June 9, 2014

Things can kill you.

Every other week, "science", as portrayed by pop media outlets, collectively determines that running either will or will not kill you.

You could forgive the general public for their confusion. You could forgive them as well for their warnings, meant earnestly, that perhaps you might run less. To save your knees, yes, as always - but now your heart too. You see, every marathon - and certainly every ultra! - is like a miniature heart attack. Irreparable damage is done, and then compounded, when you continue to train hard, and race long. 

Or something like that. 

This is not to dismiss those concerns as trivial, or to suggest that they're wholly false. There certainly does seem to be a point of diminishing returns, at which point running more breaks you down to a degree that exceeds your body's recuperative abilities. And although it often seems the overworked staff writer didn't bother to read the "methods" section (or perhaps anything beyond the abstract) of the study about which they're writing, even a properly nuanced read yields the inevitable conclusion that runners are not invincible.

Alex Hutchinson is the opposite of that (admittedly too harsh stereotype), and probably the best widely read exercise science writer I know of. Although he does write for Runner's World, his review of this issue is fair and comprehensive. Read it here.

Hutchinson notes that many (maybe most) runners who adopt the label train for reasons that - while not explicitly excluding positive health outcomes - do not seek them specifically. Whether aesthetics (which is very difference from health), performance, or simply the "love of the game", many will greatly exceed the 20 miles or so a week he notes as the likely point of optimal dose/response.

I am inclined to smile at that crowd, because I am among it. And I recognize similar traits in other fitness enclaves that share my/our tendencies.

I know people who have recently done the following: Deadlifted 400+ lbs while weighing less than 200; participated in various martial arts tournaments; raced a 100 miles footrace; raced an ironman triathlon; competed in Crossfit Games regionals; completed a Spartan race; completed a 200 mile bike race; biked across Kansas; and it goes on.

I love each of these things, to the extent that someone else cares passionately about them, and devotes themselves thusly. There is probably something reassuring about it, that if I'm crazy, I'm a common enough kind of crazy.

The kind that seeks enlightenment and meaning through masochistic physical efforts? Perhaps. (Though I haven't found anything like that, and more or less gave up on the concept of "meaning" as a teenager.) The self destruction that results from these pursuits, however common, is not the goal. I don't run in order to fracture a bone in my leg any more than a friend fights in order to break her orbital bone. But these things happen.

Fight sports may seem an extreme example with which to draw a parallel, given that someone else is deliberately trying to inflict damage on another person, which is not so much the case in running. Although, haven't we all enjoyed "making them hurt" at a certain point in a race that's going well? I'm sorry if you haven't. It's a gruesome sensation, but undeniably blissful. Now of course, we only want them to experience discomfort to the point that they slow down; we don't want to injure them. That, usually, is the case with fight sports as well. You want to win, and so do they. To maim isn't the explicit goal, so much as a likely byproduct of the crucible.

Likely, knowing what we now do about brain health and concussions, is probably better phrased as "certain". A sport built around blows to the head cannot end happily.

Running - and endurance sports, more broadly -  is not that. But, while reading this today, two things occurred to me.

First, that the title structure in ultra/marathon running is similarly fractured, leaving followers of the sport to idly speculate on on overall rankings, based on arbitrary ideas about the quality of a given performance at a given event. How does one compare the winners of Hardrock to Western States? Nevermind a road 100K. And what of the sparsely attended USATF championship events? Does anyone really think Kiprotich is the world's best marathoner, even though he's won the most recent Olympics and World Championship? Perhaps it's Kipsang, the current WR holder? Or Mutai, based on his New York dominance?

Second was the much discussed injury potential. Though the evidence certainly does not confirm it at the moment, it certainly could be that chronic marathoning (or further distances) permanently damages the heart and endocrine system. Runners joke that we're the "fittest group of sick and injured people in the world", but that is dark humor. Think of the burnout rate at D1 cross country powers, or even the injury rate among your local club. Think of Roes, who followed up perhaps the most dominant stretch in 100 mile mountain racing history with years off from training and racing, laid low by a still undiagnosed malady. Think of Salazar and Beardsley destroying themselves - and each other - at Boston. I cannot help but think of the multiple ambulances I saw racing to the lake this Sunday - the site of Lawrence's annual half ironman.

Some would suggest, based on such things, that we're not "meant" to run long distances. We can ignore for a moment the endurance hunting hypothesis of human evolution, and say simply that we're "meant" to keep the species moving. Nothing more. Evolution is not a benevolent god that cares for your happiness, desires, or comfort. We can further note that we're perhaps "evolved" to (though I hate that phrasing; we don't evolve to do something, we evolve in response to pressures) get punched in the face, and that, as established, is not at all good for us. (Yes, I do think that's a little silly. And certainly - sadly, typically - male centered.)

So what, then, are we to do? I haven't a clue. This isn't an opinion piece, and was never intended to appear as such. Just words, which have percolated and congealed into something.

To the extent that I have an opinion, it's this: Educate yourself perpetually. Then do whatever you want. 


  1. Thanks for the link to the "Will Running Too Much Kill You" article. I'd been hoping that someone had refuted that study, esp. since my wife was the one to point it out to me. Hope you run pain-free when you're ready to go again!

    1. Thanks. I'm hoping that will be soon. Another week or two, perhaps? We'll see.