Are We Running in a Bubble?

Are We Running in a Bubble?
Putting too much of our hearts into the sport.

I love to run. 

It’s more than a simple declaration of fact.  It’s a mantra, a lifestyle, a reason to get out the door and chase a new PR, train for a grueling race or simply enjoy the wind through your sleeves.  It gets blood pumping, helps maintain my weight and afterward gives me an invigorating feeling.  Even after notably intense runs, I rarely go home and regret having logged another run for the records.  I’ve been running consistently for about four years and still haven’t lost my passion for it.  If habits are formed three months at a time, then running has reached the level of eating lunch or waking up.  It’s part of my daily routine now and I can’t imagine what would get me to abscise it from my being.

Because running isn’t just about the physical act itself.  There’s an entire culture that has exploded around it in recent decades, creating an amazingly supportive and inspirational community that soon becomes part of every serious runner.  You can’t buy a pair of shoes without overhearing a conversation about a local race or toe the line at a big-city marathon and not see T-shirts for other races that will soon earn a spot on your bucket list.  It can be all-consuming and truly addictive.  Once you dip your toes into this wonderful fitness land, you won’t want out.  And why would you?  The vast majority of runners started out like you, uncertain, slow and possibly over-injured and are eager to offer tips, advice and even themselves as running partners.

For some runners, a half marathon is enough.  They train for months, hammer out 13.1 miles and stop the clock with what feels like their last breath, content with having finished what they started.  Others go for the marathon, finish, and never go back.  But then there are people like me, who like to return to the distance to expand their limits, be that in speed or distance.  To do that, conventional wisdom, elites and many training plans offer a lot of advice, but a lot of it hinges on adding mileage.

Run more.

So we do just that.  If people much faster than us are routinely hammering out 60-90 miles a week, then they must be onto something.  But the vast majority of “normal” people would laugh at the idea of running 60 miles a month.  We’re the weird ones and we’ve been told that many times, from the first time we announced that we wanted to run the equivalent of a $40 cab ride for fun.  How many of us have heard from our friends or family that we’re doing damage to our bodies by running this much?  We scoff at the idea and assuage their concerns without sounding condescending.  But it doesn’t stop there.

How many times have we gone to doctors with running-related injuries only to be told to stop running?  We decide that this quack just doesn’t get it and that he must be wrong.  So we seek second opinions, preferably from a doctor who is also a runner in hopes of hearing something else.  If that doesn’t work, then we scour the internet for an article or, heaven forbid, a forum that will tell us that everything is alright and that soon enough, we’ll be back to running as if nothing had happened.

And that’s when I start asking myself that nagging question that we try to avoid: are we running in a bubble?

marathon-logThe short answer is absolutely, we definitely are.  Incredibly involved and supportive communities that revolve around a singularly unique experience are, in a way, bubbles by definition.  It takes a lot to crack into it; it doesn’t happen by simply buying running shoes.  But my question is more about the way many runners ignore the outside signals and any evidence that goes against the benefits of long-distance running.  We refuse to take seriously anyone or any article that cautions us from running too far or too often.  Are we clamping our hands to our ears whenever anyone says that running marathons is bad for our bodies because we’re convinced it’s actually good, or because we don’t want to pick away at our convictions regardless of potential evidence?

It’s no secret that a lot of us are caught in a positive feedback loop.  I read books like Born to Run (Christopher McDougall) and Running on Empty (Marshall Ulrich) that talk about superhuman athletes capable of amazing running feats.  I read blogs like Jeff’s Run Factory and Danielle’s T-Rex Runner who knock out marathons and ultras with as much frequency as eating breakfast.  I’ve even committed to running ultras with Otter, the tacit agreement being that we’ll push each other through the challenges come what may.  It doesn’t stop with me though; I pay the attitude forward.   With so much to draw on, it’s impossible to avoid getting enveloped by the gung-ho attitude that anything is possible as long as you can put one foot in front of the other.

But where does that stop?

