Sunday, June 24, 2012

Running will kill you!!

Most of us who run ultras or road marathons have experienced this. An apparently fit runner drops dead in a major city marathon and friends, relatives, and colleagues send you the link with various well-meant, hand-wringing cautions. The latest argument that perhaps gardening or dog-walking would be a saner pursuit than running is a study coming out of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (not a competitive peer-reviewed journal), and making the virtual rounds in various formats. The upshot of this article is that "extreme" and "chronic" exercise--which for this researcher includes the marathon on up, and any pace faster than 10 minutes a mile--can damage the heart and perhaps shorten, not lengthen, one's life.

The instinct for ultra runners is to be dismissive, or say something about the inherent risk of any activity (or for that matter, inactivity). This time was different for me. It prompted some hard thinking. After 30+ years of relatively "normal" running around neighborhood streets and the occasional 10k or marathon, why over the past two years had I veered off the path into ultra trail runs? I'm doing 3 or 4 or more of these a year now, 50k to 100 mile, the more gnarly and unforgiving the trail the better. What am I thinking?  Why continue?

There's a lot that long-time runners can learn from this study. Swallow your bravado and listen up:

Dangers of chronic stress & the importance of recovery: The focus of the study is on the dangers of chronic stress over a long period. I strongly agree that many, perhaps even most, athletes seriously training for a marathon or ultra don't recover properly day to day.   Training for 5 or more days a week (even with your 10 mile "easy recovery" days) is chronic stress. Fine to do this for a decade or two in your youth to train for serious competition. But carried on to middle age and beyond? Some rethinking is surely in order.

Several years ago, I began to run no more than 3 times a week. The initial rewards were in terms of speed--in 2010 I reversed a fairly steady decline in my 40s and at 45 did my first sub-3hr marathon in 28 years. That was cool and reason enough to continue. Since then, however, something very strange has been happening. My ability to recover after marathons--for that matter, after any kind of hard effort at all (a 5k, speedwork, 50 miles, anything)--has not simply gotten a little better. It's better than when I was 20 years old. I did see a study once (sorry, no idea of the reference) that compared athletes who doing a 6-days a week training program with others doing 3. They not only found that the latter group were more rested, had fewer illnesses and injuries, etc--they found that following an identical hard effort, the 3-day/week atheletes recovered significantly faster than their 6-day/week bretheren. So, not just are you less stressed in the day-to-day training, but your ability to recover can improve rather profoundly. 

(And yes, I've completed a 100 miler on 3 days/week training. They are all long runs though & on the 2 work days I set have to set the alarm for the appallingly early time of 3AM.)

Duration and intensity: It was suggested to me that perhaps I should cap my efforts at the marathon, certainly at 50 miles. (Never mind that the marathon used to be seen as the ultimate distance, the "man-killer" that nearly finished off poor Pietro Dorando in the 1908 Olympics.) But the study discourages longer efforts involving chronic stress--too much intensity with too little recovery over too many years. The recommendation is that we run no faster than 10 min/mile. Well. This would disqualify many weekend warriors who never venture beyond the local 5k or 10k. Yet 10 min/mile is about my 100 mile race pace--and the 50s are not much faster. 

I would challenge the notion that the 100-mile is harder on the body than the marathon. A competitive road marathon is a uniquely punishing event. You are red-lining the whole way, hitting 85% or more of VO2 max for hours. Add the heat and running on asphalt: it is brutal. And training for it can be brutal too. For a 50 or 100, particularly on trails, it would be suicidal to go that hard. The fuel source is different: you run on fat, not gylcogen. You hoard your glycogen. You are running at about 65% of VO2 max. With walk breaks. Training for this kind of effort is entirely different, and for me involves many miles at 9-11 minutes/mile--a pace I would have sniffed at when I was training for the marathon. 

