Heart Health

Marathon Runners

April 12, 2010

Marathon Runners

In one week (April 19th) my wife and I will be running the Boston Marathon.  Neither of us is hoping to post a record time.  Mainly, we’re looking to finish without collapsing and with as few blisters as possible.  People I’ve told of this tend to be congratulatory of our effort and remark how admirable it is that we’re able to do this.  In fairness, it is a bit of an accomplishment to be able to even enter the Boston Marathon since this famed race is open only to competitors who’ve already posted a reasonable time in a marathon within the previous year (3:20 for me).  Thus, in my view, the hardest thing about the Boston is that in order to run it you have to actually train for two marathons—the Boston Marathon itself, plus one prior marathon to qualify.

I love watching the elite marathoners as they glide by at their amazing pace.  They move like gazelles and make running look as effortless as an eagle soaring on a high thermal wind.  Whenever I see them I have to remind myself how fast they are actually moving.  The per-mile pace for the winners of the big marathons is somewhere around (or below) 5 minutes, a pace that most competitive high school runners have trouble with for a single mile.  The standing world record, set by Haile Gebrselassie at the 2008 Berlin Marathon, is 2 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds.  That translates to an average of under 4:45 per mile for the entire 26.2 mile course.  That, to me, is mind boggling.

But while I look in awe at these magnificent runners I can’t say that they are the ones I admire most.  Runners like Gebrselassie are typically about 5’9” and weigh around 135 pounds (this is really the ideal build for an accomplished long-distance runner) and have logged thousands and thousands of miles during their lifetime.  In one book I recently read the author mentioned that most elite African runners have already logged nearly 20,000 miles of running by the time they reach college age.

So for guys like this who are essentially born to run, how hard is it really to spend a couple hours out running in a race?  I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment of running 26 miles in under two and a half hours (the typical men’s winning time for marathons), but I don’t really swoon in admiration for a 135 pound cheetah for whom running is as natural as using the restroom.

The people I really admire are far different.

The pain of the marathon is not the 26 miles you have to cover, but rather the time that you have to spend putting one foot in front of the other.  By that metric, the people who suffer most (and therefore have to overcome most) are those who spend the longest time on the course—the 4- and 5-hour marathoners.  Add to this the fact that most marathons start around 7 a.m. and are therefore blazing hot by the time 11 a.m. rolls around.  While the elite runners are rehydrating in the massage tent and dreaming of their next race, the bulk of the marathon population remains on the course, pounding and sweating away through the slowly advancing miles.

And these are not lithe, wispy 135-pound bodies out there.  Real humans, with aching knees and sagging midsections, make up the majority of marathoners.  These are people who do not look like nature has created them to coast through mile after mile of race course, yet they do.

One example is my friend Loren Gress.  He’s a former professional baseball player who’s built like a model first baseman, but at 6 foot 7 inches and 210 pounds he’s hardly the image of an accomplished marathoner.  Despite his less-than-optimal proportions he manages to get out for runs day after day and even in the most miserable weather conditions.  A couple of years ago he developed pain in the hip while running the Lincoln Marathon and was ultimately diagnosed with fracture of the labrum of his pelvis.  Surgery followed as did many weeks of no weight-bearing and he’s now back on the road tuning up for this year’s Lincoln.  By the time Loren crosses the finish line (with pelvis hopefully intact) the winner (probably a thin little guy from the NU cross-country team) will have already packed up his gear and headed home, but it’ll be Loren who gets my admiration.

The same is true for my brother-in-law, Mark Thurber, a 55-year-old corporate lawyer from Houston.  He took up distance running a couple of years ago and has already completed 4 marathons.  His first race lasted a painful 5 hours, 51 minutes, but he’s steadily improved his times to the point where he is consistently finishing at around 4 hours.  With his training he’s managed to trim himself from 200 pounds down to 170.  Mark’s goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon and I’m pretty sure he’ll get there.

My wife Cheryl is another story of triumph over adversity.  She had qualified for the Boston Marathon by running the local Omaha Marathon 18 months ago.  While training over the summer she developed incapacitating hip pain.  Thinking it was one of the numerous aches and pains that runners suffer, she simply rested a while and continued with her training.  Weeks later an MRI of her pelvis confirmed a severe fracture of the sacrum.  Like Loren, she spent weeks with crutches, hobbling around the house as the bones came together.  Over time she began walking, then running, and is now up to longer distances at a gentle pace.  Next week’s marathon will be the first race she’s done since her injury.  I will be at her side through the whole race making sure she takes it slowly enough (are you reading this, honey?).

You may not believe this, but there is a raging debate among the more high-brow marathoners about my slower colleagues.  Critics believe that allowing slower runners (or “run-walkers”) to enter and complete a marathon diminishes the hallowed tradition of marathoning for everyone else, as is illustrated by this piece in the New York Times:

Purists believe that running a marathon should be just that — running the entire course at a relatively fast clip. They point out that a six-hour marathoner is simply participating in the event, not racing in it. Slow runners have disrespected the distance, they say, and have ruined the marathon’s mystique.

“It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours,” said Adrienne Wald, 54, the women’s cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, who ran her first marathon in 1984. “It used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’ ”

I find this absurd.  Anyone who spends 6 hours traveling 26 miles on hot pavement deserves as much (and, I think, more) praise as those of us who can cover the distance in 3 hours.  Keep in mind that most of these slower runners have actually overcome more to get where they are than the elite runners.

