Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Heart of running; Running with Heart

It’s common knowledge that running, and exercise in general, is supposed to be good for your heart. I have always been a fan of the theory that if a little is good for you, a lot must be even better (although I have had a few hangovers that would seem to argue the point).

Yet every year a number of marathon runners collapse from heart attacks during races. A recent study in NE Journal of Medicine shows that in a race of 100,000 marathoners 1 will collapse of a heart attack. In the last 10 years in the US, 40 marathoners have had heart failure and 71% did not survive. In 2009 3 runners died in the Detroit Marathon. There’s 5 times the odds it will be a man than a woman and you have a greater chance of surviving over 50 years old than if you are younger than 40. Regardless of your training every marathoner will suffer some impact to their heart during the race. I view it as one of life ironies that doing something that is supposed to extend your life actually shortens it. But it takes more than a strong heart to make it through a marathon.

Running a marathon is as much, if not more, mental as physical. Regardless of training, health, or race day sustenance, when you reach the 18 mile mark your body has pretty much run out of fuel and your shoes have lost any remaining cushioning. It can feel like the runner next to you has jumped on your back, that someone has shortened all the muscles in your legs, and with each downhill stride someone if pounding nails into your thighs. Oh yeah….and at Boston you are right in the middle of the 5 miles of uphill aptly called Heartbreak Hill.

Unless you are into self flagellation it’s about this point that every marathoner will ask themselves “Why the he!! am I doing this?”. Once this doubt creeps in the battle shifts from being primarily physical to substantially mental. With every stride your legs are lobbying with your brain to stop and with each new mile more and more body parts join the chorus.

Some believe that what keeps most runners going is their mental strength. I think that helps but I believe it’s more, it’s a runners Heart. Every runner has his/her own reasons for strapping on their shoes and heading out the door to train for a marathon. For some it is about health, some changing their lives or dealing with life changing events, some are running for others, and still others are running for time and glory. And then there are the ones who lost a bet or took a dare (they are the ones keeping the mental health industry in business).

For thousands of runners at the starting line in Hopkinton their reason, their Heart, comes from not just running for themselves but for doing it to help others. For those spectators who are part of the marque de Sade school of marathon watching, choosing to view the race from Heartbreak Hill, they may be able to pick out these charity runners. They will look as tired and in pain as the others but there will be that slightly lighter spring in their step and maybe the smallest of smiles mixed with their grimace. Running to help others and with the support of those that have donated to their effort can help them more than any pair of elite shoes or fancy energy drinks.

And when they hit “the Wall” on Heartbreak Hill, they will be the ones that have the Heart to break the hills (yeah I know it’s corny).

God willing, I will be there, running for Help in the Nick of Time again this year.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Top 10 Reasons to run another Boston Marathon

It that time of year again when the normally sane become the temporarily insane as they start the serious training for the Boston Marathon. Of course I’m right there with them again this year.

What makes 26,000 runners train hours/week through the dead of winter to be on the starting line in April? There are easily as many answers to this question as there are to the question “Why did the chicken cross the street?”. Unscientifically here are some of the best answers I’ve heard and some of my own personal ones.

10. Challenge Junkie – Some people just like the latest challenge. Marathon, Iron Man, Spartan Races, Ultra-marathons, etc. What makes Boston unique and more challenging among marathons is the requirement to run a qualifying marathon under a competitive time just to get the right to try and register. I know people who have completed Iron Man Triathlons who can’t qualify to run Boston.

9. Keep my streak going – As of the end of last year’s Boston Marathon there are 46 individuals that have done 25 or more Boston Marathons in a row. Two of these mega-marathoners live in my town of North Andover. Tom Licciardello, whose daughter ran with my daughter, has completed 35 in a row. Other than staying married I can’t think of anything of significance I have done for 35 years in a row. The other is Dave McGillivray who in fact has become the race director for the Boston Marathon. Dave has completed 39 in a row, completing his first when he was 17 years old. Given all things that can go wrong leading up to race day these accomplishments are simply amazing. BTW…John A. Kelly started the race 61 times (not in a row) and finished all but three. He won twice and even after 50 he still had a finish in the top 10. To put that in perspective, the top finisher in 2011 over 50 years old didn’t make the top 100 finishers.

8. It’s on the bucket list – If you are a runner with a bucket list then likely the Boston Marathon is on it. Last year 81 year old Clarence Hartley checked that box after surviving two wars and a bout with cancer a few years earlier. I’ve met runners who have been fortunate enough to get a number to run Boston from a charity (doesn’t require a qualification time) and they view it as their first and only marathon. Frankly, once you’ve done Boston, why would you want to do any other?

7. In Memory - Events that cause us to rethink priorities such as surviving a major illness, a brush with death, or the loss of a loved one can drive people to reevaluate their life priorities, look for new meaning in their life or want to do something special in memory. I was running before my son Nick passed away but his death clearly changed my motivations and created an opportunity to help others and keep his memory alive.

6. ”It sounded like a good idea at the time” – I’m surprised at the number of times I hear this story. For guys it usually involves alcohol, a whole bunch of competitive testosterone, and frequently a bet. For gals it is frequently by one in a group of friends as a “fun” activity they could do together. Only first time marathoners would put fun and marathon in the same sentence. In most cases the runners end up being bandits (runners who do the race unofficially) with minimal training and a whole lot of pain on race day.
5. You don’t eat Weight-Watcher meals. When you are putting in 30-40+ miles a week your body becomes furnace that can consume even those chili cheese fries you ate last night. I love Ice Cream. If I wasn’t running I would be a candidate for the Biggest Loser reality TV show.

4. You are a lion or a gazelle – I love this quote (unknown source). "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running." For those of us who have been infected by the marathon bug we often are.

3. To get Married – Getting married during marathons has become more common recently. In Boston it is often done at the top of Heart Break Hill. Given the name I wouldn’t choose it for the place to start my married life.

2. Your injuries generate interesting conversations – Nothing like missing toenails to start a conversation at the local gym or pool. Similar conversations can ensue when limping from blisters slightly smaller than the state of RI. And then there are bleeding nipples. On a long run one hot day a bloody streak down the front of my shirt caused a concerned driver to stop and ask if had been shot.

1. To help others – Last year charity runners for the official 24 race sponsored organizations raised over $10M. This doesn’t count the funds that are raised by other runners such as what I do for Help in the Nick of Time. There is no question that running Boston has its own personal rewards but nothing is more rewarding than knowing the effort is also helping someone else.
For me the decision is easy…the ability to eat what you want, the conversation starter of unusual injuries, the vehicle to make one day a year a special memorial to Nick and the opportunity to raise funds for someone desperately in need. Sounds like heaven to me.

Speaking of Help in the Nick of Time ( http://www.helpinthenickoftime.org/ ) we have made initial donations to help several families. You can read about it at the website.

Until next time….