I earned my current marathon PR of 3:23 by running between 30 and 40 miles a week.  That weekly training load was both challenging and sustainable.  But I knew that if I was serious about running ultras, I’d have to kick that up a bit.  If push comes to kick in the back and I decide to one day run 100 miles, I’d have to inflate the weekly mileage even more.  And the question returns:

Where does it stop?

If you turn to the running community and fellow trail-blazers, you might hear things like “Never!”  Those with a little less zeal might tell you to listen to your body.  But you’ll also hear very often that humans were meant to run long and nay-sayers just don’t understand.  There certainly is no shortage of awe-inspiring stories that showcase these enduring themes front and center.  After all, what better representation of the triumph of the human spirit than running hundreds of miles?  But as a reasonable person, there does come a point where I have to step outside of this wicking fabric bubble and ask the awful question that nobody wants to hear:

What if we’re wrong?

Running in my first ultra -- journeying past the conventional marathon and into the unknown.

Running in my first ultra — journeying past the conventional marathon and into the unknown.

By now you’re probably asking yourself a different question.  Why the sudden, borderline apostasy?  What happened to shake my faith in the common axiom that all woes are cured by going for a run?  After all, the sport has become an essential part of who I am, so why would I question it?  The answer has to do with the intense polarization of the world’s discussion space.  Thanks to the internet, everyone has an opinion on everything and can find a website to back it up in some way.  The more we stay in these echo chambers, the more entrenched we become in our beliefs.  Very soon, we almost become shackled to them, lest we give in to our opponents.

It becomes less about thoughtful, analytical thinking and more about scoring points.

I therefore could not consider myself a reasonable person without at least entertaining the idea that there is such thing as excessive running.  Despite the outcry from the faithful, it’s a necessary inquiry.  After all, our sport is extreme by definition.  There’s a reason it’s called long distance running and part of it is because it defies the age-old saying that everything should be done in moderation.  The term “exercise addiction” is routinely thrown around when discussing marathoners, although the vast majority of us discard it completely because we don’t believe it negatively affects our relationships (and to be fair, in my case, it rarely does).  Plus, why make a problem out of something that is largely considered a good thing?  Few parents will ever worry about their children exercising too much like they would if they had the same issue with junk food, pornography or cocaine.

But it could be a problem and not just from an addiction standpoint.  It seems that every other day we get a new study from a reputable health center saying that marathon running is bad for the heart.  Studying the effects of long distance running on the heart has become the new daily glass of wine.  For every study that suggests that marathons are deleterious to the heart, there’s another that says otherwise.  Even the running man theory posited in Born to Run that suggests that the human body was evolutionarily engineered to run long distances is a very new idea.  Tantalizing yes, but very new and relatively untested.  But every time one of these cautionary articles comes up, we either avoid reading it altogether, or manage to find something wrong with the study to keep from worrying about our monthly marathon schedules.

Take, for example, a recent story in the New York Times about barefoot running.  Chris McDougall’s bestseller pushed barefoot running into popular culture and has spawned a faithful following.  But given the billions of dollars generated by the running shoe industry, it’s no surprise that there has been much debate on the merits of going shoeless.  However, the article did point out the shocking fact that, somehow, heel-striking is the more efficient and economical stride style and “by a considerable margin.”  I was an instant skeptic – if suddenly heel striking is the recommended landing strategy, flying against everything I had read on the topic, then what’s next?  Avoid drinking water on hot days?  Holding your breath during intervals increases endurance?  A gallon of heavy cream three hours before a race guarantees a PR?

I couldn’t help but think, was this study funded by Nike?  Flexfilm manufacturers?  How much money did Big Heelstrike’s lobbyists have?  But the point was that there was a study that disproved or somewhat dismantled something I thought was sacred.  And then I got to thinking: so much of the wisdom and advice around running is anecdotal or speculative.  The more you read about discoveries in the sport, the more you realize how little we know about it.  In fact, steak used to be the recommended meal the night before a race before carbohydrates became every runner’s preferred gorge.  Overhydration was prescribed until runners in medical tents unwittingly discovered hyponatremia.  And now there’s an article that says heel striking is the way to go.

