Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Wait Three Weeks . . . and then Get Going!

     If you thought I'd hang up my running shoes after that last post I did, for once in your life you thought wrong!  I'm too stubborn to do that.  After 54 years of distance running through hell and high water, ya think I'm going to stop now?
     For one thing, I'm pretty good at recovery.  Genetically, I'm one of those lucky people whose knees hold up over the years, even after I take knee-bashing face plants like the one I took at the JFK 50-Mile last month.  For another thing, I'm especially good at rationalization.  If things go badly, I'll find a reason why--come hell or high water--and learn from it, and go on from there.
     As it turns out, I think I've figured out what went awry at the JFK 50.  Two things went wrong, and both have to do with my legs--not totally surprising, if you consider that without fully functioning legs, running would be pretty hard.  Ask any snail.
     The first thing was that about three weeks before the race, my right leg got a little swollen and sore along the big vein that runs up the inner thigh from the knee.  I might have shrugged it off, except that my younger brother, Alex, had recently gone to a doctor with a similar condition--in his case the whole leg was swollen--and had been diagnosed with "deep vein thrombosis" (DVT), a blood clot deep in the lower leg that can be a serious threat to life and limb.  Apparently, if a clot like that breaks loose and travels to the lungs, it can be fatal. 
     So, I decided to get my leg checked out.  My diagnosis turned out to be similar to Alex's, though less severe. But it still posed the same threat, to a lesser degree.  I was put on a prescription blood thinner for 10 days, and the swelling gradually subsided.  I never had to interrupt my running.  After the JFK, I didn't think that ailment had been a factor.  (I still finished 2nd in my age division, but nearly two hours slower than I'd planned.  Boy, did I make God laugh with that plan.)  But now, having invoked my expertise at rationalization, I've decided it was.  My brother had been on a blood thinner for six months by then, and his leg was still a little swollen, so evidently this is a condition that doesn't subside overnight--not even the "superficial vein thrombosis" (SVT) that I was told I had.  In the race, I think I must not have been getting quite the full circulation of blood I'd trained for.
     The other factor was that face-plant I took when I tripped over an unexpected rocky patch that was lurking under a blanket of fallen leaves.  When I went down, my knee smacked one of the rocks and bled, but I was able to get up and keep going.  But this time, unlike in previous falls I've had over the years, the knee didn't bounce back withgin a few days.  For a week after the race, it hurt enough to make me wonder if I'd chipped or cracked a bone, and I considered going for an x-ray.  But then I thought, if it is a damaged bone, what's the doctor going to do?  He'll say (so to speak), "Give it time to heal before you start running again. Two hundred dollars, please."  So a waited a little longer.  After three weeks, I felt comfortable running again, and realized there'd been no lasting damage.  But the bone had taken quite a bruising, and after another five hours of running following the fall (and no stopping to clean or apply antiseptic), it may have been fairly stressed.  Now it's OK.
     So there,m I've tied it up quite neatly.  No longer baffled, no longer discouraged, I'm back into running.  Wait 'till next year!
     One coda to this post, which I can't resist because it's a good illustration of my thesis that endurance--the kind of endurance that is one of the keys to human survival in the very long run--is not just about what you can do in 3 or 8 or 24 hours, but what you do over a lifetime.  My brother Alex (aka Glenn) and I are, as far as I can determine, the only pair of brothers ever to finish in the top 10 at the New York Marathon in the same year(1970), and here we are 41 years later, both still running and still loving it.  Neither one of us is about to let DVT or SVT--orthe DMV or anything else--stop us now. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

I Got Whupped

     In my last post, I said I'd do something terrific at the JFK 50-Mile.  What I ended up doing was a terrific disappointment.  I won't say embarrassment, because this is way beyond embarrassment.  It's what I'll euphemistically call a "peak learning experience."
     I predicted that I'd win my age division at the race on November 19, and that I'd break Anthony Cerminaro's over-70 record of 9:09.  Ouch.
     First, a little comic moment: When I finally did cross the finish line, the announcer on the p.a. system said, "Here's Ed Ayres, our 1977 JFK champion, and now our first finisher in the over-70 division . . . congratulations, Ed!"  I should stop the story right there, but....  I winced, and it wasn't because I had stopped running and now maybe my left leg would never bend again.  I knew, from what the clock told me, that there was no way I could have finished ahead of Tony Cerminaro, or even near him. 
     Put it this way: If you'd told me before the race that Cerminaro would have what he later told me was an "awful" day and had finished over an hour slower than his record, I'd have said, "I bet I'll beat him by an hour and a half!"  So, after the announcer inexplicably said I'd won the division, I went to the wall where they were posting the results (which wouldn't lie, because we wore chips on our shoes), to look for Tony's name and confirm what I already knew.  I noticed a rugged-looking, white-haired guy who was also peering at the same part of the posting, sort of squinting--said he couldn't see very well without his glasses.  There was something about him.  I asked, "What's your name?  I can help find it."
     "Anthony Cerminaro."
     "Funny thing," I said.  "That's the same name I'm looking for!"  I had never met Tony.  I told him that they had announced at the finish line that I had won the division, but that I knew it couldn't be.  "I just came over here to confirm that," I said. 
     "No," Tony said.  "You must have been way ahead of me.  I had an awful run."
     But as the results confirmed, I had been more awful than he.  Tony had finished nearly half an hour ahead of me.  More to the point (this is the part that's really hard to write), I'd been about 2 hours slower than the time I'd planned to run.  And over 4 hours slower than I'd run this race in my 30s. 
     So, what happened?  I honestly don't know,but I did think of three possible explanations (not excuses).
     1.  The knee?  Somehow I got through the notoriously rocky Appalachian Trail sections without a face-plant this year--then about two hours later did a face plant on the C&O Canal Towpath, where the footing is so good and the rocks are so few that I guess I stopped watching for them.  In all my previous runs on this course, I'd never taken a fall on the Towpath.  But somehow, Saturday, my feet managed to find a place where a thick cover of fallen leaves covered a few rocks, I tripped, and down I went--gashing my left knee.  The problem with this explanation, though, is that I'd been feeling inexplicably awful even before the fall, which may even have been a factor in the fall. I think I'd been getting a little woozy.  By 25 miles, I'd been thinking about actually dropping out.  So, although the knee might have made the situation worse (today I'm limping), it can't be the main cause.
     2.  Heavy stress in my personal life?  Again, this is not an excuse.  To me, excuses for bad performances or broken promises are a big turnoff.  I mention this only because it might be useful for other runners to consider what stress can do.  I won't go into details.  But I know that a lot of people are deeply distressed these days, and it might have more of an effect on performance--whether at work, at home, or in sports--than we realize.
     3.  Aging?  My good friend Jim Hall, a Methodist minister and family counselor whom I coached through his first marathon (Boston) many years ago, and who has said it changed his life, is the guy who waited for me at the finish line Saturday.  Jim is now 82, and after I told him how mystified I was about my ordeal (and how sorry I was that he'd had to wait for over 2 hours past the time I suggested he be there), he gently suggested that maybe aging is more of a factor in the slowing of the body than we want to believe.  (Jim had done a half-marathon a couple of weeks ago, and was quite content to walk it.) 
     I agreed that maybe I'd been in denial, but here too, it didn't entirely explain what happened.  For one thing, Tony Cerminaro is older than I, so it was the older guy who'd won our little competition-within-the-competition.
     And then there was that little experience I had in the final five miles, where I felt like I was in a Soviet forced march across Siberia, trying not to pass out.  As I shuffled along, runner after runner streamed past.  And then, also passing, was a little old lady who looked like one of those curly-white-haired women you might see playing canasta or whatever it is they play in the game room of an assisted-living facility.  And next to her, a much larger, old white-haired man like you might expect to see in the VFW lodge, explaining that he has to walk with a cane now because his knee had been shot out at the Battle of the Bulge, in WW II. 
     The white-haired couple were discussing their strategy for the final miles.  The last 8 miles of the JFK are on a rolling country road, and since coming off the Towpath they'd been walking the uphills and running the downhills and flats.  The man, who apparently had run this race 20 or 30 times, said to her that if they continued going as they were, they could make their time goal.  "If we go any faster, we won't."
     Somehow, hearing that aroused the very last ounce of competitiveness in me.  I don't like the now popular strategy of interspersing walking breaks with the running (we never did that, back in the day), but since leaving the Towpath and hitting that first hill, I'd had no alternative.  Or my courage had failed and I'd just given up.  So I had been walking the uphills just like this couple, for the past 3 miles.  But when they decided on their plan (to just keep on keeping on, so to speak), I saw an opportunity.  (I feel awful writing this; it makes me feel like a vulture.)  Instead of walking the uphills, I'd now "run" them!  "Wobble" is more like it, but that was what I did.  And I eventually finished ahead of them, even though I'm pretty sure I'm older than they.  So aging, too, can't be the whole explanation for my ordeal.
     In the last mile, I passed a group of five or six runners who were walking, talking as if they were out for a stroll in the park.  My impression is that  even ultrarunners who walk intermittently as part of a pacing strategy don't generally do that in the last mile or two--the last mile is where you stop conserving whatever you have left and go for broke.  But this group evidently had a different approach.  It had been a perfect day for running (sunny, cool, no wind, and beautiful vistas all the way) and they had obviously been enjoying their companionship and weren't going to interrupt it with a pointless dash to the finish.  The age-group winners in all their divisions had finished hours earlier, no doubt.  What did it matter of one of them finished 514th instead of 517th?
     Here too, I saw a competitive opportunity, old hungry wolf that I am.  I toddled past them, exhausted and nauseous, but intent on beating them to the finish line.  Why?  My chance for a meaningful competition had died on the trail five hours ago.  But if a half-starved, three-legged dog that had to stop every few seconds to sit down and use one of its three remaining legs to scratch its fleas had limped out on the road and headed for the finish line banner, I'd have raced to beat it.
     So, as I say, this was a peak learning experience.  Competitiveness can be a gift, but also a curse.  With my 54-plus consecutive years of competitive long-distance running, I may be the most experienced runner in America.  But when it comes to the rewards of running with friends, enjoying the adventure and camaraderie of doing something truly difficult together, I'm just a beginner.  I envied the old couple who ran together, and I felt wistful about the group of younger men and women who so exuberantly shared the experience of running 50 miles on a gorgeous day, and whom I had so intently passed in that final mile.  I'm guessing that they know better than I what it is to really live.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

At JFK, I'm Out to Run the Way Ali Boxed!

