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.