For better or worse, we’re all different.  Every single serious list of tips comes with the requisite note that silver bullets don’t exist and what works for some won’t work for others.  Some love pickle juice, others swear by mustard packets.  For every runner that has their own meticulous electrolyte concoction there’s another who survives just fine on water.  For many aspects of running, we are fine making the right choices on our own, adopting what works for us and shelving what keeps us from our goals.  If you throw up after eating a sport bean, then maybe those aren’t right for you.  If you feel water sloshing around your stomach, try drinking at longer intervals on your next long run.

But what about what we can’t immediately see or feel?

A friend of mine sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal that debunks the idea that long-distance running guarantees excellent health.  It cites the buildup of coronary plaque and a condition called atrial fibrillation among others, saying that whatever health benefits we earn by running can become harmful past a certain distance.  Oddly enough, that number was very specific: 7.1 kilometers (4.4 miles) a day.  Once again, my instinct was to downplay it and insist that running was great and running long was greater.  But I’m not a scientist or a doctor.  How can I be so sure?

The sad truth is that, at the moment, we don’t know anything for sure.  There are people who smoke like the Deepwater Horizon and eat nothing but bacon well into their 80s.  If you search hard enough (or maybe just fire out one quick Google search) you might find a group of chain smokers who can cite studies showing that smoking can actually increase your life expectancy.  So what’s a serial marathoner to do with all these conflicting studies about heart tissue damage?

Stop running.  Just kidding.  Can you imagine that?

Pay attention to your body.  It has happened on more than one occasion, mostly when running fast in very warm conditions, that I’ll feel a cramp in my chest.  At that point, I always stop running and hydrate, most likely ending the run for the day.  Any sort of cramp in your chest is your body telling you to take it easy.  Even if it’s not serious, I’d rather assume the worst than poke the beast.

Research.  Read reputable studies on the matter and find out if anyone in your family has had a problem with heart disease.

Get yourself checked out.  The majority of deaths that occur during marathons stems from undiscovered heart conditions that were aggravated during exercise.  While it’s not cheap, an electrocardiogram (EKG) can tell you if you have any issues with your heart.  It can tell you if you’re developing symptoms for heart disease, if you have inflammation or any other abnormalities.

Play it safe.  There is the possibility that the study the Wall Street Journal cites is correct and that running past 30 miles a week is legitimately dangerous for our hearts.  In this case, we could pay Pascal’s Wager and simply keep our weekly limit to 30 miles to avoid pissing off the running gods.

All worries aside, marathons are on our side, at least for the short term.  In the ten years between 2000 and 2009, there were over 3.7 million marathon finishers (not individual people as I’m sure the study didn’t account for serial marathoners).  Of those, there were 28 reported deaths, 22 men and 6 women.  In other words, the chance of suffering a fatal heart attack during a marathon is so miniscule it might as well be negligible.

As for potential damage to our hearts, a lot of cases involve people with abnormal heart conditions that also happened to be marathoners.  In those cases, marathoning didn’t necessarily cause the condition, but it potentially made it worse.  The overall point is that it happens and many of us inside the running bubble are too quick to ignore it.  We get so caught up in the sport’s fervor and passion that we close our minds to outside, often contrarian opinions.  Our friends and family call us crazy and we embrace it like a compliment but if a doctor does the same, we feel like it’s a slight on our culture.  What we should be doing is asking why.

These thoughts aren’t meant to be a buzzkill, but an invitation to think objectively about the sport that we love so much.  I often complain that our ability to be open-minded about crucial topics (fiscal policy, the existence of god, the best condiment, etc.) is a thing of the past, so I owe it to myself to take a step back and wonder whether our marathon hedonism is worth it.  Part of it also has to do with my summer ultra training schedule, which is rarely a walk in the clouds.  But onwards I will continue with my regimen because I love the sport, the community, and yes, the bubble.  I just think that we should pop it every now and then to make sure we’re not doing any lasting damage.

Lastly, I’d love to hear from you about this.