     There's a powerful force we can call on in sports, which is rarely used thesed days but which I'm now ready to use.  I doubt that Muhammad Ali was the first to invoke it, but I don't know of any athlete who ever deployed it with more nerve and verve.  I'm referring to the power that's unleashed when you take the risk of predicting, with no hesitation or reservation, that you are going to do something fantastic.
     From the moment he appeared on the world's athletic stage in the 1960s, the young Cassius Clay--who later renamed himself Ali--provoked as much uproar with his mouth as with his fist.  Though he was America's most formidable fighter, he refused to support the misguided fighting in Vietnam--and said so publicly.  "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."  He was stripped of his title and not allowed to box for four years in his prime, but he never relented.  And when he returned, though he made his living as a boxer, he declined to abide by the rule that you never provoke an opponent lest you provoke him to a fiercer performance than you'd otherwise have to deal with.  Ali liked to provoke, and did so with panache.
     In the decades since, most top athletes have been far more circumspect.  Part of it may be cultural: the rebelliousness and nonconformity of the '60s and '70s receded into the conservativism of the '80s and '90s,  And part of it may have been the"locker-room bulletin-board" phenomenon--the now common practice of seizing on the comment of any forthcoming opponent who does say something provocative, and posting it as a spur to heightened motivation.  These days, athletes are cautioned by their sponsors, agents, managers, coaches, and owners (yes, these pro athletes are owned) not to say anything that might spur an opponent.  Even Superbowl quarterbacks and NBA All Stars who grew up taunting their playmates with "your mother" jokes now know well enough to keep their mouths shut.,  When top jocks are asked by reporters whether they're going to whup their opponents, they almost never say they will, the way Ali did.  Instead, they mumble polite, forgettable cliches like "He's really tough, and I'm going to have to really get out there and, you know, do my best." 
     What's unfortunately overlooked in this enforced non-offensiveness, I think, is that holding back in what you say may result in some subconscious moderation in what you do.  "Attitude" isn't just about how you feel and what you say.  The word "attitude" is a dead metaphor, originally referring to a physical stance.  Taking the sting out of what you feel or say before a big game, or race--pulling your punches--could subconsciously take some of the sting out of what you do in the competition itself.
     Ali never pulled his punches.  He stung like a bee!
     As it happens, I'm about the same age as Ali.  I just turned 70; he turns 70 in January.  I still remember, with admiration, the ballsy candor he had when we were young. And now, suddenly, I've had an inspiration. As an amateur athlete in a relatively unpublicized sport, I don't have to worry about upsetting sponsors.  I don't have any sponsors.  So, why should I, like all those corporate athletes, be constrained by the enforced false modesty we see in 21st-century spectator sports?  The only reason I can think of, for guys like me, is that we're afraid that if we think we're ready to do something big and say so publicly, and then fail to do what we said, we'll be terribly embarrassed.  But if holding back in expression might also mean subconsciously falling short in performance, are we condemning ourselves to falling short for the whole rest of our athletic lives?  At age 70, how many chances do I have left?
     On November 19 (just over two weeks from now, as I write), I'm running the JFK 50-Mile, America's largest and oldest ultra.  I'll be entering the 70-79 age division, and--here goes--I'm out to win the division and break the age group record.  Winning won't be easy, because there are 10 very tough guys entered in the division, and one of them is Anthony Cerminaro, a former over-60 winner of the Boston Marathon.  Cerminaro also holds the age group record of 9:09, and since the race is now in its 49th year, that's not a soft record.  But I'm not just going to say "I hope to break it."  To paraphrase Mae West, "hope" has nothing to do with it.  I'm going to break it.
     There, I said it.  The results should be posted on the JFK website on November 20 or 21, so, life being what it is, it's possible that I'll end up very embarrassed.  But I'm now going into my 55th consecutive year of competing in long-distance races, and God only knows how much longer I have.  If ever I'm going to put it all on the line, it's now.
     I met Muhammad Ali once in the 1980s, at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon.  I was there to report on the event for Running Times, and when I climbed up on the photographers' platform overlooking the starting area, there was Ali, who'd been brought in to fire the starting gun.  I shook his hand and asked, awkwardly, "So, what do you think of all these thousands of people warming up to run 26 miles?"  I supposed (because by then we were well into those PR-conscious years) that he'd say something politely appropriate to the ceremonial nature of his presence, such as "It's a great thing, it's inspiring!"  Instead, Ali fixed me with that baleful stare he'd so often laid on reporters, and replied, "They got to be crazy!"
     I laughed.  I knew it was just a little jab, but it was a Muhammad Ali jab, and I was still on my feet!  On November 19, I'll be bouncing on my feet at the starting line in Boonsboro, Maryland, and for the next 9 hours and 8 minutes or less, I'll be leaping rocks like a butterfly, floating like a bee, liberated from inhibition, and still crazy after all these years.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"What Ever Became Of...?" -- A Few Answers

     This is a followup to the September post in which I listed a lot of runners I hadn't seen or heard word of for years, or in some cases, decades.  Some were great stars, whose names had long ago dropped out of the news; others were guys I'd run with, long ago.  Here's what I learned from readers' responses.
     Two of the names I listed were stars who rocked the world when I was a young teen, and inspired me to become a runner:  Roger Bannister, who broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile in 1954, when I was an impressionable 13-year-old, and John Landy, the Australian who soon ran a sub-4 mile of his own and became Bannister's great rival.  Bannister's feat so galvanized the world that he was made a knight, by Queen Elizabeth II.  The day after my post, Jim Ferstle e-mailed me that "Sir Roger Bannister is alive and well in the UK" and that "John Landy was alive and well when I was in Australia in 1999."  My old friend Rich Englehardt, who, was a Washington Running Club teammate of mine in the 1970s, e-mailed that Landy became the governor of one of the states in Australia, and is now retired there.
     Among some guys I listed not because they were famous but because they were stars in the New Jersey high-school cross-country and track world where I got my start, just three were mentioned in any of the responses I received.  One was Mike Sabino, who ran for Plainfield High School, a rival of my Westfield, NJ team, and who decades later became one of the top masters runners in the East.  Sabino had an enviably fluid, quick-striding form that I was still trying to emulate 50 years after we'd both graduated.  After all those years, I was still wondering whether I might someday catch Mike in a race, when an e-mail from Greg Tsoucalas, forwarded by Kathleen Carmody, informed me that "Unfortunately, Mike Sabino and Herb Lorenz [another guy I'd listed] have both passed away...."  I'd been afraid, from the day I wrote it, that my "What Ever Became of" post might bring a shock or two like this.  No matter how often we're reminded that we are all mortal, it still somehow comes as a shock--maybe especially when mortality claims those whom we only knew as young athletes of seemingly superhuman capability.  In my admittedly sketchy memory, Herb Lorenz, who ruled the roads in the South Jersey/Philadelphia area, never lost a race.  As for Mike Sabino, maybe it's just a coincidence, but a few days after I got Greg's message, I was looking at trail-running shoes on line, and noticed that Montrail has a model called the Sabino.  Was that a tribute to Mike?
     Rich Englehardt sent news of several of the others I'd listed from my New Jersey, New York, and Washington, DC years, as well.  I'd listed Gary Muhrke and Tom Fleming, the two runners who  finished ahead of me in the inaugural New York Marathon in 1970, and Rich wrote that Gary "still runs a bit and made a pile of money from his Super Runner Shop in the New York City area," and that "Fleming is teaching and coaching in Joisey.  He doesn't run but plays basketball."  Rich also had news of Tom Osler, the pioneer ultrarunner of the 1960s who coined the term "long slow distance" (LSD, the secret of the runner's high).  He said Osler "is in Joisey, teaching math at Rowan University and still running slowly.  He had a couple of strokes several years ago and now has a pacemaker and isn't allowed to run hard, but still eases through a lot of races...."
     Along with people I'd run with personally, I listed some of the great runners of the 20th century whom I'd not heard anything about for decades.  Jim Ferstle told me that the former world marathon record-holder Rob DeCastella is still living in Australia, and Rich Englehardt added that "Deek" was at Boston last April, and that "he's big" and "I think he does some sort of martial arts thing now."  Ferstle reported that "Joanie" (1984 Olympic marathon champ Joan Benoit Samuelson) is still in Portland, Maine, and that Alex Ratelle (one of the past century's greatest masters runners), "last time I saw him, five years ago, was struggling with Alzheimer's."
     Katie Wolpert, of my old magazine Running Times, e-mailed that the Olympic marathoner Julie Isphording "is living in Cincinnati and directs the enormous Thanksgiving Day 10k there every November."  Katie also caught me up on the legendary masters runner Norm Green, whom she noted the magazine profiled in 2010.  Green had run a 2:27:42 marathon at age 55, making him the oldest American to break 2:30.  Assuming he's still living in Chesterfield, PA, where he was when the magazine last had contact with him, Norm should now be 79 years old.  He's a continuing inspiration to me, as I enter the 70-79 age group at the JFK 50-Mile next month.
     The most surprising response I got was from a guy my own age who recalled running against some of the New Jersey high-school runners I'd listed from half a century ago.  Richard Koenigsberg, who'd run for Columbia High School in Essex County, NJ, had finished second to the great Bobby Mack (another of my listees) in the Essex County cross-country championship in 1958. (Can you  say "1958"?)  Richard's name seemed familiar, and then I remembered why.  Out of a whole lifetime of competitive running, I can recall just a few actual, specific, moments--moments that for one reason or another will be registered in my mental album for as long as I live.  About 53 years ago this month, the Westfield High School cross-country team had a meet coming up against powerful Columbia High and its undefeated runner Dick Koenigsberg.  I was scared, because I was the leading runner on the Westfield team but lacked self-confidence and tended to get too tense--and to tighten up--under pressure.  My father had very recently taught me a trick of relaxation, and it had been an epiphany: if the muscles are loose and relaxed, they can perform far better than if they're tight.  In the race with Columbia, Dick Koenigsberg took the lead as expected, but about half-way through the race I remembered my father's advice and went into the ultra-relaxed state he had suggested.  Suddenly, I found myself passing the guy I'd been so afraid of, and that moment is still with me as if it were yesterday.  A newspaper clip in my album of high school exploits confirms that I finished 30 yards ahead of Koenigsberg, although I have no memory of the  finish itself, only that one moment of passing--and passage.
     I e-mailed Richard Koenigsberg back, reminding him of that race.  In responding to my post, he hadn't connected my name to his own running at first, but with my reminder he recalled that before the Westfield meet that year his coach had told his team that Westfield's top runner was a really bad-ass guy.  Now, 53 years later, he replied to my reminder: "So you are the evil Ed Ayres!"  With the perspective of age, he seemed amused by his coach's characterization of me.  After another exchange of e-mails, it seemed to me that if we'd met under different circumstances, we'd probably have been good friends.  But the 1950s were the decade after the end of World War II, and maybe the way coaches primed their young men for an athletic competition then wasn't unlike the way military officers prepared soldiers for battle.  In sports like football or boxing or hockey, maybe it's that way still.  But now, more than half a century after my race with Richard, he told me that despite his coach's exhortations, "It's funny, I never felt competitive toward the people I ran against.  I wanted ro win and do the best for myself, but I rarely thought of 'beating' the other guy....  I knew they had to go through the same thing [as I] to get where they were."  When I read this, I thought, "What an amazing thing the Internet has given us--the opportunity not only to reconnect with long-lost friends but to have second chances at making connections we'd failed to make half a lifetime ago.
     Before I forget, there was one response, from Paul Schuster, noting that I'd made a mistake about Gerry Lindgren.  I had written, in my opening paragraph, that the legendary Lindgren had set a national high-school 2 mile record that stood for 40 years.  Schuster wrote that incredible as that record was, it had actually been broken long ago.
     Finally, an update on a guy named Bob Zoellick, who was an occasional training partner of mine in the 1970s, when we were both in Washington, DC.  Bob didn't have great running form, but was tough enough to run marathons in the 2:30s on sheer guts.  Bob, I learned, is now president of the World Bank.  And that gives me an idea, now that people are marching in the streets against the big banks.  Instead of just Occupy Wall Street, why don't those of us who've been cast aside in the global rich-poor divide--whether we be Americans, Arabs, Africans, or Asians--decide the time has come to Occupy the World?  When we runners are out on the trail, isn't it obvious that this world is ours to enjoy and protect just as much as it is David Koch's or the hedge-fund billionaires' or the King of Saudi Arabia's?  When it comes to saving the oceans, the atmosphere, and the tops of Appalachian mountains now being lopped off for coal, Bob Z, here's a suggestion from your old running buddy:  You need to redirect some of that World Bank money!

