Wednesday, June 25, 2014

To the Max


A hard reality check for many people, myself included, is understanding that physically we are not all created equal. This is why, in large part, our society in such awe of elite athletes and why professional sports is such a lucrative business. Whether it's Mickey Mantle hitting a 500 foot home run, Tony Hawk doing a vert ramp 900, or a figure skater landing a quad triple combo, humans will always want to watch other humans do things that most cannot.

I will always remember running in elementary school and maybe doing the mile in under ten minutes. Then, there would always be some super fast kid who could run the mile in nearly six minutes, even though they were only 9 or 10 years old. At that age it was obvious the kid didn't train to run, probably didn't care about running, but was merely exhibiting a physical ability that they were already born to excel in. Similarly, I've known of folks that didn't even exercise and are able to run a 45 minute 10k right off the couch, when there are people who train as hard as they can and will never be able to run that. In fact, last summer I hiked with a guy who said he hadn't been physically active in nearly two years, gained 20 lbs in that two years, and ran a 17:30 at a local 5k he decided to run for fun. Now granted this guy was a 31 minute 10k runner in college just a few years prior, but still two years of minimal fitness, and I would probably struggle to run 25 minutes for a 5k. This made me wonder how the best athletes end up in the sports they are in and I think it comes down to several different paths. The sports kids are the best at are usually the sports they enjoy the most (aka being good makes it more fun) and thus they are more likely to continue that sport and cultivate their talents further. Then there are the kids who others, perhaps a parent or coach, observe being good at something and they are "nudged" into a particular sport because others see that they have the natural gift to possibly do well. Sometimes the kids enjoy the sports they are guided into and in other cases they don't.


A couple of examples of this are runner Meb Keflezighi and former major league baseball player David Justice. In one interview Meb says he never really gave any thought to the sport of running until he was in 7th grade and had to run the mile for gym class. While most 7th graders can complete a mile in 8-12 minutes, and a rare few under 7 minutes, Meb blew away his class with an astonishing time of 5:20. No coaching, no practice, just a regular student who on a whim ran a 5:20 mile. Obviously, after this Meb realized his mile time was quite spectacular for his age, he realized he enjoyed running, he gained coaching advice, and proceeded to become one of the greatest runners of our time. Not everyone, as in not 99.99% of everyone is born with the ability to do this.

Next, there is former baseball player David Justice who was one of the most prominent power hitters of the 1990's. Unlike Meb, Justice's true passion was not for the sport that he was the best in. Justice said that the sport he loved most was actually basketball, and although he was good at it, he knew his natural talent made him even better for baseball. He also recognized that developing his skills to become the best baseball player he could would earn him much more money in professional sports than if he had tried to develop his basketball skills. Every once in a blue moon there comes along a Bo Jackson, or Deion Sanders who is gifted enough to play at a professional level in two sports. Then again, some people are just born with that rare talent.

The bottom line is genetics play an enormous role in who is capable of being elite from birth. Some people will still say that quality training and determination can eventually make someone great, but that simply isn't true. There has even been a long debate whether, or not things like VO2 max can be increased, or whether it is a fixed amount and we basically improve our efficiency at that fixed level. In other words my average Joe V02 max of 49 (not the most scientific test I must add) was capable of running a 3:07 marathon when in decent shape, but has failed to run even a handful of eight minute miles when out of shape. I don't believe my V02 max increased or dropped, but rather my body was capable of doing more at the same level.

That being said, it makes you wonder if each individual body has a limit to what it is capable of? I believe the answer is a resounding yes, though I will point out one thing. As history has shown there is a difference between assumed limits of ability and actual. Remember, it was once believed a human could not run a sub 4 minute mile, or that a person could not run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. Will someone ever break 2 hours for the marathon....? Not if, but when. Fact: If you were put myself and Meb on the exact same diet and built up a training routine over time to match where his is now, our results would be drastically different. I most certainly would not transform into a sub 2:10 marathoner, even if I lost 30 lbs, and I doubt I would even become a sub 2:30 marathoner training exactly like a professional. If I trained for years like it was my full time job and hired Alberto Salazar to coach me, I would likely break 3 hours for the marathon, maybe 2:55 and dare say 2:50, but at some point my body's ability to go any faster would hit a point it could not sustain. The same concept applies to all other sports as well. In college I ate a ton of food, lifted weights all the time, weighed 23 lbs more than I do now, and still never bench pressed more than 260 lbs. If I had been born a 6'9" Icelander, genetics suggests the ability to lift a 400 lb log over my head multiple times is more within the realm of possibility. I also played baseball most of my youth, and no matter how many pitching clinics I attended, or how often I practiced, I was never going to get my fastball over 85 miles per hour.