Are there any interesting related articles that you have read recently that can shine more light on the situation?  Where do you draw the line?  How much is “too much”?  Do you think we were made to run extremely long distances?

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

28 Responses to Are We Running in a Bubble?

  1. G-Tang says:

    Insightful analysis that can be applied to a lot of things my friend

  2. tricesweet says:

    Thank you for popping my running bubble today. It probably needed it with the ultra training I’ve been obsessing about!

    • Dan says:

      It’s good every now and then to step out of it and figure out if there truly is a point beyond which it’s probably more bad than good. Ultra training really does that to you. Best of luck with the miles!

  3. This is a really wonderful post, thank you!

    I work in cancer research, and every 5 minutes another trend article comes out about “superfoods,” antioxidants, and things like that. Running is similar in that way. It’s probably more accurate to read all of these things and conclude that for some people, barefoot running works, and for others, it doesn’t. Over time, we come to understand for which people barefoot running is better, and why.

    The danger lies in applying each and every new study to our own running, without regard to individual differences and without cautious regard for the “unknown unknowns” of science. The 4.4 miles per day, for example, is their best estimate based on their statistical models (kind of like how the average American family has 1.7 children). It would be absurd for runners to start running exactly 4.4 miles per day, because we don’t know (and unfortunately don’t have a way of knowing — yet!) where we fit on the curve.

    That doesn’t mean this info is not useful or that “we don’t know anything for sure.” These studies do show that lots of these anecdotes, like the healthy 80-year old bacon eater, are outliers and it’s unlikely that we could reproduce their results across the rest of the population.

    The way I approach new knowledge in running is by asking myself, “might I be the kind of person who could benefit from this?” and “What are the risks involved?” If it’s something like, “runners should eat almonds!” then I usually try it out, because there are very few risks. If it’s something like the minimalist movement, I am much more cautious because my injury-prone past makes me 1) likely, quite different that the runners studied, and 2) awfully risk-adverse when it comes to changing my shoes!

    • Dan says:

      Thank you for the detailed comment! I think we see eye to eye here though. The scientific and nutritional community is constantly going back and forth between results because people are so vastly different that it’s challenging for a general statistical analysis to apply to even a preponderance of the population. I like your outlook on it though and it shows that you have found a way to look at running objectively without getting too caught up in it.

      The superfoods argument is probably a better analogy than wine — be it mangosteen or spirulina, it seems like every year there’s another cure-all food that will change the world. And for some people, it does, for others it doesn’t.

      Thanks again for adding to the conversation 🙂

  4. MedalSlut says:

    Spookily, I have been editing a similar post based on conversations with my dad about lasting damage I am doing to my body by running so much (his words). He used to be a rugby player, and he is about to book his second hip replacement operation. He regularly tells me I’ll suffer later in life if I’m not easier on myself, but recently I asked him to consider whether, knowing his limitations now, he would have stopped playing rugby. He answered, “Not a chance.” Like father, like daughter. I guess I’ll always be sceptical about the motivation behind particular studies (especially about things like footwear in running), but as long as I’m able, I’ll stick to what I enjoy, and take whatever risks comes along with that.

    And since this is basically an abridged version of the post I have been working on for the past 2 days, I am now doubting the need to post it! 😛

    • Dan says:

      You bring up an important point that I didn’t mention, which is that of how much enjoyment you get out of it. It plays into the bubble theme because I bet you that smokers truly enjoy the drag, though each one is potentially damaging their lungs. I genuinely love running, but I do wonder if I would stop or at least tone it down if I were given definitive proof that it will catch up with me eventually.

      Because let’s face it, every greasy hamburger isn’t doing us any favors, but we still eat them from time to time. But running 10+ miles happens many times a month for me. The NYT article comes just shy of drawing a big, fat line between running that much and eating a burger, so it does give me a little pause. At what point does sheer enjoyment of something trump the potential negative effects? It’s a tough question, but one worth asking.