Monday, September 26, 2011

5 Hour Energy? Not even 5 minutes!

     If you've been on this planet recently, you can't have failed to notice all those "energy" drinks taking over whole shelves of the supermarkets or convenience stores.  And if you're a reasonably knowledgeable long-distance runner, maybe you've looked at the ingredients and wondered, how can this be?
     The answer:  It can't be.
     Then again, maybe you haven't bothered to read the ingredients lists because you long ago became resigned to the reality that advertising and commerce today are so loaded with lies and deceptions that there's no point in even looking.  But my view is that it's important to look--and think--because dishonest uses of language are becoming more and more common today (listen to the political debates or talk-radio rhetoric), and if we lose credibility in our basic communications, we can very quickly lose control of our whole culture and country.
     So, what does this have to do with running?  Well, a lot.  We runners aren't out there on the roads and trails just for our own pleasure, or at least I hope not.  We've also contributed to a new awakening in the larger population, to the great benefits of physical fitness, vitality, and self-discipline to our families and society.  Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy worried that if Americans become too physically and mentally soft, the country will be in serious danger.  Today, he must be rolling in his grave.
     More particularly, as long-distance runners, we understand the nature of energy in a way our more sedentary citizens (inbcluding most of our politicians) do not.  The physics of energy are the same in our industries as in our bodies, so we hav e some perspectives to share with our leaders that may be quite important for them to begin grasping.  We understand through direct, visceral, experience the difference between an anaerobic sprint, which can last a maximum of no more than 2 minutes or so before you're brought to a gasping halt with your hands on your knees, and a marathon or ultra where you cross the finish line after hours of running, not yet out of breath. 
     Our go-for-broke, growth-at-any-cost modern economy is, as most earth scientists will emphatically attest, what I'd call a sprint economy.  When the scientists say it's "unsustainable," what they mean is that as a civilization, we have the historical equivalent of the sprinter's 2 minutes before we seize up and come to a gasping halt.  For the sake of our children, and our moral legacy to humanity, wouldn't we rather see our leaders become a little more aware of what we endurance athletes now know from gut experience?  In historical time, the sprinter's 2 minutes might translate to no more than a few decades.  (NASA's chief climate scientist, James Hansen, warns that if the planned tar-sands pipeline from Canada to Texas is built, the resulting increment in carbon emissions will mean "game over for the Earth's climate").  But the civilizational equivalent to the endurance runner's hours of sustained effort might translate in historical time to centuries, at least buying time for our species to find a more intelligent adaptation to what is now bound to be a tragically damaged planet.
     So, with what we runners know about energy, what do we make of those booming sales in supermarket energy drinks? 
     What I see, I'm afraid, is an unconscionable reinforcement of the widely held illusion, in our popular culture, that you can get something for nothing.  And that you're a loser if you don't!  Success without practice, reward without work!  If Americans are now quite addicted to the dream of quick shortcuts to whatever we desire (winning the lottery, hitting the jackpot in Vegas, suing for ten million dollars, taking an amazing weight-loss pill), how hard is it to believe that a quick swig of "energy drink" will give you vim and vigor for the next five hours?
     There are a lot of those products out there now, but the one called 5 Hour Energy particularly caught my attention because as an ultrarunner, I'm acutely conscious of just how much energy the human body burns in five hours.  Of course, the amount burned varies considerably with what you're doing, and five hours of running takes a lot more energy than, say, five hours of working at a computer or driving a truck,  Just sleeping, or lying around on a couch for five hours, requires about 250 calories for a 40-year-old, 160-pound man.  But running? More like 4,000 calories.
     Now, look at the label for 5 Hour Energy.  How many calories?  4.  No, I didn't forget any zeroes.  Since calories (or in industry, Calories with a capital "c") are the standard measure of energy fuels, there are two ways to regarding this product.  Either (1) it will give you enough energy to run one-thousandth of five hours, or 18 seconds, or (2) to consume enough of this drink to sustain your pace for 5 hours (instead of drinking legitimate athletic energy drinks), you'd need to chug a thousand of these expensive little bottles in the course of your run.
     OK, I'm being a little deceptive myself, here, because in reality when you're running a marathon or 50k, you don't depend on what you consume en-route for all your energy.  The bulk of your energy is the glycogen you start the race with, stored in your muscles and liver from the dinner you ate the evening before.  But during the race, you do need to replenish at least a few hundred, perhaps a thousand, of those fast-burning calories.  At 4 calories a shot, you won't get very far.
     Maybe it's a measure of how sadly uninformed we are--and how out of touch with our bodies--that these drinks have booming sales.  If you swig one of those things and it feels like the energy is ramped up for a few minutes, it's because the drink is delivering energy you already had in your muscles or blood--sort of like if the milk-man of yore sneaked in your back door and took a quart of milk from your ice-box, then went around to the front door and sold it to you for a dollar. 

Next post:  Feedback on last month's post, "Where Are They Now?"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Born to Run" is Mistaken About How a Good Runner Breathes

       Christopher McDougall's hugely popular book, Born to Run, tells a very entertaining story.  McDougall is a dazzling writer, at least in the arena of gonzo journalism.  But as a long-distance runner, it seems that when he wrote his book, he was something of a newbie.  Nothing wrong with that, but when someone attempts to explain a complex process to hundreds of thousands of others who include many other relative newbies, there are some risks.
       Like getting it quite wrong about how a good runner breathes.
       Late in the book (pp. 222-223 in the paperback edition), in his unquestionably fascinating discussion of the Running Man theory of human evolution (the theory that we can trace our origins to the long-distance-running "persistence-hunting" hominids who used their evolving endurance to chase down much faster but more quickly tiring animals), McDougal tells the story of how several pioneering scientists used anatomical information to confirm that early humans were basically runners, not walkers.
       Two of the key scientists in this pathbreaking work were Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah and Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University.  McDougall writes that at one point in the research, Bramble made a key discovery--that one reason humans could run for longer than the animals they chased was that unlike other mammals, humans had the anatomical capability to take more than one breath per stride.  Bramble discovered that the anatomy of big cats, for example, "limited cheetahs to just one breath per stride."  He notes that Bramble "was surprised to find that all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath" . . . and that he and his graduate student David Carrier, the originator of the theory, could find only one exception: us humans.
       Human runners, McDougall concludes, "are free to pant to our heart's contents."  Take as many breaths per stride as you want.
       The first time I read this, I didn't notice anything amiss.  It sounded logical--more oxygen, more aerobic capacity.  But a few days later, I was out for a run and thought about Bramble's purported observation and realized something was wrong.   Rather than taking two or three breaths per stride, as McDougall suggested we do, I was doing just the opposite--taking two or three or more strides per breath. 
       I tried without success to contact Dr. Bramble to see if he'd really said that, and then sent the following e-mail to Dr. Lieberman, who heads the Institute of Human Evolution at Harvard, where the Running Man theory has been intensively investigated.

