Need motivation? Watch this!

The marathon is inspiring. Training for a marathon, on the other hand, can be arduous and time-consuming and even monotonous. Grinding out the miles, day after day after week after month, can cause any runner’s enthusiasm to occasionally wane.

If you need a little inspiration for your marathon training — or any running regimen, for that matter — you have my permission to skip today’s run (as long as it’s not your weekly long run — NEVER skip the long run!) and Netflix instead.

From the company that introduced me to marathon sessions of “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter,” comes an actual marathon movie, an inspirational (yes, I know I’ve used that word three times in the first three paragraphs) documentary entitled “Spirit of the Marathon.” I’ve watched this on DVD more than once, but I’m already looking forward to watching it again on Netflix. How did I not know that this was available?

I just learned this morning. Thanks to Beth, who blogs at Shut Up and Run, for the tip. Beth offers 6 Ways to Recapture Your Running Motivation. Among them:

Go to Netflix – Movies can motivate. Seeing and learning about someone else’s story and how they persevered is relatable. Use the energy and inspiration from those who have worked hard for their goals. The Spirit of the Marathon is a favorite of mine because it highlights the elites, but also us normal Joes and Josephines.

“Spirit of the Marathon” follows six runners as they train for and race the Chicago Marathon … from Olympian Deena Kastor to veteran marathoners to a couple of first-time marathoners. You can read about them here. Their stories, their perseverance, their personal triumph will kick-start your own running.

The film’s website offers this summary:

The film is a must see for anyone thinking about running a marathon and anyone who has run one or more. It’s also a must see for anyone wondering why thousands of people spend many months training for such an event. It celebrates the history and heroes of the sport and examines the personalities and training methods of the participants.

Here’s the trailer.

Not planning to run a marathon? By the end of this movie, you’ll change your mind.

Whatever it takes …

Janae, who blogs at The Hungry Runner Girl, launched a fun contest on her site today. She invites readers to vote for their favorite finish line photos. My favorite among the photos, submitted by followers of her blog, is at the top of this post. 

I voted for this finish line photo because it captures the mash-up of determination and desperation that is marathon running, made even more poignant because he is striving to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I can relate!

The runner (not identified) explains:

This came at the Fox Valley Marathon in St. Charles, IL in September of 2012, and will definitely be one I never forget. It was my very first Boston Qualifying time, and it came in dramatic fashion. About 10 feet from the finish line, my legs gave out, and I fell hard. Honestly, it’s all kind of a blur to me now. But my girlfriend (MARY!!!), who was at the finish line, explained to me that I managed to crawl the last few feet and get across the finish line. After a short stint in the medical tent to treat the scrapes on my hands and knees, I went to the timing booth to get my official time. Somehow, it was a 3:05:00, the exact time I needed as a 24-year-old guy. It was easily one of the most exhausting days of my life, physically, and emotionally.

This experience has given me the confidence to push myself in the latter stages of races, and through difficult training runs.

Rock the Parkway

Rock the Parkway

Nothing is more frustrating than being stuck in a slow porta-potty line when the race is about to start … nothing, that is, except knowing that it’s your own blame fool fault.

But today was such a gorgeous day for a race, and the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon (in Overland Park, KS) is such a great event, that not even my pre-race stupidity could mar the day.

Let this be a lesson to you.

My normal routine, upon arriving for a race, is to immediately get into line at the nearest porta-potty. After that, I walk back to the end of the line, and get in line again. Rule #1: Always take advantage of every porta-potty opportunity! I’ve learned the hard way that too many precious minutes can be lost during emergency pit stops along the race course. But today, I broke my routine. And there were consequences.

After my initial visit to the porta-potty, I walked over to the starting line. After chatting with Scott Smith, a running friend and one of leaders of the 1:40 pace team, I realized I needed to make another visit to the porta-potty. 

“I have time,” I told myself, as the line beside us moved forward. And we stood still.

“I have time,” I tried to convince myself, as the line beside us proceeded briskly, and we creeped and crawled.

“I have time,” I nervously eyed my Garmin, willing time to stand still, as folks who got into line way later than I did, finished their business and ran off to the start. They were in the other line, the fast line. I was in the wrong line. The slow line.

“I wonder if I can find a tree nearby,” I actually said out loud. Eyes all around me began searching the landscape. But nobody moved out of line.

