Sam Peterman is a sophomore in high school near Buffalo who runs track. She also has a condition called neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS) that causes her to faint after every race she runs, right into the waiting arms of her father soon after she crosses the finish line.
Dr. Blair Grubb, a professor at the University of Toledo who has studied syncope extensively, characterized NCS in a 2005 article in The New England Journal of Medicine as the autonomic nervous system’s failure to keep blood pressure high enough to maintain consciousness.
Physical activity, he said, pools blood in the lower half of the body, reducing blood flow to the heart. In response, the heart pumps more vigorously. In people with NCS, the brain misreads that as high blood pressure and tries to lower the pressure, which leads to decreased blood flow to the brain and, thus, fainting.
Peterman often does not remember the ends of races — she blacked out the last 60 meters of a recent race — which has prompted her father to wonder why she faints after races and not during. See also No pain, possible gain. (via @atul_gawande)
I am not a runner so I didn’t think I would find this exploration into the conditions under which a 2-hour marathon could occur that interesting. I was incorrect.
Between 1990 (the first year in which data was available) and 2011, the average male marathoner ranked in the top 100 that year shrank by 1.3 inches and 7.5 pounds. Smaller runners have less weight to haul around, yes. But they’re also better at heat dissipation; thanks to greater skin surface area relative to their weight, they can sustain higher speeds (and thus, greater internal heat production) without overheating and having to slow down. Despite our sub-two runner’s short frame, he’ll also have disproportionately long legs that help him cover ground and unusually slender calves that require less energy to swing than heavier limbs.
Runners shed heat through their skin, so bigger runners should have an advantage, right? Indeed, a 6’ 3” marathoner can dissipate 32 percent more heat than a 5’ 3” athlete with the same BMI. But heat generation rises faster in bigger runners because mass increases quicker than skin area. So at the same effort, the 6’ 3” guy ends up producing 42 percent more heat than his shorter peer-and overheating sooner.
The piece includes a favorite old chestnut of mine, man vs. horse:
Horses are still much quicker at distance, but humans are still improving.
Update: At the 2014 Berlin Marathon, Dennis Kimetto set a new world record, lowering the mark under 2:03 for the first time. (via @brzeski)
That is a bespoke running shoe made by a small company started by Hitoshi Mimura, who is considered one of the top shoe designers in the world. Mimura had great success at Asics, outfitting Olympic gold medal runners with shoes lighter, grippier, and more breathable than those worn by competitors, but now he has struck out on his own.
“I take 13 measurements of the foot, each foot has to be measured separately,” explains the sensei of shoemaking. “I only trust hand-measuring. Currently, each shoe takes about three weeks to make, mainly due to determining which materials to use.” Preparation is also key. “For a world championships or Olympics I check the course once or twice. I went to Beijing three times.”
A NY Times feature on Mimura written before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing emphasized the designer’s reliance on rice husks in the soles for grippiness. Mimura takes his job and his responsibility to the runners very seriously:
Surreptitiously, Mimura made soles of two slightly different thicknesses, to compensate for the fact that Takahashi’s left leg was eight millimeters — about a third of an inch — longer than her right leg. She had tried a pair of the uneven soles before the Sydney Olympics, but felt uncomfortable.
Still, Mimura felt Takahashi needed such shoes to win and to avoid a recurrence of pain caused by the disparity in her legs. Without Takahashi’s knowledge, Mimura gave her the uneven soles, then wrote a letter of resignation, in case she failed to win gold.
“I decided to take full responsibility because I made this pair against her wishes,” Mimura said of the letter. “I didn’t have to hand it over. It’s still in my desk.”
That is belief in yourself and in your craft. Many people believe in “giving people not what they want but what they need” but how many of them will put their livelihood on the line for it?
Three years ago, Kayla Montgomery was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Faced with the prospect of being confined to a wheelchair someday, Montgomery, one of the slower runners on her high school cross country team, told her coach she was short on time and wanted to run faster. Now she’s one of the fastest runners in the country and perhaps the MS has something to do with it.
Kayla Montgomery, 18, was found to have multiple sclerosis three years ago. Defying most logic, she has gone on to become one of the fastest young distance runners in the country — one who cannot stay on her feet after crossing the finish line.
Because M.S. blocks nerve signals from Montgomery’s legs to her brain, particularly as her body temperature increases, she can move at steady speeds that cause other runners pain she cannot sense, creating the peculiar circumstance in which the symptoms of a disease might confer an athletic advantage.
But intense exercise can also trigger weakness and instability; as Montgomery goes numb in races, she can continue moving forward as if on autopilot, but any disruption, like stopping, makes her lose control.
