and it was a great apprenticeship in magazines and pretty much learning how to do everything there is to do as an editor,” Willey said. “I kind of worked my way up and was recruited to come to Runner’s World.”
At the time, Runner’s World was also going through a transition as it aimed to expand its readership to not just hard-core marathoners but to everyday people who wanted to get active. One person who could have benefitted from this rebranding was Willey.
“Somewhere along the line there when I was working at Men’s Journal, I stopped subscribing to Runner’s World,” he said. “As my career progressed and other things started taking precedence in my life, running sort of moved from out of the center and to the periphery of my life. I didn’t stop running, but it was just sort of less important.
“I was just running a couple days a week, and Runner’s World felt like it wasn’t speaking to me as that kind of runner. So, when they called me and said that they were looking to broaden the audience, I felt like I had a really personal understanding of what they were trying to do.”
As the new editor-in-chief, it was Willey’s job to implement this strategy and broaden the appeal of Runner’s World. “Runner’s World is for all runners; it’s not just for serious competitive runners,” he said. Since then, throughout his 14 years as editor-in-chief, Willey has also been tasked with keeping up with the ever-expanding media age. “When I took this job, my job pretty much just to make the best magazine we could make every 30 days, and that’s still a big part of what we do. But … there’s the web, events, podcasts and video. It’s not just a magazine anymore; it’s a brand.”
Willey believes that his liberal arts background helped him prepare for his career. “Creative problem solving is the most beneficial and essential skill that an education can give someone,” he said. “It helped me take a sort of winding path towards what I ended up wanting to do as a career. I was hugely helpful to come with that as a foundation.”