Dr. Lieberman,
       I wanted to get in touch with Dennis Bramble to ask a question regarding a mention, in the
popular book Born to Run, of his comment that humans are distinguished by a capaity to take multiple breaths per stride.   I wasn't able to reach him by email, and wonder if you can give me a correct email address or forward my question--or perhaps offer your own answer.
       I've made a lifelong study of running, and the passage in Born to Run struck me as curious, because in my experience the most common pattern of breathing is just the opposite of what Dr. Bramble is quoted as saying: Instead of two or more breaths per stride, I normally take two or more strides per breath.  A typical pattern, for example, might be IN, OUT, OUT, OUT (left, right, left, right), but since the three "outs" are actually a single exhalation in three little pumps in rhythm with the steps, it's really one cycle of inhalation/exhalation (or "breath") for four steps. . . . But if I try taking two breaths for one stride, I'm like a dog panting after a sprint--hyperventilating--and can't sustain it.  My question for Dr. Bramble and/or you is:  Was there a misunderstanding in the writing of this passage?
The next day, Lieberman replied:

Dennis is retired and hard to reach . . . .
        In any event, I think I can definitely answer your question.  McDougall obviously misquoted Dennis.  Good runners do exactly as you describe and take a breath about every 2 strides (although sometimes 3), rarely 1.

     I'm not writing this post now to cause any grief for McDougall, who has done the world a great service by inspiring a lot of people to get off their underexercised butts.  But I also wouldn't want to see a lot of people misguided.  How a good runner breathes will vary with the heat and humidity of the day, how fast he or she is going, whether it's uphill or downhill, and other factors, but should be comfortable and not cause hyperventilating.  In my own running, the pattern may vary from minute to minute.  And the patterns are often as complex as a musical score.  (I have found myself wondering if the breathing patterns of running might be one of the origins of chanting or singing).
     I invite experienced runners to send descriptions (below or via email to of some of the patterns of breathing you use under different conditions.  Count each inhale/exhale cycle as a breath and each step you take (left or right) as a stride.
     In my next post, I'll detail some of the most common breathing techniques of experienced runners, both my own and those of others I hear from.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Ever Became Of . . . (Have You Seen or Heard From Any of These Guys?)

     For more than three decades, I had no idea what ever became of Gerry Lindgren. 
     OK, if you're under 40 years old, maybe you never heard about him.  But when I was in my 20s, Gerry Lindgren was a legend.  Still in his teens, but already a legend.  I was an aspiring marathon runner, and I did some monster workouts in those days, of the kind memorialized in John Parker's classic novel Once a Runner, but when I heard about some of the training runs Gerry Lindgren would do, it made my head spin.
     Gerry Lindgren burst on the scene as a high-school kid in the early 1960s, and broke the American high-school record for 2 miles with a time of 8:40--a record that stood for 47 years.  He ran some epic races with a certain Steve Prefontaine, whose name you do remember.  "Pre" was a heroic figure at the University of Oregon, and when his focus on winning a gold medal at the Munich Olympics was shattered by the terrorist murders of other athletes that summer, and then Pre himself was killed in a car wreck before he could rebound by winning at the next Olympics in Montreal, he became a tragic figure.  Soon after his death, word went around the distance-running community (it was mainly word-of-mouth in those pre-Internet days) that a 15k road race would be held in West Virginia, in Prefontaine's memory.  I made the trip and ran, and I still have the racing singlet all the entrants were given--with the words "Remember PRE".  And remember we did.  Three movies of his life were made, and America's greatest annual track meet (the "Prefontaine Classic") immortalizes him.  No-one who's into running can ever forget Steve Prefontaine.
     But Gerry Lindgren?  For those three decades after he stopped showing up in world-class races, I never heard his name again--until one day earlier this year when I decided to give up my antediluvian ways and join Facebook (and start this blog).  Suddenly, out of the blue, there was Gerry Lindgren!  And not only that, suddenly he was my friend!  OK, he's not the skinny superhuman kid I remember, he's a 60-something guy like me.  But Gerry Lindgren is still running and inspiring younger runners, and I got a big kick out of learning that.
     Facebook also got me reconnected with a number of other runners I'd known or admired half a lifetime ago.  It made me acutely aware of how many guys I'd run with in the 1950s or '60s (very few women ran then), and even in the '70s and '80s, I now knew nothing about.
     Now, that's where I hope you can help.  A lot of the people I knew in the early years of running became memorialized as icons of the sport--people like Ted Corbitt, George Sheehan, Bill Rodgers, and Jacqueline Hansen.  A lot of others, though, have more or less disappeared.  Some were stars, while others were middle-of-the-pack runners who were never destined to be remembered by sports writers or book authors, and when they stopped appearing in the race results I stopped hearing about them.  But as I grow older, I find myself thinking about those runners I once knew (or knew about) a lot more than I did in my busy 40s or 50s.  Whatever became of them?  It's a long shot, I know, but runners do have a way of crossing paths (sometimes literally), and maybe you happen to know one or two of the people on my long-lost lists, below.  If so, I'd love to hear from you; just comment at the end of this post, or e-mail me at,

Late 1950s (my high-school years)
          Bobby Mack (Weequahic, New Jersey High School, and Yale)
          Pete Hoey (Mountain Lakes, New Jersey HS, and Princeton)
          Mike Sabino (Plainfield, NJ HS)
          Stan Blejwas (Holy Trinity HS,Westfield, NJ)
          Tom Sisko (Westfield, NJ High School)
          Skiggy Appezzato  (Westfield, NJ HS)
          John Swinton  (Westfield, NJ HS)
          Jim Heatly, Westfield, NJ HS)
          Mikes Schnidt, Westfield, NJ HS)
          Malverse (Micky) Martin, Westfield, NJ HS)
          Roger Bannister (first 4-minute mile, England)
          John Landy (Bannister's rival)

1960s  (College years, coaching years, and early road-running)
          John Creighton (Swarthmore College, and Eastern Shore Maryland area)
          Al Giese (Swarthmore)
          Hap Fairbanks (Swarthmore and New England)
          Dan Sober (Swarthmore and Washington, DC area)
          Larry Phillips (Swarthmore)
          Dave Snyder (Swarthmore)
          Roy Jernigen (University of Delaware)
          Paul Minehan (LaSalle College)
          Jim Colvin (Swarthmore)
          Paul Peele (Swarthmore)
          John Simon (Swarthmore, poet)
          Eamon O'Reilly (Georgetown U. and marathon star)
          Morio Shigematsu (Boston Marathon winner, and Japan)
          Gar Williams (U.S. 50-mile champion, and New Jersey-area roadrunning)
          Bob Scharf (marathoner and road racer, Washington, DC area)
          Fred Best (Central Jersey Track Club)
          Herb Lorenz (South Jersey/Philadelphia area road runner)
          Tom Osler (ultrarunning pioneer, originator of alternative LSD (Long Slow Distance)
          Ron Delany (awesome miler)
1970s (The boom begins, and ultras get a foothold too)
          John Garlepp (New York Road Runners, and U.S. 50-mile champion)
          Gary Muhrke (winner of the first New York Marathon)
          Tom Fleming (first big prize-money winner in long-distance running)
          Morio Shigematsu (Boston Marathon winner, Japan)
          Steve Scott (top American miler)
          Wesley Paul  (2:55 at the New York Marathon, at age 9)
          Alex Ratelle  (masters phenom)
          John Campbell (masters phenom, Down Under)
          Stormi-Ann Guntsch  (kid phenom)
          Bruce Robinson  (Washington, DC-area road runner)
          Bob Thurston  (Washington, DC-area road runner)
          Laura DeWald  (Washington, DC-area road runner)
          Dick Clapp  (Washington, DC-area road runner)
          Max White (JFK 50-mile winner)
          Bob Harper  (occasional training partner, DC-area)
          Bob Zoellick  (Swarthmore, and occasional training partner, DC-area)
1980s  (Golden Age of Road Running, and growing popularity of ultrarunning
          Sal Vasquez  (masters phenom)
          Norm Green  (masters phenom)
          Jim O'Neil  (masters phenom)
          Antonio Villanueva  (masters phenom)
          Carlos Lopes  (Olympic marathon champion)
          Julie Isphording  (Olympic marathoner)
          Joan Benoit  (first women's Olympic marathon champion)
          Rob DeCastella  (world marathon record-holder)
          Mary Decker-Tabb  (elite road runner)
          Bob Cooper  (Running Times editor)
          Julie Brown  (marathon whiz)
          Gary Tuttle  (elite road runner)
          Miruts Yifter  (10,000-meter Olympic marathon champion, Ethiopia)
          Don Ritchie  (100-mile world-record holder, England)
          Pat Porter  (cross-country phenom)
          Ruth Anderson  (trail running pioneer)
     I realize that with several decades having passed, some of the older runners on these lists may have passed on to the Great Finish Line we will all reach in due course.  But most are probably still kicking and maybe even still running for health and enjoyment.  And if you can update me and any other interested readers on any of these remarkable people, please let us hear from you.