      Thanks for reading and lending your thoughts from across the pond 🙂

  5. Another great piece, Dan! Personally, I’m on the quality-of-life wagon. Nothing makes me feel better or more healthy than running. A simple eye test comparing pictures of me now next to one of me before becoming a runner would also suggest I’m doing it right. Everything else is just noise. I will be smart about training, listen to my body and do all the preventive stuff I can, but more than anything, I want my days on this earth, in this life as we know it, to be as happy as they can be. So running a lot it is!

    Also, kudos for working in THREE of my all-time favorite A-words in this post: abscise, apostasy and axiom. BAM!

    • Dan says:

      You touch upon a similar theme that MS above noted, and it’s an important consideration. You embody it more than any other person I know: the unbridled, raw ecstasy of running in its most simple, pure form. There is no doubt in my mind that part of life (some might argue ALL of life) is doing things that make you happy. If running makes you happy, then so be it, do it.

      But the troubling question is, what if in a few decades you aren’t afforded that blissful luxury because we learn that there IS a limit to how much the heart can take? Many of us might have our heads in the sand about it because for every person who says that exercise can be bad, there are tens of thousands of overweight people living sedentary lifestyles.

      But hey, who am I to deny anyone’s primal urges? It’s like Louis CK says: if you see a doughnut and it makes you squirm with delight, you should eat it. Life it too short to deny your body something that would make you so happy.

      I think I went off-topic a bit there, but you get my point. Thanks, as always, for adding your thoughts to mine, Jeff. Glad I could indulge your love of GRE words too.

      • There are plenty of older folks in the ultra scene who have been running like mad most of their adult lives. These people are still going strong. Remember Paul, the silver haired stud I introduced to you at IAT? That dude has been doing ultras for over 30 years and he is still rackin’ ’em up. I expect to be in the same situation when I reach that age.

  6. Otter says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot myself, especially when considering (and vetoing) a number of future races that I’d like to run.

    In general, most decisions in life can be categorized as impacting one of the following 3 areas — Health (both mental and physical), Wealth, or Relationships. Oftentimes, any given decision will impact 2 of those categories, and sometimes all 3. Taking a step back now and then to figure out where running falls into those 3 categories for YOU will go a long way toward breaking you out of that bubble.

    What are your goals in life? What are your big-picture dreams? Does running bring you closer to where you want to be, or are you compromising elsewhere just because running is something you *think* you should be doing? Put simply — does your love of running come at the expense of the quality of other areas of your life? For anyone examining their relationship with any hobby, these simple questions are a good place to start.

    But back to the health, wealth, and relationships bit for a minute. It’s true that running will drain your wealth (especially if you travel to race out-of-state), and running may keep you from spending time with your loved ones — most people would consider these to be bad things, but it’s only after considering the trade-offs that the full story can be told.

    If I stay in the night before running a 5K that cost me $30, that’s a night where I’m *not* going to the bar instead and blowing through $100 while poisoning my body (not that I’m strictly against poisoning my body with alcohol, mind you). I miss my friends in Chicago if/when I travel to run, but that FOMO is greatly offset if I happen to be traveling with friends or meeting up with other people I know in the city that I’m visiting. Before I started running, I was 40 lbs. heavier and I had a bad back; now, I’m more-or-less in-shape, and my back hasn’t troubled me for damn near a full year….

    …and even I decided recently that I need to scale it back a bit. It’s all about finding balance.

    • Dan says:

      I thought my post was a bit on the long side, but reading comments like these make me realize how much more there is to discuss on the topic. I had completely forgotten about the myriad of effects that a dedicated running lifestyle has on one’s life, outside of the physiological, cardiovascular ones. While I was discussing the potential strain that the sport can have on our hearts, it’s definitely worth considering the impact it has on our wallets and friends.

      Specifically, I do feel like 2012 was overboard for me. I went absolutely nuts and spent more money than I was prepared to. While it didn’t break the bank, I’m sure my savings account is wondering where I’ve been this whole time. I could have probably benefited from sitting down and thinking it through, tabling a few races for later years. But I didn’t, because I was so caught up in this perfervid culture that rewards crazy feats like multiple marathons.

