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Marathon Runners

By Eric Van De Graaff, MD April 12, 2010 Posted in: Heart Health

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

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

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