“When I finish, it feels like there’s nothing underneath me,” Montgomery said. “I start out feeling normal and then my legs gradually go numb. I’ve trained myself to think about other things while I race, to get through. But when I break the motion, I can’t control them and I fall.”
Montgomery’s story reminds me of ultra-endurance racer Jure Robic, particularly this bit in a NY Times profile:
Researchers, however, have long noted a link between neurological disorders and athletic potential. In the late 1800’s, the pioneering French doctor Philippe Tissie observed that phobias and epilepsy could be beneficial for athletic training. A few decades later, the German surgeon August Bier measured the spontaneous long jump of a mentally disturbed patient, noting that it compared favorably to the existing world record. These types of exertions seemed to defy the notion of built-in muscular limits and, Bier noted, were made possible by “powerful mental stimuli and the simultaneous elimination of inhibitions.”
Questions about the muscle-centered model came up again in 1989 when Canadian researchers published the results of an experiment called Operation Everest II, in which athletes did heavy exercise in altitude chambers. The athletes reached exhaustion despite the fact that their lactic-acid concentrations remained comfortably low. Fatigue, it seemed, might be caused by something else.
In 1999, three physiologists from the University of Cape Town Medical School in South Africa took the next step. They worked a group of cyclists to exhaustion during a 62-mile laboratory ride and measured, via electrodes, the percentage of leg muscles they were using at the fatigue limit. If standard theories were true, they reasoned, the body should recruit more muscle fibers as it approached exhaustion — a natural compensation for tired, weakening muscles.
Instead, the researchers observed the opposite result. As the riders approached complete fatigue, the percentage of active muscle fibers decreased, until they were using only about 30 percent. Even as the athletes felt they were giving their all, the reality was that more of their muscles were at rest. Was the brain purposely holding back the body?
“It was as if the brain was playing a trick on the body, to save it,” says Timothy Noakes, head of the Cape Town group. “Which makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. In fatigue, it only feels like we’re going to die. The actual physiological risks that fatigue represents are essentially trivial.”
Update: While still in middle school, thirteen-year-old Amaris Tyynismaa is putting up some of the best distance running times in the country against high school competition. And she does it in spite of, or perhaps, because of battling with Tourette syndrome since she was a little girl.
Some athletes with TS attribute near-magical powers to their condition. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of last year’s U.S. World Cup soccer team, says that TS has given him vision and reflexes that other players simply don’t have. Famed physician Oliver Sacks once wrote about a ping-pong player whose abnormal quickness and ability to knock back unreturnable shots, he believed, had to be connected to TS. One reason is that people with Tourette’s also tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Amaris included). They need to repeat behaviors-whether it’s preventing balls from going into the net or running improbably long distances-until they do it just right. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have,” Sacks told a reporter last year, “but if one has Tourette’s, there are advantages.” New research out of the University of Nottingham shows that the brains of TS patients are physically different from everyone else’s, transformed by years of operating under much greater than normal resistance and better at controlling the body.
Neurologists at the Tourette Syndrome Association aren’t quite ready to embrace a connection between TS and superior athleticism. They are more comfortable saying that people with TS often see their symptoms subside when they’re playing sports or otherwise engaged in something that focuses their attention away from the urge to tic.
Soccer quieted the noise in Amaris’ head. After taking up the game, she began to tic less off the field. She did better in school. She talked more. Actually, she talked a lot, like she does now. In her last game in England, she scored three goals and the other kids lifted her up on their shoulders and carried her around. She would have had a major problem with that just months before-too many germs-but she loved it.
Tired of all the lies, Allison Robicelli finally discovers the awful truth about jogging.
I despise everything about running. I hate the New York City Marathon, which bisects my neighborhood every year, making my commute to work or any theoretical trips to the emergency room completely impossible. I hate people who are constantly posting about running over on Facebook, casually humblebragging about how they fit in a “quickie 5K” between picking up the dry cleaning and the children. I hate 5Ks, even though, where I live, they usually conclude with free beer and six-foot-long heroes (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: Turning Everything into an Excuse for Day-Drinking Since 1853). I hate “fun runs” because, seriously, fuck you.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer officially entered the Boston Marathon, which was an all-male event at the time. Two miles in, race officials caught their mistake and one of them tried to remove her from the course. Switzer’s boyfriend intervened on her behalf:
She finished the race but was later disqualified. (via mlkshk)
Here’s a photo of three gentlemen running in the first Olympic marathon in 1896 attired in what looks like street clothes.
This was the second modern running of the marathon; the first was a pre-Olympic qualifying race held a month before. In the Olympic race, seventeen competitors started the race and only about half finished. The winning time was just under three hours and the third place finisher was disqualified for covering “part of the course by carriage”. I would also not be surprised if the three fellows in the photo above stopped off for a coffee and some painting along the way.