I thought I had time. When I finally jogged over to the starting line to join my pace team, I figured I still had about two minutes to spare. I was wrong.

When I entered the starting gate, I realized my pace team already left in the first wave. How could they leave without me? I was stuck behind, waiting with the second wave.

I was lost. I had neglected to wear the pace band (breaking another routine!) and was counting on Scott (and another running friend, Stacey Ellerman) to keep me on pace. My strategy was simple: Stick with Scott and Stacey. Finish with the 1:40 pace team.

But now I was flying solo, and flying blind. At least I could recall that our plan was to run the first three miles at about an 8 minute/mile pace. After we warmed up, and got past the hills at the beginning of the course, we would speed up to about a 7:30/mile pace. So I tried to stick with that plan, and hoped for the best.

On top of everything else, I screwed up the settings on my Garmin. I knew what pace I was currently running, but I didn’t know what my overall time was.

After giving myself a good, self-defeating chewing out during the first mile of the race, I decided that it would be stupid to let a few mishaps ruin the day. I would just do my best, and hope for the best.

Success!

I finished the race in 1:40:47, just 47 seconds behind my goal. I finished 12th of 145 runners in my age group. Overall, I finished 236 out of a total 4,930 runners (top five percent!). Under the circumstances, with no pace team and no certainty of what pace I needed to keep, I felt pretty good to finish so close to my goal. So good, in fact, that I’m going to join the 1:35 pace team at my next race.

Kick it up a notch!

Rock the Parkway is the first of a three-race series, the Heartland 39.3 Series (Five Weeks, Three Races, Two States). In two weeks, I’ll run another half marathon at the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz in Olathe, KS. Two weeks after that, it’s Running With The Cows in Kansas (somewhere). I thought it might be fun to take a break from my usual spring marathon and do something different this year.

I’m glad I chose to break from the routine. This is my first time to run Rock the Parkway, and it was everything I expected. This is one of the most popular races in the Kansas City area. Registration always fills up fast and closes early. And now, I know why …

The course is beautiful, encompassing some of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods along Ward Parkway, not to mention the spectacular Meyer Circle Fountain. There are gentle hills, but nothing treacherous. I was surprised by a pretty steep hill in mile 11, right where I expected to enjoy a long downhill slope, but that’s just me whining.

The crowds were enthusiastic throughout the course. Some guy wearing an Orange Crush shirt was repeatedly popping up every few miles. Don’t know who he was or how he managed to show up at so many points along the course, but he was loud and energetic and full of high-fives. He helped make the race more fun. Thanks, Orange Crush guy!

Volunteers were efficient and friendly and encouraging. There was some great music — though I wish there was more, the only fault I can find with this event.

The medal is a work of art. A heavy work of art. I’ll display it proudly on my wall.

Beyond the finish line, I took advantage of a free massage. I also enjoyed — and I’ve never seen this at a race before – a bowl of macaroni & cheese with shredded cheddar cheese melting over it, from Noodles & Co. Yum! Genius! The ice-cold smoothie was delicious, too (wish I could remember the name of the vendor).

I’m looking forward to browsing the photos online. I’ve only seen this at one other race, but it is a terrific feature: free, downloadable, searchable photos from the race will be posted online in a few days. I hate waiting! But, I know they’ve got thousands of photos to upload, so they’ll be working pretty fast.

The weather could not have been any better. Clear skies, nearly 60 degrees at the start. The folks at Rock the Parkway ordered up an ideal day. They should put in the same request for next year.

After today’s experience, I expect to return in 2015.

Running is healthy, if it doesn’t kill you

Missouri Medicine cover

Exercise – it might not add years to your life, but it adds life to your years.
Amby Burfoot (1968 Boston Marathon winner)

My family history includes heart disease and early cardiac-related death, so running literally has been a lifesaver. Since I started running, I’ve lowered my (bad) cholesterol, lowered my triglycerides, lowered my blood pressure, lowered my heart rate and lowered my weight. I’m healthier, right?

Not so fast, some doctors now say. All of that running may not be so healthy, after all. Splashed across the front page of the The Kansas City Star was a headline warning that too much running – as in, the amount of running I routinely do on a weekly basis – can kill you.

This is what, in my newspaper days, I would have called a “man bites dog” story. It’s newsworthy because it’s paradoxical and surprising and counterintuitive. And, I would add, sensationalistic and misleading.

