My Mt. Whitney Memory

My Mt. Whitney Memory
From my scrapbook--running up Mt. Whitney after finishing the Badwater 135, back when I was a young man of 49. The guy with the backpack, Emile-something, was the French 1,000-mile record holder, who wasn't in the race but accompanied me to the peak (along with the guy who had the camera), just for the hell of it. At the top, we started to see lightning, and immediately turned and ran the 11 miles down to the trailhead--right after that 146 miles to the peak! I'm older now, but still crazy after all these years.

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.