If you’re running the NYC marathon tomorrow, have an iPhone, and are a Foursquare user, 4SQ CEO Dennis Crowley has the low-down on how to track your progress throughout the race by auto-checking-in to 4SQ at all the mile markers.
I’m going to use Mayor Maker tomorrow during the NYC Marathon to auto check me in to every mile marker as I run past them. I’ll be running w/ my iPhone in my pocket (with GPS turned on). Every time I run over a mile checkpoint, Mayor Maker will send that checkin to foursquare and foursquare will send it back out to Facebook and Twitter. Cool, right?
Even when jogging for fun, many male runners won’t let themselves be passed.
When I asked a male friend what he feels like when he’s passed, he said, “I don’t get passed.” Then he admitted that the reason he’s gotten in such good shape recently is so he won’t get passed. Another friend says that if he hears someone on his heels, he sprints. And if he passes someone, he also has to sprint, to keep from getting passed back.
Dennis Crowley has some nice ideas for what to do with a GPS- and internet-enabled device with running software on it (e.g. Nike+ on an iPhone).
#3. Ghost racers. Think: Super Mario Kart time-trials, except you’re running against a ghost version of your best time on the map. I know the Garmin already does this, but make it social… show me the best times of my friends or other local users.
Over at Stingy Kids, Adriana has a thoughtful and link-filled post about South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius is a double-amputee who runs on carbon fiber blades in place of his lower legs; here’s a video of him running in a 400m race. Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Pistorius can compete for a spot in the Beijing Olympics against “able-bodied” athletes, which overturned a previous ruling that he could not compete because his blades give him a mechanical advantage.
What’s clear is that the seemingly politically correct replacement of “disabled” with “differently abled” is not only warranted but perhaps doesn’t go far enough. How about “super abled” or “superbly abled”? Lengthen or add a bit more spring to those blades and Pistorius may win every race handily and take first in the high jump to boot.
Pistorius is not the first athlete with super abilities. Steroids and HGH are outlawed in most sports because it’s felt they give too much advantage. Baseball pitchers routinely opt for something called Tommy John surgery, many athletes get laser eye surgery to improve their vision, and many more potential augmentation schemes are right around the corner. And lest you think this is just about sports, maybe the guy in the next cubicle over is regularly taking Provigil to improve his memory, concentration, and his chances at that promotion you wanted.
Amateur runners, cyclists, and triathletes are starting to choose to compete in lesser-known smaller races in order to have a better chance of placing higher in the results. “Some are trying to gain an edge by finding where the fast racers aren’t. Instead of training harder, they’re spending hours online to scout out the field, and they’re driving hundreds of miles to race against thin competition in out-of-the-way places.”
Why are the records in swimming being broken at such a great pace while those for, say, track and field are more sturdy? More time and money is available for swimming now, meaning that its participants are improving quicker…as opposed to running, which hit its time and money growth spurt awhile ago.
If you’re running on a treadmill in Bismarck, North Dakota or Flagstaff Arizona or while orbiting the earth, are you really running the Boston Marathon?
Quote of the day, from a friend who ran the marathon: “I feel like I’m rolling a katamari of happiness and can no longer distinguish its parts.”
Marathon runners, remember this name: Gabriel Sherman. Mr. Sherman runs marathons (6!) but doesn’t want you to run in any, believing that you slow johnnys-come-lately to the scene have ruined the marathon:
Among autumn’s sporting rituals there is one tradition that fills me with mounting dread: the return of marathon season. If you’ve been to the gym or attended a cocktail party recently, you know what I mean. Chances are you’ve bumped into a newly devoted runner who’s all too happy to tell you about his heart-rate monitor and split times and the looming, character-building challenge of running 26.2 miles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a slovenly couch potato who abhors exercise. I’m an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers. But this growing army of giddy marathon rookies is so irksome that I’m about ready to retire my racing shoes and pick up bridge.
Several people I know have either run a marathon or are training for an upcoming one and, while it may sound trite, the experience has made them better people in a way that the “elevated sense of self-worth” that Mr. Sherman sniffs about in the article doesn’t begin to describe. (What’s more, those that have run a marathon are training smartly to beat their previous time.) Mr. Sherman rightly notes the health problems that running a marathon holds for the ill-prepared, but why exclude from a marathon people who are avid, well-trained runners who happen to be slow? Why should the almighty institution of The Marathon™ be more important than the people running in it? And why doesn’t he want more people to enjoy a sport that he loves? Should we implore Mr. Sherman to stop writing because he’s ruining journalism with his shallow, insubstantial articles? Hell no! Keep writing, Mr. Sherman…we’ll keep reading in the hopes that you’ll one day improve and recognize the importance of, every once in awhile, doing something for which you’re not ideally suited because you *want* to.