(6'9" 400 lb strongman Hafthor Bjornsson)

Now while most of this topic has been about how fast people can go, I have to assume genetics play an important role in how long people can go. I wonder if endurance, like VO2 max, is something that we are born with a set ability to do? From experience, it really does seem like I gained endurance over the years as I learned how to properly train for longer distances. When I first started running, even an easy 5 mile jog would leave my legs aching for a few days, and after my first 50 miler, I couldn't even muster up a slow jog for a few weeks. However, when properly rested and trained, I've been able to run, albeit slower, days after a 50 or even 100 miler with nothing more than a feeling of heavy legs. So now when I see guys like Timothy Olson running up the two mile climb from the Rucky Chucky river 80 miles into Western States in 105 degree heat, or Zach Bitter still dropping seven minute miles after 90 miles of non stop running, I fully know that these feats are unattainable for a majority of the human population. I also think genetics plays a part in who can legitimately run all of a 100 miler, since the reality is most people who "run" 100 milers probably walk 30-50+% of the race. The rate of muscle break down and joint break down, even with ideal training, is not going to be the same for everyone.

(Zach Bitter en route to an American record of 11:47 for 100 miles, photo:Michael Miller)

So, while genetics will dictate who has potential, ultimately it will always be the intangibles like dedication, effort, and toughness that determine realized potential...aka success. American running legend Frank Shorter had a VO2 max of 71, pedestrian by elite standards, and yet he had a marathon PR of 2:10. In the end what does this really mean for any of us? Well, for starters I won't be running in the Olympic marathon trials anytime soon, but it does allow for the typical weekend warrior to make smaller, more realistic goals to keep things fun. For me, running a 2:20 marathon will never happen, but qualifying for Boston might. Some of you might be thinking "well with that attitude, he never will run a 2:20 marathon". Trust me, attitude is not the issue, but realism is. Part of understanding the nature of human limits is to discover where they truly exist. When I first started running, I never thought it was within my natural born ability to complete a marathon, no less a marathon under 4 hours, or 3:05. The great mystery about our limits is that most humans will live their entire lives and never even come close to flirting with the notion of finding theirs. For the rest of us, through great trial and error, coming as close as we can to our fullest potential is one of life's great adventures.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Break, or a Break Up?

Last weekend I DNFed my fifth 100 miler in thirteen attempts and it felt amazing. Quite frankly, that is the point. It appears my rocky relationship with 100 mile races has come to a much needed halt. I am simply tired of beating up my body, which is a well known requisit of 100 mile races, for the sake of a buckle. In all good conscience I walked away from this past race happy and healthy. Had I been feeling terrible and made the same choice, I would have left uncertain if my decision was influenced by a bad day, or by personal conviction. Thankfully, it was the latter, as I ended my day feeling good and even running with a few friends as they continued their long day and I ended mine.

So let me be clear. I did not drop because I gave up, or lost my mental toughness. That's just naive assumption right there. I absolutely could have kept running, but that is not something I feel the need to prove to myself, and certainly not others right now. I did not drop because I was hurt. In fact, it was probably the best I have ever felt at that point in a 100 mile race. I am not burnt out. Quite the contrary, I will continue running on a regular basis, but without the prolonged recovery and potential damage that is often the aftermath of 100 mile races. Right now my focus is on other sports, other hobbies, and having a social life. Let's be honest, I'm not as conditioned for longer events running 30-40 miles of flat roads every week, compared to when I was living in the Shenandoah Valley running 80+ miles per week in the mountains. At this juncture in life, from a work/social/hobby balance point, I do not want to exert the time, money, and training that is needed to be more successful at 50 to 100 mile races.