      Because if you think about it, heart tissue damage AND destitution would be a terrible end result for something that was supposed to be healthy and constructive. Thanks for the continued support, Otter ol’ pal.

  7. runninginnj says:

    I’m putting together a blog post on that New York Times article (may get posted tomorrow) – the premise of the article doesn’t really fit with the study results if you look closely.

  8. Laszlo says:

    Excellent writing Dan!

    My first ever run (actually walked most of the distance) was in mid 2010. 3.7 miles in more than 53 minutes. Then I have been on and off running until end of 2012. Through that time, I have never been inside the bubble. Actually I never even recognized that there is a bubble. Then at the end of 2012 I wanted to get into better shape and started running on a regular basis still without having any clue about having a bubble out there. Then months later I just happened to recognize that I am already inside the bubble…

    I think in general there is risk in everything we do nowadays. We should not walk, because we never know when a car will hit us. Or we should stop working on computers as we might not be able to move our fingers/hands after 40 years of intensive typing. I believe running is the same: we make a choice how we are going to utilize our body. Some of us runners will be paying more attention to the signals our own body sends to us, some of us will pay less attention. Some will simply ignore the signals completely.

    I think as long as the path we choose makes us happy, we should be fine.

    By the way, I just found an interesting article about the risk of dying in a car or motorcycle accident (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/how-risky-is-flying.html) and it seems that there is a higher chance to die in a car or motorcycle accident than to die from a heart attack while running a marathon… 🙂

    So from my side, I think I will keep on running! 🙂

    • Dan says:

      You bring up great points, Laszlo. Sometimes it’s just not worth worrying about the tiny possibility of something happening, when we are more at risk just crossing the street than running a thousand miles a year (though some of those miles include crossing streets, so perhaps the risk is even greater!).

      I do appreciate your positive attitude. It’s a true hallmark of the running community, that boundless and infectious optimism that you see behind the barricades of a finishing chute and in the determination of everyone crossing the finish line. It’s good to be able to step outside of that every now and then to evaluate whether what we’re doing is good for our bodies and hearts. But ultimately, that feeling of endless exuberance that we get when we finish a race or watch a friend achieve their goals is priceless.

      You could argue that it would even be worth whatever negative effects might come up, as several commenters on this post have suggested. That’s for everyone to decide individually.

      Thanks again for reading and adding your thoughts.

  9. Pingback: Barefoot running and opinion pieces | Running in NJ

  10. Mike says:

    Ooh, my brain hurts… I take it that means it’s working? I’d imagine this is a topic that all hardcore runners struggle with at some point, if not constantly. Everyone lives in their own bubble to some extent, but I think it’s important as social animals that we’re willing and able to put ourselves in someone else’s (non-running) shoes and experience the world from inside a different bubble once in a while.

    I prefer to treat studies like that NY Times article with a boulder-sized grain of salt, because once you’ve conducted a few hundred (if not thousand) experiments in your own lab, you realize how deeply flawed the experimental design and data interpretation of most human studies are. Researchers studying the causes of disease frequently use mice as proxies for humans, one reason being that it allows for exquisite control of the experiment. Parameters such as the animals’ genetic makeup, food supply and intake, exercise regimen, and even their circadian rhythms (12 hours of light, 12 hours of dark) are carefully controlled to try to ensure that only specific, recognized variables play a role in the experimental outcome. Even then, and with a large enough sample size to reach statistical significance, experiments fail more often than not, and we’re constantly surprised by the outcome and baffled by the data. Weigh this need for a tightly regulated lab environment against the reality of wildly diverse humans living in the real world, and you start to understand the enormous potential for confounding factors and unanticipated variables that can wreak havoc on even the most carefully planned and executed human studies.

    Ask anyone you know who works in big pharma just how difficult it is to get a drug approved by the FDA… you’ll likely witness a perceptible shudder in response to your question. The burden of proof is tremendous, and far exceeds that of any study you’ve read on resveratrol or barefoot running. For this reason, the vast majority of pharmaceuticals never make it to market because the manufacturer’s claims/hopes/desires ultimately wilt under intense scrutiny.