Saturday, July 23, 2011

America's 10 Most Iconic Running Events

     Please don't skip right down to the list!  I know you want to, because we Americans have all been conditioned to want everything quick.  But as runners, I think we can all assume there'd be no satisfaction in crossing the finish line if you didn't run the whole course.  So before I get to the list, let me explain why I wanted to do this poll in the first place.  As I said a couple of posts ago, this isn't a scientific survey.  But it does incorporate input from the winners of more than a hundred major American foot races, as well as from experienced denizens of the mid-pack.
     Anyone who has lived as long as I knows that the older you get, the more of your life is made up of memories.  Sure, we older people still have aspirations and hopes for the future, but as the years go by the future shrinks.  When we were young, the future was out of sight, out of mind.  Now, we know the finish line might not be that far off. 
     Forgive me if I get philosophical for a moment, but one of the great myths of our culture--and it's a tragic one, I think--is the belief that we enjoy an economy that can grow forever, if we just make the right investments, etc.  As free Americans, we think of life as having infinite possibilities (and it does), but then we carelessly conflate that with the idea that our planet has infinite productive capacity.  Of course, it doesn't.  Our Earth has only fixed amounts of fresh water, farmable land, oil and gas, or capacity to absorb waste.  Yet, government and business economists talk as if our GDP should be able to grow 3 or 4 percent every year, indefinitely!  A few maverick economists, such as Herman Daly of the University of Maryland, have pointed out that the doctrine of indefinite economic growth is as delusional as the notion that an individual human can live forever.  Or that a runner who keeps increasing his weekly mileage can keep improving his PRs indefinitely.  In the 1960s, we had a guy in Washington, DC who ran 100 miles per week, then increased to 150, then 200.  For a while, no one could beat him.  But by the 1970s, although he was still young, he'd burned out.
     The point is, life is fragile, whether it's the life of the Earth, a whole civilization, or an individual man or woman.  The older I get, the more acutely I appreciate that--and the more I value the memories of the good times I've had.  Because I've been a runner for over half a century, those memories also become a kind of guide to what kinds of running I'd like to do in my remaining years.  One thing I discovered in doing my poll was that the most memorable events are not always the ones where we had our best personal performances.  Far more important, for me and many others who contacted me, were the social and cultural experiences we had--the interactions with race organizers and volunteers, spectators, sponsors, and of course other runners in the event.  Around the time I started running in the 1950s, Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner-was published.  (It was made into a movie in 1962).  And yes, in those days we runners did have a reputation for being solitary, wraith-like men (no women then), running along the shoulder of the road drawing stares or jeers from passing cars. 
     Well, no more. Running is America's most popular participant sport for both women and men now, and it has given us great appreciation of what it is to share the company of other humans in a difficult but rewarding endeavor.  And isn't that what civilization is all about?  Of the thousands of running events we have now, I think the most iconic ones are those that have given us some of the most lasting memories and insights into what life can be when people get together to do something hard.
     My list is based on both my own experiences (as a running magazine editor and competitive runner) and that of people who contacted me via email, Facebook, or Linked-In, as well as in the comments at the bottom of the June 26 post.
     Without further ado, the 10 most iconic American running events (and some others that come to mind, as well) are:
     1.  The Boston Marathon.  Boston is the 115-year-old granddaddy (and still champion!) of American long-distance running.  When I was a teen, the dream of running Boston was right up there with the dream of someday running in the Olympics.  Loneliness of the long-distance runner?  Not at Boston, where 2 million spectators cheer you on from the first mile to the last.  In the mythology of human quests, Heartbreak Hill ranks right up there with Mt. Everest, and "The Pru" (the Prudential Center building you can see from miles out as you approach the finish) ranks right up there with the Holy Grail.  As an iconic race, the Boston Marathon is really in a class by itself.
     2.  The Dipsea Race, Marin County, California.  This is the oldest trail race in America, now it its 101st year.   The lung-lashingly steep, 7.4-mile mountain course from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge) takes you to spectacular Pacific Ocean views and is limited to about 1,500 runners.  No big crowds of spectators here, because for them it could be exhausting just walking to a good vantage point.  An especially delightful feature of this event is that all the runners are given time handicaps by gender and age, so everyone will have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first.  Thus, from the report of last year's race: "Reilly Johnson, an 8-year-old fourth grade student from Mill Valley, running in her third Dipsea, held off 68-year-old grandmother of four Melody-Ann Schultz of Ross to win the 100th Running of the Dipsea Race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach on Sunday." How often do you see a finish like that? 
     3. JFK 50 Mile, Washington County, Maryland. The oldest and largest ultra-run in America, with entries now closed for its 49th annual run in November.  Some of you older runners (or your parents or grandparents) may recall the famous "50-mile hike" craze of 1963, which started when President John F. Kennedy, worried that Americans weren't as physically and mentally fit as they needed to be in this dangerous world, decided to raise awareness by challenging the Marines to hike 50 miles in one day.  Along with the Marines, thousands of civilians decided to take up the challenge as well.  An outgrowth of that was the first "JFK 50-mile hike/run," which soon became just a run.  Today, for a rural ultra, the JFK has an astonishing number of spectators--and an extraordinary degree of attachment by its participants, many of whom have run this race 20 times or more.
    4.  Bay to Breakers, San Francisco.  I hesitated to place this storied 8-miler so high on the list, after a San Francisco friend of mine told me Bay to Breakers has lost some of its character in recent years--has become what he feels is too corporate and rule-bound.  But some features still give this bay-area rite of spring a unique place in American running lore.  In the mid-1980s, as many as 110,000 people ran this race. Overwhelmingly, they ran not for competition but for fun.,  It was the world's largest party-on-the-run, and it was spectacularly libertine: some people ran naked; others ran intoxicated or high; and thousands ran in amazing costumes--notably in the centipede division, in which 13 runners run as a team in a single centipede costume competing against other centipedes.  And despite this event's de-emphasis on competition, some of the centipedes are amazingly fast.  I thought I was a pretty fair 15K runner, but some college and club cross-country teams have run faster in their centipede costumes that I could dream of running in my lightest racing gear.  Well, maybe some of the naked runners were just trying to keep up with the centipedes.  (In a recent year, one of the centipedes was a team of women dressed as butterflies, with at least one of the butterflies running bare-breasted.)  My San Francisco friend says the rules now ban such things as nakedness and a centipede in a cash-bar costume handing out beers to fellow runners.  But Bay to Breakers goes on, and will doubtless re-invent itself.
     5.  Falmouth Road Race, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  In the past decade, trail racing has boomed while road racing has matured (albeit some of the major marathons like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Marine Marathon still draw monster numbers).  But if you review the golden age of road racing in the 1980s, a lot of the excitement was in urban street races of 5k to 10-mile distances.  One of the most awesome of them was--and still is--Falmouth, which featured dramatic competitions between the greatest runners of the era, such as a duel between Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter.  Now sponsored by New Balance, it's still a fun summer event along a beautiful coastline.
     6.  New York Marathon.  Like Bay-to-Breakers, this giant phenomenon may have lost a little something since the Bill Rodgers-Alberto Salazar rivalry in the days when the race was usually won by an American with whom the public and media had some familiarity.  Going back even further, I'm still tickled by the memory of that first New York Marathon in Central Park, when there were so few of us runners that nobody knew there was a race going on and one of the runners passed what he thought was an aid station and grabbed a piece of fruit--and suddenly found himself being chased by an shouting man whose fruit stand had just been robbed.  Who knew?  Today, everyone knows.  Forty-five thousand runners race or jog through the streets and a million people lean out of their windows or crowd the sidewalks of every neighborhood from Brooklyn to Harlem to mid-town Manhatten to cheer.  Running loops around Central Park was fun for a few years, but the Five Boroughs tour is an urban experience like none other.  And if you're coming in from out of town, you can probably get a hotel room for under $300 a night.  
     7.  Carlsbad 5000.  Back to the California coast, where the "5k" got its real start as the most popular running distance.  In an e-mail response to my poll, Toni Reavis credits Carlsbad with being "the original 5k . . . From Steve Scott and John Walker's fan-friendly T-shaped course . . . to the world-class roll of champions topped by Sammy Kipketer's iconic 13:00 world record in back-to-back years, to the age- and gender-specific series of races leading to the pro races, the iconic views of the wide Pacific Ocean, years of national TV coverage and party-by-the-sea atmosphere, you cannot ask for a more complete example of an iconic road race.  On top of which, Carlsbad introduced the 5k distance to America, which brought even more people into the sport."
     8.  Penn Relays, Philadelphia.  My list as a whole may be noticeably slanted to longer-distance races, and with good reason: I believe we humans eveolved as long-distance runners (what anthropologists call "persistence hunters"), and that the defining qualities of our species are endurance, patience, and ability to envision--the qualities most needed to train for long-distance races, or to build a sustainable civilization.  (I explore this theme further in my website The Penn Relays are a different animal, with their displays of spectacular speed (at least for us relatively slow-footed humans).  But the Penn Relays also have produced memorable races in the mile and distance-medley relays; and for the whole range of track running at its best, from sprints to distances and from high-school kids to elite runners to masters, there's no greater show on Earth.  I was never more influenced by any runner in my life than by the miler Ron Delany, whose finishing kicks I watched in awe half a century ago at the Penn Relays and at the great New York indoor track meets (such as the Millrose Games or NYAC Games) of that era.  If you can't get an invitation to run in it, the Penn Relays is an event to watch.
     9.  Western States 100 Mile, California.  What Boston is for marathoners, Western States is for ultrarunners--the one race you most dream of running.  Both have tough qualification standards, and both have to turn away a lot of disappointed applicants. Western States has legendary origins, as does JFK, and has a uniquely spectacular course.  In a typical year, the runners will go through ankle-deep snow and 100-plus-degree heat in the same day.  The course follows trails that the gold prospectors of 1849 traversed and sometimes died on.  Breathtakingly deep forested canyons, wildly beautiful high-Sierra vistas, a cold river crossing without a bridge--it has it all.  And in the quality of its competition, it tops the U.S. ultras.  I hope I can go back, before I'm too old, and do this one right.
     10.  Bloomsday 12k, Spokane, Washington.  One of the poll respondents was Anne Audain, who won more major races in the 1980s--the golden era of road racing--than any other runner including Joan Benoit.  For Anne, the Bloomsday Run is number-one.  Bloomsday was founded by Don Kardong, the 4th-place finisher in the 1976 Olympic marathon, and (I guess I'm showing my bias here), one of the best writers about running I've ever known.   I've never run Bloomsday, but Anne attests that the course is "spectacular and challenging," and there is wonderful crowd support.  She's not alone in her enthusiasm: the race attracts 60,000 runners or so year after year even though Spokane is not a big city.  As far as I know, it's the only race that is so embraced by its community that the city paid a famous sculptor to erect life-size bronze sculptures of runners along a stretch of the course.  And you can probably stay there a whole three-day weekend for the cost of one night in New York.
     OK, 10 MORE!   There are at least ten more that might just as easily be placed on the list, and some of them got strong support from my correspondents:  Among them:
     Cherry Blossom 10-Mile, Washington, DC:  Flat, superfast course through one of the most spectacular displays of blooming cherry blossoms on the planet; world-class competition; and just a short walk from such iconic destinations as the Smithsonian Institution, Washington Monument, and White House.
     Utica Boilermaker 15k, upstate New York: a great local celebration, but has also been one of the world's most competitive 15ks and an accompanying 5k.
     Badwater 135, Death Valley, California: Sounds like a real ordeal (a hundred of those miles in 110-to-130 degree heat), but if you're well trained it's really not torture at all, and if you look up as you run under the night sky it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
     Chicago Marathon:  A rival to New York, with its 40,000-plus runners and super-fasst.  And if you can get that wind behind you . . .
     Crescent City Classic, New Orleans:  One of the great 10ks, with a legacy of super-fast competition.  Almost as big a thing as Mardi Gras, with about 20,000 runners.
     Peachtree Road Race, Atlanta: The race that did for the 10k what Carlsbad did for the 5k.  In my poll, it gets a vote from former world cross-country champion Craig Virgin.
     Berwick Run for the Diamonds, Berwick, Pennsylvania.  A small-town 9-mile on a rolling country course.  Now in its 102nd year, it's the second oldest road race (after Boston) in the country.
     Grandma's Marathon, Duluth, Minnesota.  A great local tradition (the 2010 running had 5,000 volunteers for the 16,000 runners), but also an international-class event, with one of the most scenic courses in our country.
     Leadville 100, Colorado: The miners are gone, but an even tougher breed of man and woman has taken over this mountain redoubt.
     Equinox Marathon, Alaska:  A rite of passage for what they call "interior" Alaskans--people who can get where they're going to only by airplane or sled . . . or on foot.
     Gasparilla Classic, Tampa. Run 5k or 15k along the Tampa Bay shore, with start and finish next to Gaspar's pirate ship.
     OK, and finally:  I don't know if it's iconic or just crazy, but there's a 100-mile race in an ominously named place called Frozen Head, Tennessee, that is so abominably difficult that only a handful of the hundreds of runners who've tried it over the years have ever actually finished it.  It's put on by a threat to society named Gary Cantrell, and it's called The Barkley.  It's not on my bucket list, and I have no interest in ever attempting it, nor should you.  I mean, wouldn't you rather spend a pleasant weekend on Cape Cod, run a nice 8-miler breathing in the fresh ocean air, maybe browse a few antique shops or art galleries, then have a relaxing New England lobster dinner with friends? The choice is yours!