I have run 84 ultras and 12 marathons in the ten years I have been a runner. Given that I am still in my early 30's, that is a lot. Also, keep in mind that the total distance of the races I have done is 4,050 miles, which is the equivalent distance to running just over 154 marathons. Seriously, how many 32 year olds, especially ones that didn't start running until after college, do you know that have run that much? My body has covered more miles than many avid distance runners do in their entire lifetimes. I may be 32 and still in good health, but there are times I can tell my body does not appreciate running 50 miles the way it did 5 years ago. This might make me sound like an old fart, but the reality is I want to avoid having my "runner age" catch up to my actual age. While I have no issue doing races to prove to myself I can go faster and be tougher, I'd rather not do them at the potential expense of my long term health. Given that life already deals us a number of unpredictable things that may affect our health, why not be smart about one of the things we do have power over.

All too often, especially on social networks, I see people applauding others for their feats of endurance, but it is a sentiment I feel is misguided. Trust me, I get that the positive intent is derived from encouragement and amazement. However, I read about people dropping due to serious physical stress, or "persevering" through an injury to finish and the first comments are always something like "way to go!", "so badass", "you're so tough", "way to stick it out", etc. While I believe testing one's limits is respectable, it's one of my own reasons for doing sports, pushing those limits to the point of jeopardizing your health is foolish. I know, because I have been that very fool before. Not even the top marathoners in the world will run to the point of injury, or at least not on purpose to prove something, and these are actually people who make money off running. We don't. That being said, I will always support my friends who take on these endeavors, but there are times I wish some of them would step back and see the big picture. I'd rather myself and my friends run for 30-40 more years healthy, rather than another 9 hours injured to get some buckle, medal, or feeling of achievement. Feelings of achievement, while wonderful now, will not regrow your knee ligaments and damaged joints 20 years from now.

This is also not a recent revelation for me. I have debated the future of my relationship with 100 mile races a great deal over the past year. Similar sentiments have echoed in my posts, and most dealing with a lost desire to run 100's, but more so a lost desire to keep inflicting the physical toll that 100 mile races will always have on the human body. Aside from a very small few, running many, or even a moderate amount of 100 milers will inevitably cause some form of overuse injury, and I see no point in going through life with constant nagging aches and pains due to extreme distance events. I've seen too many runners over the years deteriorate from relatively athletic and healthy to basically hobbling through every race they enter. I'd rather not go that route, and not end up like David Horton, who despite his former dominance as a runner, is now resigned to riding a bicycle and walking. Of course, while moderation in any facet of life can lead to longevity, I question whether 100 milers by their very nature can ever be done in moderation. Running 100 miles even once is not a form of healthy moderation, though there are physical outliers like Gary Knipling who can run 100 miles at age 70, his son Keith who has finished all 50 of the 100 milers he has started, and the legendary John DeWalt who completed the Hardrock 100 at age 73. While good health, good training, and wise scheduling is a factor, it is far fetched to assume anyone who trains/lives a similar lifestyle will reap equal results. Karl Meltzer, at age 46, still beats younger faster runners with insane training routines in 100 mile races, and even sometimes when he claims he hasn't been running more than a few hundred miles per month. Sometimes it's just genetics.

I have now DNFed three of my past five 100 mile races, and the two I actually managed to finish were pretty miserable slogs. I also spent a lot of time training for those five crappy races and in hindsight it just feels like lost time, as I question how much the training even helped. If anything, I lost a significant amount of speed, and felt marginally beat up most of the time. Prior to Old Dominion I withdrew my entry to the C&O Canal 100, because deep down I knew I was not interested in running 100 miles. And yet I still showed up to the start of Old Dominion two months later, because I had to know for myself if those feelings would fade in the heat of a 100 mile experience. They did not.

So does this mean I will never attempt another 100 again? Definitely not, but if I do another 100, it will have to be during a period of time I can genuinely dedicate myself to training for one. But again, I'm not sure I will want to do that with my schedule any time soon. There are obviously still 100 mile races I would like to do, but there is no reason to rush into them, and to be honest there are fewer and fewer races I consider bucket list races. If I want to run through beautiful mountains somewhere, I don't need to participate in a race to do it. It's not like I wear any of my buckles anyway.

Lastly, don't think I am discouraging anyone from running 100 miles. Completing my first 100 miler in 2007 in under 24 hours is still one of the highlights of my running life. Running 100 miles will always be a special accomplishment. Injuries, fatigue, and discomfort will always be part of the experience, and overcoming them will be one of the things you remember most. Just be aware of the potential long term trade offs that overcoming those things will have, and whether its something you need to continually prove to yourself, or to do for fulfillment. Afterall, you only get one body to work with, be a good steward of it, and maybe you'll be running for decades to come.