Diet: I know the method of a study like this is to isolate variables, but still--there's a big gaping hole in terms of what it doesn't mention. Diet is critical. I ran a 7-mile road race a few weeks ago, mainly as a workout for last weekend's Highland Sky 40 mile. Not having run any road race for almost a year, I had forgotten how awful most runners' diets can be. At the finish line, the most popular food table was sponsored by Dunkin Donuts. I can't help noticing that many runners--and even some running hard, respectably fast times--are carrying too much weight. Training for a marathon gives too many people a false sense of their own invulnerabilty. The diets of serious marathoners don't always look much better than those of Americans in general. 

Surely, long-term endurance training and the American diet are a dangerous combination over many years.

I'd like to see a study like this compare these Western athletes to the great running cultures of the world. The ulta-running monks of Mount Hiei in Japan, the Tarahumara in Mexico, the Kenyans all have one thing in common: a traditional diet that the average American would consider wholly inadequate even for the effort of evenings spent on the sofa. The monks seem to fuel their daily 50ks mostly on miso and rice; the Tahumara run for days on end eating corn meal spiced up with chia seeds and the odd roasted mouse. 

I can’t imagine anything more different than the spectacle of runners I saw at the Dunkin Donuts table--chowing down on several donuts because they “earned” them running 7 miles on flat city streets. Oh come on.

Intangibles: The running monks and the Taruhumara are famous, too, for their disposition. They are absurdly happy. I see something like this at the start of an ultra.  Everyone seems to be smiling and laughing at the starting line.  This is before running, mind you, before the endorphins kick in, before the (mythical) runners' high.  Maybe it's the sheer unfathomable ludicrousness of the task before us.  Maybe laughter is a survival mechanism.

In any case, I can’t help contrasting these cheerful faces to the grim intensity I see during my daily DC-area commute.  You can’t sustain that kind of behavior in the ultra.  You have to step away from 21st century American culture.  You must change your life (to paraphrase Rilke).

There’s more. Running through nature, into places you would never otherwise see, for a whole day and night--this changes you. Living under electric lighted comfort, we forget how amazingly big one day and night can be. It's like reverting to childhood.  Sometimes, the beauty brings you close to tears. Other times, again, you are grinning and laughing like an idiot. As the hours wear on, the thin veneer of rationality--the place we live and work in our everyday lives--seems to fall away, replaced by a deep river of emotion and memory. The past becomes present.  It's a cliche, but in a 100 miler, you truly live a whole life in a day.

You have to pay attention to your body, to your surroundings, to the trail and the sky and to the bodies around you.  In the words of Laurence Gonzales, you need to  "be here now": be aware of your real surroundings, not your idea of what things ought to be or ought to look like (Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why). You feel what Rachel Carson, in her posthumous book by the same name, called “the sense of wonder.” She meant the ability to see things as if 1) you had never seen them before; and 2) you will never see them again.  That sense of a bigger, larger, more keenly beautiful but also more fragile and transient life--the sense, too, of depending on others and the impetus to help others--this has a way of spilling over into the rest of your life.  

I am no monk on Mt. Hiei, but I feel calmer and more myself than at any other time in my life.   Ultra runners know this: the intangibles trump all.


  1. Glad I found this post, serves to help me in my voyage at age 61 of becoming an even better runner.
    You speak of diet, but do not mention what your diet is. My wife, Deb has been a vegan for years and about a year ago, after she gave me the book "Eat and Run", I am slowly getting there. I still eat eggs, have recently given up cheese of all kind and no longer eat any flesh. Eggs are the only things I still eat that prevent me from becoming a true "Vegan". We prefer to call it a "Plant based diet". Keep writing, this is good stuff!

  2. Thanks for reading, Steve. Yes, that's right, mine's a plant-based diet too. It took several years to get there. Giving up meat was fairly easy, but dairy and eggs were not so easy (and I still give myself leeway for holidays or travel). I'm generally the cook in our household, so the changes in diet really pushed me to experiment with new recipes. Also loved Jurek's book (the multigrain pancakes are excellent).