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!

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