A study reported in this month’s issue of Missouri Medicine compared the build-up of arterial plaque in 50 runners (who had run one marathon a year for the past 25 years) with an average age of 59. They found that 30 of those runners had plaque build-up. They compared these marathoners with a control group of 23 non-runners, also in excellent health, with an average age of 55. (Why was this group so much smaller and younger? Shouldn’t a control group be the same size and age?) Just as many non-runners had arterial plaque build-up. What raised red flags was the fact that the marathoners seemed to have larger plaque volume. Could too much running be the cause?

This news put marathoners in a real quandary. On one hand, we tend to obsess over statistics and studies. On the other hand, we tend to be stubbornly independent and don’t care much what other people tell us, anyway. We’re used to people thinking we’re crazy.

Is too much running too much of a good thing?

It’s important to point out, first of all, that this study did NOT compare mortality rates. The study looked at one measure of heart health. Artery plaque is a significant risk factor, of course, but there’s no way to predict with certainty who, among either group, might have a heart attack. We don’t know who will actually live longer, the runners or the non-runners, because the study didn’t address longevity. It simply reported on the prevalence of one indicator in isolation from a host of other factors. As far as I know, all of the study participants are still alive and well (and running). It might be interesting for researchers to continue following these subjects and, at some point in the future, report back to us about which group actually lives longer.

My money is on the marathoners.

Also important to point out is that other experts have stepped forward to dispute the study’s conclusions.

A Wall Street Journal article notes that “many cardiologists are skeptical.” For example, Aaron Baggish, a Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist (and marathon/triathlon athlete) is quoted:

“The science establishing a causal link between vigorous exercise and coronary disease is shaky at best.”

Ah, the “causal link.” It’s always difficult to link cause and effect. Just because two factors are present doesn’t automatically mean that one factor caused the other. One study is insufficient to demonstrate a cause-and-effect link.

I might just as credibly argue that, since the study apparently enlisted only Minneapolis-St. Paul-area runners, the cause might be something in the Minnesota water. (My assumption is based on the fact that they ran the Twin Cities Marathon every year for 25 years.) Or it might have something to do with the surprising fact that most of the marathoners were former or current smokers (52 percent of the marathoners vs. 39 percent of the non-runners).

The authors of the study (which I have completely read and partially understood) seem to tacitly admit as much. They concede that a definitive study would need to begin with a group of individuals randomly assigned to start running marathons for 25 years, while another group of individuals would be randomly assigned to remain sedentary for 25 years. Such a study is “practically impossible, and will never be done,” they rightly lament.

Without such a study, however, they have to admit:

“Thus, a cause-and-effect relationship between marathon running and accelerated coronary plaque development cannot be established.”

Whoa … didn’t they just concede the entire premise of their conclusion?

Amby Burfoot reported in a Runner’s World article:

“This clearly was not an outcomes study,” principal author Robert Schwartz told Runner’s World Newswire. “In the general population, coronary calcium is unequivocally the best predictor of cardiac events, but is the same true for marathoners? No one knows. There’s simply no data now. We need followup studies over time to get the answer.”

Seems some of the study’s authors are not nearly as adamant in their conclusions as the newspaper headlines portray. Burfoot also quotes study coauthor William Roberts, who’s also medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon:

“When the sedentary group starts shoveling snow or racing after a bus, they’re going to be at much higher risk than the runners. We don’t see marathon runners dropping dead on a regular basis at Twin Cities. I’d rather be a marathoner than one of the sedentary guys.”

Alex Hutchinson, unlike yours truly, is qualified to debate this head-to-head with researchers. Hutchinson is a former physicist and national-class runner, and a National Magazine Award-winning science journalist. He delves into the details of this and similar studies and examines the science. And he remains unpersuaded. Hutchinson argues that they are drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by the data.

Risks & Rewards

Bottom line: In running, as in everything else we do, there are risks and rewards. We measure the risks and compare the rewards to determine whether marathon running, or playing tennis, or skydiving is a suitable activity.
I still believe the rewards of marathon running far outweigh the potential risks.

Let’s assume this study is correct, that marathoners might be more likely to die from heart problems caused by arterial plaque. Nevertheless, we are a lot less likely to die from a much longer list of health problems caused by being more sedentary or overweight. The odds are still in our favor.

