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.

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