I’ll take my opinion one step further and challenge my readers to expand the ranks of slow marathoners.  For those of you who aren’t runners I challenge you to pick a race, pick a distance, and set the goal of entering one of these events.  Give yourself a half year to get your body in shape and keep your expectations realistic.  Then go finish a half- or full-marathon, even if it takes you half the day.  The sense of accomplishment will be immeasurable; the positive effect on your body will surprise you; and you’ll love the energy and the atmosphere of the race.

So thanks to all those who congratulate me on my upcoming marathon, but with my lean, tall frame and years of running it’s not real much of an accomplishment for me to finish another marathon.  The real heroes are those of you who take up the challenge of running and tackle something that only a small segment of the population can claim, even if it takes you longer than 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialists at CHI Health Clinic.

8 Comments
  1. Billy

    Congratulations Dr. V! And thanks for sticking up for the slower runners. I'm one of those. It's been a long while since I last ran my marathon. It was to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as well as a personal challenge. Running through the theme parks in Disney World and high-fiving a sea of purple and white L&LS Team in Training volunteers on the side cheering us one is still one of my fondest memories. It took about 5 months of dedicated of training, much of it in freezing temps, to get to that point, but it was worth it. Yet, for a long time, part of me heard Adrienne Wald's voice, perhaps I am too slow. So, again, thanks for sticking up for the "back of the pack" runner. I currently have an ankle injury, but perhaps its time to lace up those Brooks Beasts again. Also, if you ever want to see the heart and spirit of true champion come see the Special Olympic Athletes compete. They will be at Boys Town this Saturday for a regional track meet. They prove that Adrienne Wald has got it completely wrong. Haile G's marathon in 2 hours and 4 minutes is impressive, but watching these incredible special athletes put everything they have on the line and then cross the finish line inspires the soul like nothing else. Again, congratulations on your marathon and best of luck in your future races. Thanks and keep writing!

  2. Janice

    Dr Van De Graaff, Thank you for your challenge. I used to love to run in my younger, pre-children days. With time and weight gain, not to mention lifting and caring for a handicap daughter, my knees have become arthritic and I am not even 50 yet! But you know what? I am going to take your challenge. I may never actually run a marathon or even a half one but will work towards that goal diligently. I may surprise myself and even meet the goal someday. Sometimes it takes someone one may not even know personally to offer positive encouragement and support to spark a life change. Thank you for offering that spark. Are there any particular training books you would recommend?

  3. Megan

    Dr. V - Good luck to you and your wife in Boston, we'll be rooting for you! I'm definitely not a runner and don't have a desire to run but I love walking and last summer a gal pal and I entered and completed the Des Moines half marathon. It was such a fun and great process to experience including the training. We are going to do it again and probably will every year from now on but are now recruiting friends and family to join us and walk for a cause. So thank you for supporting those of us that do participate in the half/full marathons but at a little slower pace!! Megan

  4. Dr. Van De Graaff

    Amber, Congratulate your husband for me. He's the kind of guy who is a great example for so many people. Also, you can tell him to look for me out in Boston. I'll be the guy lying on the ground begging for an ambulance at about mile 20. Dr. VDG

  5. Dr. Van De Graaff

    Janice, Kudos to you for taking on the challenge to get back into running. I hope you keep us posted on your progress. I don't know much about the running books on the market. My advice to you is simple: 1. Start slowly. 2. If you get injured, start more slowly. 3. Don't step on the scale for the first few months. Often, when people get back into running they initially gain weight rather than lose it and they get discouraged. You'll build muscle in your legs first and muscle is heavier than fat. 4. Find some way to enjoy running. The only book I'd recommend is "Born to Run." It provides great inspiration for runners like you and me. Good luck! Dr. VDG

  6. Amber

    Congratulations to you and your wife! My husband Brian qualified for the Boston Marathon last Fall at the Omaha Marathon, so he will be joining you next Monday and I will be there to cheer him on. He will always tell people that even though he runs he isn't a "runner." With his build and size, it isn't something that comes naturally. He has run off and on for the past 15 years, but was at the point where he was tipping the scale at 270 and kept suffering from injuries. He wanted to complete a half marathon and knew that he had to lose the weight. In the past 2 years, he has transformed himself into a "runner" by dropping about 80 pounds and training with a group from the Omaha Running Club. He has completed several half-marathons, 5 marathons, including qualifiying for the Boston Marathon (at the young age of 41 no less). We are so proud of his accomplishments. He is the perfect example of what it means to set a goal and stick to it with the support of friends and family. Good luck! Amber

  7. Jeff Porter

    I consider Dr. VDG a dear friend. When he and I were 20 year old young men we were in Austria together and we decided to start running in the mornings. For me, it was pure drudgery, for Dr. VDG it was the beginning of a life-long passion and pursuit of excellence. I'm glad that from such humble beginnings of running around the cobblestone streets of Austria in the mid-80s has resulted in your running (and finishing) the Boston Marathon. Nice job.

  8. Qiana Brown

    Eric- Not sure how I came across this article, but wow... I am not a runner but am inspired to push myself to set and accomplish a goal that requires that I step outside of my natural comfort zone and perhaps discover something about myself that lies a little deeper than I've ever dug. Thank you for the inspiration.

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