Running: Magic Pill Or Loaded Gun? Neither!

Natalie Diblasio, who blogs at Runner’s Breakfast, reminded me of a recent Runner’s World report about a study of Boston marathoners to determine if excessive exercise causes atherosclerosis – a disease in which plaque builds up in your arteries. She writes:

The study used 42 Boston Marathoners who had been running for 12 years, on average, and trained about 40 miles a week. The control group was their spouses – selected because they share many of the same lifestyle habits.

The result? There was no difference between the two groups.

“This should be reassuring to marathoners,” says Beth Taylor, Ph.D. told Runner’s World. “Our study suggests that while endurance running is not a ‘magic pill,’ neither is it a loaded gun. To optimally modulate their cardiovascular health, runners need to continue to focus on diet, stress reduction, other risk factors, and regular checkups.”

The study did find some pros for marathoners. The runners had significantly lower body weight, significantly lower resting heart rate and significantly lower BMI.

But the rewards of running transcend physical fitness. Some things can’t be measured by a scale or detected in a doctor’s office or quantified in a research study.

  • Rewards of running: emotional, spiritual, and mental health.
  • Rewards of running: quality of life, enjoying the outdoors, socializing with a diverse group of like-minded friends.
  • Rewards of running: releasing stress, having fun, feeling the rush of endorphins, enjoying a level of fitness that improves our performance in other endeavors.
  • Rewards of running: the self-confidence gained by setting and achieving goals, the sense of accomplishment earned by pushing yourself to run farther or faster, the thrill of crossing the finish line.

Risks of running include being bitten by a dog, or hit by a car, or (these doctors say) suffering arterial plaque build-up.

I’ll take those rewards over those risks any day.

Euphoria doesn’t mean easy

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I admire folks who not only excel in running, but find the time and talent to write about their experience. And when they not only write about their experience, but write well and engagingly, I’m doubly impressed. So let me introduce you to a couple of running writers (or, writing runners?).

And while I’m at it, let’s restore some balance to the universe.

My running pal Russell Wenz, who recently started blogging at RussellWenz.blogspot.com, admits, “I’m not gonna lie, I just might be crazy.” Like we didn’t already know that. But it’s a good kind of crazy.

Russell writes about our shared insanity with running, and this resonates with me.

People ask, “How can you run that far?” …….. I ask, “How can you not?” I question how a person can run one mile and stop. Didn’t that mile…..a mere 6-15 minutes……give you a sense of accomplishment? Wouldn’t another 6-15 minutes only double the pleasure?! Did you not feel more in tune with the world around you? A feeling of being closer to Mother Nature? Wasn’t it great to remove yourself from the daily hustle, shuffle, busy-as-a-bee lifestyle and just slow down without all the distractions? I don’t enjoy running……I LOVE it.

Russell concludes:

“Running shouldn’t be effort … it should be euphoric.”

That’s one perspective. Here’s another.

Beth Risdon has been blogging for awhile at Shut Up and Run, but I only recently stumbled upon her hilarious blog. Really, I was laughing out loud. She is way too honest, painfully blunt, comically compelling. One of her recent posts, “9 Myths About Runners,” offers a different perspective than Russell.

First Myth: “Running’s easy for us.”

I can’t tell you how many people tell me they don’t run because it is “hard.” The funny part is, they also think running must be easy for me because I run all the time. No. Running is stupid eff’ing hard. I think you just get used to being uncomfortable.

Truth is, it’s even hard for Deena Kastor and she sets records left and right. There is always someplace to go with your running. If it feels easy, then most runners will pick up the pace or run on hills. Then it just becomes hard again. For me, expecting running to be hard is the key. Then you are not so surprised or pissed off.

So, who is right? Russell or Beth? Is running euphoric, or is it hard? The answer is, yes.

Running is euphoric. Running is hard. I think Russell and Beth both would agree.

Perversely, I think the fact that running is hard is inherent to its attraction. Running draws folks who want to push themselves to go faster, to go farther, to set goals and break personal records. Running challenges us, then it possesses us.

Because even when it’s hard, running is also fun, and life-affirming, and therapeutic.

Anything worth accomplishing is hard. But the feeling of accomplishment? Euphoric.

So running is hard and euphoric.

Because euphoria doesn’t mean easy.