     If you think I've left out an event that should really be on the list, or have listed one that's overhyped, don't hesitate to comment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Running on Rocks: The Appalachian Trail

       The biggest national publicity the Appalachian Trail has had in recent years was when the bad-boy governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, lied to his wife and the media (what? A politician lied?) about his dalliance with his girlfriend, covering up his sneaking out by saying he'd been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. 
       Well, if governors ever do actually try carrying their weight on that trail, let's just hope the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, doesn't try it.  Christie, as you may know, is the governor who was recently flown to his son's high-school baseball game in a helicopter, at taxpayer's expense, and after landing got into a car to be driven the last 100 yards to the field.  Oh, America, how roly-poly we have become.  John F. Kennedy, who lamented our unfitness in a landmark essay titled "The Soft American," must be rolling in his grave.
       But I digress.
       For me, the Appalachian Trail (or the "A.T.", as we call it) has a very different meaning than it does for all the late-night comedians and commentators who riffed on the South Carolina lie.  The A.T. is not only the longest and one of the most beautiful hiking trails in America; it is also one of the greatest places in the country to go for a long run.
       A segment of the A.T. also happens to be the most challenging segment of America's largest and oldest ultramarathon, the JFK 50-mile.  Entries for this year's JFK (which takes place November 19) opened on July 1.  The race could well be filled by the end of this week.  And if you are one of those who get in and can look forward to that run five months from now, it's time to begin thinking about a subject that will loom quite large on that day--running on rocks.
       I remember doing a practice run on the A.T. section of that storied course around 36 years ago, in preparation for my first JFK.  The course follows the A.T. from around the 3-mile point at the South Mountain trailhead to around 16 miles at the foot of Weverton Cliffs, where the trail drops precipitously to the Potomac River.  Most of the trail is very nice for running, but a few sections are wickedly rocky.  Somewhere around the 14-mile point, on that day so long ago, my left toe caught a rock and I did a hard face-plant.  I got up slowly, stunned and bleeding, and told myself, "I sure better remember this spot when I run the race!"
       And remember it I did.  Over the years, remembered it again and again, because along that stretch I kept falling again and again.  Couldn't I learn?  By now I've run the JFK 15 times, I think, and I've done face-plants either approaching the Weverton Cliffs descent or on the boulder-strewn descent itself, at least six of those times.  The falls are uncannily similar: I'm focusing hard, trying to watch where I put my feet, but also trying to move fast.  The problem is that it's November, and this is deciduous forest where most of the leaves are now on the ground.  The leaf cover is thick enough to cover a lot of the rocks, and while I'm usually pretty adept at trail running, I also have an unconscious, long-ingrained habit of running over logs and rocks the way a sprinter runs over hurdles--clearing as closely as possible for maximum speed.  Evidently, sooner or later, I come to a spot where the optical center of my brain registers an approaching leaf-covered bump and subconsciously estimates that this bump is, let's say, a 2-inch leaf-cover over a 7-inch-high rock.  The brain sends the leg an instruction to lift the bottom of the shoe 8 inches so as to brush through the top of the leaves while leaving an inch of clearance over the rock--only it turns out to be actually a 1-inch leaf cover over an 8-inch rock.  That still might be OK, except that I've been running for over two and a quarter hours now, over some fairly rough terrain, and my legs are a little tired, and while the leg whose turn it is thinks it is lifting 8 inches, it's only reaching seven and three-fourths.
       The other thing I should mention is that this section must be where the ancient Short Hill-South Mountain Fault once caused one mother of a rumble, wreaking rockular havoc with the earth.  Since then, the Appalachian Mountains have lain stunned, watching silently for any overzealous humans they might ambush and maketh to lie down with them in mutual contemplation of what it means to grow ever older.  Compared with the Rockies or Himalayas, the Appalachians are very, very old.  So, for the past eight or nine hundred million years, more or less, this rugged ridge has been shrinking and compacting.  The rocks have become solidly embedded.  There are no loose rocks on the A.T.  If you kick a loose rock on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, you might start a landslide.  If you kick one on the Appalachian Trail, it isn't going anywhere.  My toe caught that one-fourth inch of miscalculated rock, which may have been a rogue outcrop of Mesoproterozoic granite or may have been something a few hundred million years younger, but I really didn't have time to ask.  With the my left foot brought to an absolute halt, the rest of me flew forward and down.
     Six times this has happened over the years, and five of those times the response built into my wiring has been the same: My arms, elbows, and knees fly forward to break the fall and protect the face.  The next runner behind me stops and asks, "Are you OK?"  I reply, "I'm OK."  I don't really know if I am, but can't bear the thought of being out of the race.  I get up, blood streaming down my legs and arms, and continue running--very slowly--down the trail,.
     The sixth time was last year.  I was a year older (69) and maybe a tad weaker.  This time, my knees, elbows, and hands all flew forward as usual, but my head hit the ground nonetheless.  Crack--forehead on a rock.  "Are you OK?" said a runner.  "I'm OK," I said.  There were 36 miles to go, and I needed to get back in the race.  That's me, about a mile later, in the photo above.
     This old-dogs-don't-learn experience of mine raises a question that a lot of JFK entrants (those who have run this before, as well as newbies) may be asking now: 
     How do you run this course?
     Well, from an old guy who seems to be getting more confused as the years go by, here's a not-so-simple answer.  The best strategy for running the JFK is to follow all of the following three rules, and I don't mean to be facetious.
     1.  Run the A.T. section fairly slowly and cautiously, so you get to Weverton without undue bleeding and can then run fast and carefree the rest of the way.
     2.  Go for broke, run the A.T. as fast as you can, feet flying high to clear the rocks, because if you do this and get away with it, you'll reach the easy part of the course (C&O Canal Towpath) with a big lead on your competition and will be able to basically coast the rest of the way.
     3.  Most of all, go into this race having practiced running over rocks as often as possible all summer, and having coached your brain to please add another half-inch to the clearance instructions it sends to the legs.  Then, on race day, don't run with a conscious strategy at all--run to be a happy part of that wild and beautiful course all the way, at whatever speeds your trained instincts tell you.  Don't force it, don't fear it.  The Appalachian Trail is home.  So is the Potomac River towpath that follows; and so is the wending country road that will take you over the final miles.

Next post: Final selection of "The 10 Most Iconic Running Events in America," to be posted in about a week.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Most Iconic American Running Events: Your Nominations, Please!

     In a couple of weeks, I'd like to publish a list of the "10 Most Iconic Running Events in America."  I started musing about this a few days ago while planning my racing schedule for the remainder of 2011, and realizing that although the JFK 50-mile isn't until November, the entry deadline is already upon us.  Entries open July 1 for runners who meet the "A" qualification standard (see for details), and there's a good chance the race will be filled by July 2.  If there are still places available in the thousand-runner field after a week, runners meeting the "B" standard can enter.  There are way more people who want to run this race than can be accommodated on the Appalachian Trail.
     This will be JFK's 49th year, which makes it the oldest continuously-run ultra in America.  It's also the largest ultra, and one of the most competitive.  (The Western States 100-Mile is widely considered the most competitive ultra, and I won't argue with that, but JFK is no slouch--consider that when seven-time Western States champion Scott Jurek came to the JFK two years ago, he finished 11th, and when Michael Wardian came to JFK after finishing third in the World 50k championship in Gibraltar, last year, he placed 6th.)  However you measure it, JFK is an iconic phenomenon.
     But of course, there are other iconic races as well.  The Boston Marathon, I'd say, is in a class by itself.  When I was a young runner in the 1950s and '60s, the dream of every long-distance runner was to someday run Boston.  In my own fantasies, Boston was right up there with the Olympics.  And indeed, to this day, faster times have been run at Boston than in any Olympic Marathon in history. 
     While Boston and the JFK 50 are the two most iconic long-distance races I have ever had the thrill of running, I know perfectly well that for other runners, there are many other events that have had that kind of aura.  Western States, of course.  There are thousands of annual events out there now, but I want to make a short list of the most iconic ones.  It won't be scientific or unbiased (neither is American Idol or the U.S. presidential election), but it will be fun.  There's no way to objectively define "iconic," but here are a few suggested attributes:
     Longevity: a race that's been around since before man walked on the moon, or at least since before "Chariots of Fire" was produced.
     Popularity: hordes of people want to get into it, so it fills up months before the event.
     Competitiveness: Elite runners are drawn to it.  The front-runners in this event can outrun antelopes!
     A uniquely spectacular or challenging course: awesome elevation profile, amazing views, or a million live spectators.
     "Dream" quotient: It's an event you dream of going to someday--a race you want to be able to tell your grandkids you ran.  If you're getting along in your years, like me, it's on your Bucket List.
     Out of the innumerable candidates, what would be examples of events that meet some of those criteria?  In addition to Boston and JFK, some events that leap to mind (in roughly ascending order of race distance) include the Penn Relays, Prefontaine Classic, Peachtree Road Race, Falmouth Road Race, Dipsea, Bay to Breakers, Gasparilla Classic, Cherry Blossom 10-mile, New York Marathon, Way too Cool 50k, Western States 100, and Badwater 136. 
     But that's just what leaps to mind for me.  What about you?  Write your nominations below (click on "comments"), or send me an e-mail me at  Pick one or pick ten, whatever you like.  Give reasons!  In a couple of weeks, based on your comments and on my own 54 years of running adventures, I'll post the results.  Looking forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Junk Food, Endurance, and Longevity

      I remember reading, several decades ago, that Bill Rodgers had a huge weakness for mayonaise.  That didn't stop him from winning the New York Marathon four times and the Boston Marathon four times.
      I also remember learning (first-hand) that the notorious "black-socks Brits" of working-class England would go out after a hard day's work in the factories and run brutal workouts, then retire to the pub to quaff prodigious amounts of beer that was almost as black as their socks.  The heavy drinking didn't stop them from achieving great performances in ultras, including a world record for the 100-mile run.
     I don't know how many times I've stopped at an aid station and found on the table, along with the usual bananas and electrolyte drinks, an assortment of candy, white-flour pretzels, potato chips, or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on white bread.  That hasn't stopped the population of runners finishing long-distance races from expanding as fast as the bellies of the non-running population are expanding.  And the runners, of course, look pretty fit.
     And finally, I don't know how many times I've read or heard about runners gorging happily on pizza.  Pizza isn't a bad food if it's made with whole-grain crust and olive oil (no transfat in the crust) and a tomato sauce that isn't saturated with sugar and salt.  But the standard commercial pizza . . . uh . . . from a nutritional standpoint (content of refined carbs, salt, and fat) is about as bad as fries or potato chips.  And if it has pepperoni on top, add a generous dose of nitrates, sodium, and chemicals of unknown provenance.  Yet, pizza now seems to be at the center of post-run camaraderie and celebration of life. 
     What I'm inching toward saying here is that while running and other endurance activities (bicycling, hiking, mountain climbing) have fostered a great awakening about health and vitality for millions of people, a lot of runners may still be half-asleep about the connection between long-term fitness and nutrtion.  The short-term connection is well understood: If you're a serious runner, you burn a lot of calories and you get lean and enduring.  And so strong is that connection that in the short term it almost doesn't matter what you eat: an 8-mile run burns off a thousand calories and gives you the freedom to enjoy a rich dessert without regret.
     What's less well understood, however, is the long-term connection.  If you are 30 years old today, and hope to continue running and aren't in danger of gaining weight, does the food you eat have any impact on how healthy or fit you'll be a decade or two from now--or how well you'll be able to run then?  Nutritional and medical research has very little to tell us about that, because the industries that fund research have no real interest in finding out.  But another reason so little is known about long-term impacts (on human performance, as well as on health) is that our culture has made us more and more oblivious to long-range consequences of anything at all, whether it be carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation, or human population growth.  It's a familiar observation that our attention spans have gotten shorter.  So have our outlooks on the future. 
      The tendency of most Americans is to feel that if what you eat today doesn't hurt your performance tomorrow or next week, there's nothing to be concerned about.  I don't share that feeling.  In 1954, when I was 13 years old, my father--who had struggled with respiratory disease all his life and was in danger of dying from emphysema--met a radical doctor who told him that if he wanted to live, he'd have to do three things: (1) stop eating all highly refined carbohydrates (white sugar, white flour, white rice, soft drinks, etc.); (2) cut out all hydrogenated fats (lard, Crisco, margarine, etc.); and (3) eat lots of raw, fresh vegetables and fruits.  My father made the change, recovered from the illness, and lived another 40 years.  But I, too, decided to make that change.  I didn't have any respiratory problems, but I did have a radical thought of my own: If a natural-foods diet could help make a sick person well, wouldn't it also make a well person more well?
     As it happened, that was also around the time I was developing an interest in running.  That year, Roger Bannister ran the first 4-minute mile, and it made huge headlines around the world--and had a big impact on my adolescent aspirations.  The year after that, I began running with my high-school cross-country team.  I never dreamed, then, that I would still be running as a middle-aged man decades later, but I did think from the outset that the diet that was helping my dad could also help my running over the long term.  I suppose "long term" for me then meant eight years of high-school and college, because in the 1950s, most runners were finished after their last college track meet at age 21.  Later, I'd discover that organized running could continue for adults.  When I went to my first road races after college, in the 1960s, I was fascinated to see that some of the runners were as old as 30 or 35, and one or two were actually in their early 40s! 
     Over the years, enormous demographic changes came to long-distance running.  In 1968, Kathrine Switzer became the Rosa Parks of marathon running, breaking the ban against women at Boston.  Two decades later, the Bay-to-Breakers 8-miler in San Francisco would attract 100,000 runners of whom about 40,000 were women.  And as the gender balance of running shifted, so did the age balance.  I haven't seen recent stats (does anyone out there know?) but my impression is that now the median age of road and trail runners is around 40.  In the mean time, I have somehow gotten to be 69.  And I'm far from the oldest runner out there; I'll turn 70 in October, and at the JFK 50-mile I'll have lots of competition in the 70-79 division. 
     Oh boy, I'm as slow to get to the point in my writing as I am getting to the finish line in an ultra.  (Don't look for me on Twitter!)  The point here is that as the decades have gone by, the long-term benefits of good nutrition have become more and more apparent to me.  It's been gradual, and subtle--but unmistakeable.  Eating organic kale and tofu the night before a race doesn't give me super powers in the next day's run, the way Popeye suddenly got his huge biceps after eating spinach in the cartoons of the 1950s (remember those, fellow sexagenarians?).   What it does do is keep me feeling very much as alive and fit today as I felt at 20 or 30 or 40.
     I suspect that today's 20-year-old or 30-year-old doesn't really worry much about what life will be like for him or her at age 70.  By then, who knows what climate change, or post-peak-oil economic chaos, or the growth of human population to a projected 11 billion (it was about 2 billion when I was born) will have done to our planet and our health.  Who knows whether there will even be any organized running then. Will there be affordable fuel to drive to races?  Will the forests be closed, or razed?  Will we be focused on coping with pandemics, or civil disorder? 
     I can empathize with the tendency to dwell on living for the moment--enjoying life now, this year, because next year is beyond imagining.  But I do have this one thought to share: How we deal with long-run health and fitness as individuals is closely linked to how successfully we manage the long-run prospects of our civilization.  And I use that term "long run" advisedly.  In a forthcoming post, I'll share the results of an investigation I did on a specific junk food (I'll name the product), and its potential, long-run impacts.

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Born to Run" -- a Tough-Love Review

     You've probably either read Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, or at least heard about it.  It has had a big influence on the way many runners run, and it also seems to have caused passionate reactions: some runners say the story it tells has rescued them from injury and given them a new sense of freedom.  Others consider the book misguided.
      My own view is that this book is actually made up of three very different stories glommed together into one: a wild, over-the-top, tall tale about the legendary barefoot-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's remote Copper Canyons; a surprisingly bitter polemic about modern running shoes; and a fascinating perspective on human evolution.  The first two stories are somewhat misguided and misinformed, though entertaining.  The third is well researched and, I think, profoundly important.
     I don't know if I have ever before read a book that is so wrong and so right between the same two covers.  So, this review can't be like one of those "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" assessments we've come to expect in our ever more polarized, quick-message pop culture.  For one thing, it would be a mistake to count my two basically "down" assessments versus one "up" as indicating a net-negative.  The third story--about our origins and nature as humans--outweighs the other two.
     Here are my thoughts about those three strange-bedfellow stories, in turn:
     The Over-the-Top Tall Tale:  On the second page, McDougall writes:  "When it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner--not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner."  Well, that's true about the racehorse and the cheetah, for the simple reason (discussed later in the book) that when it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a well trained human runner. But in this provocative sentence, McDougall seems to be singling out the Tarahumara as different from the rest of us.  (To emphasize that this wasn't just a careless mistake, he repeats the point a hundred pages later: "They had proved themselves, indisputably, as the greatest ultrarunners on earth.")  What's actually the case, though, as we will later see, is that the Tarahumara are not fundamentally different.  As the book's title suggests, all humans are born to run.  And there are equally great ultrarunners in many countries.
     As for the "not an Olympic marathoner" part, that's unsubstantiated speculation, since Olympic marathoners rarely run ultradistances.  Marathons and ultras are two very different things!  To put that in perspective, note that of the many hundreds of thousands of runners who have competed in America's largest marathon (New York) or largest ultra (JFK 50-mile) over the past four decades, only two have ever finished in the top three places in both races. 
     So, in saying "nothing" can beat the Tarahumara when in comes to ultradistances, McDougall is comparing apples and oranges (cheetahs and humans, or marathoners and ultramarathoners).  What he cleverly does NOT say is that when it comes to ultradistances, no other ultrarunners can beat a Tarahumara!  Yes, later in the book we will read a dramatitic account of a small race in Copper Canyon where a group of Tarahumara run 50 miles with a group of gringo Americans, and one of the Tarahumara guys finishes ahead of the seven-time Western States 100-mile winner Scott Jurek.  Jurek is a close second, and overall the two groups from culturally opposite ends of the earth are fairly evenly matched.  And what if some of the top Russian, Japanese, or South African runners had been there too?  Bottom line: humans are humans.  Give McDougall credit for eventually emphasizing that critical point.
     In the early going, though, the author clearly wants to lure the reader with a myth that ranks right up there with Big Foot in its breathless buzz about superhuman beings somewhere out there in the deadly Barranca del Cobres--a land of treacherous trails, rattlesnakes, killer heat, ruthless drug dealers, and mysterious murders where an epic "greatest race the world has never seen" will take place.  I think the Spartathlon, or a lot of other races, have been greater.
     So for the first third of the book, McDougall keeps building on these misleading comparisons, at one point gratuitously contrasting the Tarahumara scrambling up and down steep canyon trails with Lance Armstrong struggling to run on a paved road:  "Lance Armstrong is one if the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he could barely shuffle through his first marathon despite sucking down an energy gel nearly every mile."  When I read that, I thought: What would happen if you took a great Tarahumara runner who'd never trained for bicycle racing, and put him in the Tour de France?  Again, apples and oranges.
     The wild-tale part of Born to Run isn't just deceptive myth-building, though.  Some of it is an unfortunate lack of knowledge about running history.  In one gee-whiz paragraph, McDougall writes, "According to the Mexican historian Francisco Almada, a Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles, the equivalent of setting out for a jog in New York City and not stopping until you were closing in on Detroit"--as though such a feat is the stuff of legend.  Maybe McDougall should have consulted a historian of running, as well.  The long-distance-running historian Dan Brannen, for example, would have pointed out that the Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, among many others in many countries, has run more than twice that distance nonstop.  In 19th-century England, runners exceeded that distance in regular 6-day competitions, as shown in the vintage advertisement at the top of this page.  McDougall has studied the Tarahumara well, but doesn't exhibit much knowledge of ultrarunning in the rest of the world.
     The Polemic About Running Shoes:  I discussed this in my last blog post, noting that here, too, McDougall is just plain wrong about some of this facts.  When I read his account of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, I was actually a bit saddened. McDougall writes that Bowerman invented the modern running shoe in 1972 by sticking a chunk of rubber under the heel to enable a runner to land on his heel and thereby unnaturally lengthen his stride.  Ostensibly, that invited injury.  Implicitly, it seemed, McDougall was blaming his own struggle with a painful foot injury on a guy who died years ago and who, if he'd ever been confronted by his accuser, would have pointed out that while he did indeed invent the waffle sole, he didn't invent the built-up rubber heel.  That had been invented over half a century earlier.  Claiming that Bowerman thought up the built-up heel caught my attention not only because I had been running with built-up rubber heels for years before Bowerman's presumed invention, but also because of a memorable incident in my first marathon, when I found myself pulling even with Ted Corbitt, whom the New York Times called the "godfather of American ultrarunning."  At the time, I was "running on my toes," as my high school coach had taught, but Corbitt glanced at my footfall and suggested that I might run better if I let myself touch down on my heels.  This was years before the first Nikes, and runners who wanted built-up heel cushioning could easily get it in shoes made by Adidas or Tiger.  (In fact, I've been told by a knowledgeable friend that the first Nikes were basically Tiger or Asics models with a Nike swoosh glued on.)  And the heel-running Ted Corbitt's multi-day and 50-mile performances are just as impressive, even today, as the Tarahumara's.  Moreover, it wasn't just in the mid-1960s that some of our shoes had built-up heel rubber.  In my collection of old running memorabilia, I have a hundred-year-old advertisement from a company called O'Sullivan Heels of Live Rubber, featuring a photo of the Olympic marathon champion of 1908, Johnny Hayes, shaking hands with the company's owner, Humphrey O'Sullivan.  In the caption, Hayes is quoted as informing Sullivan that the shoes with which he had won the Olympic Marathon had the O'Sullivan Heels of Live Rubber, and that "I always wear your heels in my races."
     What, then, of McDougall's core argument that running injuries have proliferated since 1972?  I strongly suspect that here, McDougall has fallen into the very common trap of confusing correlation with causation.  The fact that the rise of Nikes and other modern running shoes is correlated with a proliferation of running injuries does not mean they are the cause.  The building of the modern Interstate Highways in America was correlated with a rise in the number of motor vehicle collisions and fatalities, but it wasn't the cause!  Auto deaths increased despite the improved safety of the highways--because of other factors such as the rise of rush-hour congestion, happy-hour drinking, road rage, and the thrall of cars among teens (I was there).  Similarly, I think, running injuries increased after the early 1970s because far more people were doing things like trying to complete a marathon in their first year of running.  In the 1950s and '60s, most long-distance runners trained for years before attempting a marathon, so they were less vulnerable to injuries caused by ramping up too fast.
     Finally, just one more point of misconstrued history.  McDougall compares Bowerman with the legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, writing: "Lydiard was by far the superior track mind; he'd coached many more Olympic champions and world-record holders. . . .  Lydiard liked Bowerman and respected him as a coach, but Good God!  What was this junk he was selling?"
     Is that what Lydiard thought?  Well, in 1977, I filmed an interview with Lydiard at my house in Virginia, and got to know something about what he thought.  And as it happens, Lydiard, too, designed and sold running shoes--under the Lydiard name.  They were the same kind of basic design as the new Nikes.  The "junk" argument is apparently McDougall's guess at what Lydiard was thinking, not anything Lydiard said.  Bottom line: cultural evolution has put a lot of distance between us modern runners and our barefoot ancestors--and while some of us are still able to run like the hominids, others are not.  Nike's shoes (like Lydiard's or earlier Adidas or Asics models) were a boon to some of us, and too much cushioned protection for others, but there's very little evidence that they caused an epidemic of injuries.  The epidemic was probably caused by too many people trying to ramp up their mileage and speed too fast.  Americans have become more and more impatient.
     A New Perspective on Human Evolution:  OK, I've taken too long to get here.  I talk too much. Mea culpa.  This third story is what makes reading McDougall's book worthwhile.  And it's a curious thing, too: in the earlier stories, McDougall does what I supppose he does for magazines like Men's Fitness or Esquire--he indulges in a lot of macho, gonzo-journalist exclamations like "First, two villages would get together and spend the night making bets and pounding tesjuino, a homemade beer that could blister paint."  Or, "Secret agents, whizzing bullets, prehistoric kingdoms . . . even Ernest Hemingway would have shut up and surrendered the floor if Fisher walked into the bar."  When he gets to the science, though, McDougall drops the slick language and tells a story that is--to my mind--far more exciting and insightful than any of the wild or polemicized stuff that precedes it.
     The gist of this story is that for a long time, evolutionary scientists have believed we humans evolved as walkers, but in recent years a few bold researchers have put together a now convincing case, the Running Man theory, that we evolved as long-distance runners who hunted by chasing down faster-running animals by getting them overheated or wearing them out.  Key players in this scientific saga were researchers David Carrier and Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah, Daniel Lieberman of Harvard, and Louis Liebenberg of Noordhoek, South Africa.  McDougall does an excellent job of reconstructing the story of how these scientists built their case, drawing on both lab studies and field observations over three decades.  I won't steal McDougall's thunder by attempting to summarize that story.  But it's a good one, and it has profound implications not only about our past and present nature as humans, but our now endangered future, as I'll be exploring in my own writing and website.

For more discussion of our nature and future as the planet's most enduring species, see