    Is running good for you? Yes. Is running bad for you? Yes. Does running long distances increase your longevity? Yes. Does running long distances increase your risk of heart attack? Yes. For any stance you want to take, I’ll find you one or more published reports that support that stance… and probably an equal number that refute it. The fact that it’s “fit to print” in the NY Times makes it no less deserving of our healthy skepticism. Paralysis by analysis can be debilitating, but it’s also our lot as the highly evolved owners of a 3-pound brain.

    Bottom line for me, the most important question really is, does running keep me happy and healthy without adversely affecting anyone else? The answer to that question remains an undeniable “yes”. I particularly like the quote – I don’t know who said it originally but I’ve heard Dean Karnazes repeat it – that “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming …. WOW what a ride.” To me, the unwelcome possibility of regret later in life is a far more unsettling spectre than any cardiac arrhythmia.

    I firmly subscribe to the notion that we’re each our own guinea pig. The body is an amazingly responsive feedback machine, if we’re willing to listen. I’ve definitely overtrained at times, but my body is quick to let me know. Any well-trained runner knows you can’t fool your body. Sure, you can ignore warning signs and stubbornly push through the electric fences that your body has evolved to keep you alive… but the runners who run longer and happier are the ones who learn to listen to their body’s feedback and continually make the necessary adjustments. They’re the ones who realize that sometimes they’re better off just pulling the plug on that day’s run. For hardcore running types (I stop short of the term “addicts”) like us that ain’t easy – but it leaves us in a much better position to find and push through our other perceived limits.

    And incidentally, I do believe the term “hyponatremia” was almost completely unknown in running circles before the arrival of Gatorade and its bazillion-dollar marketing campaign warning about the supposed dangers of dehydration. Again, the body offers its own feedback – “I’m thirsty, therefore I’ll drink now,” rather than “Well I’m not thirsty yet, but untold billions in advertising tell me that if I don’t drink anyway it’ll be too late by the time I do realize I’m thirsty…”. Paralysis by analysis.

    Speaking of perceived limits, I do believe I’m trying to push through those in WordPress’s comments section. Clearly I’ve got plenty of thoughts on this topic. You’ve skillfully and thoughtfully ignited a powder keg on a tough subject, Dan… I’d love to discuss it with you during a 30-mile training run sometime!

    • Dan says:

      Early in my marathon “career” I had a conversation with a family friend who told me that it had been PROVEN that each marathon takes days off your life. I remember turning to her and saying, at least I’ll live those days hard now instead of simply “having” them at the end of my life. It wasn’t the most eloquent way of saying that I’d rather seize the opportunity to run far now while I can.

      Thanks for the unrestrained comment, Mike. I don’t mean that in jest at all, I really do appreciate the detailed and multifaceted input, especially from a scientist. I do agree that there are far too many variables to control when conducting an experiment on something as complex as running mechanics — but isn’t that a slippery slope? Could you argue that pretty much ALL experiments involving people are completely incapable of isolating specific factors?

      I suppose it’s a tough pill to swallow because I tend to assume that findings such as these have already been rigorously evaluated for outlying aberrations or peculiar artifices. Maybe that’s naive of me. But yes, the point is, we are all our own specimens, running in our own petri dishes, eight billion experiments of one. I just hope fifty years down the line, this experiment yields positive results for me.

  11. What a great post, Dan. I looked at a few of the comments and don’t think I’m necessarily adding anything new. (Sorry) But I do want to jump onto the quality of life bandwagon.

    Running/marathoning makes me really unbelievably happy. And while even I admit that I did an excessive amount of distance events last year, I believe that generally distance running is good for me. I definitely believe it must be better than being sedentary, which is of course a much bigger (much, much bigger) problem in America than “we all might be running a little too much.”

    But, I basically agree with what seems to me to be the general consensus here. Listen to my body, and enjoy my life – while doing something that overall should be pretty healthy for me.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading and for offering your thoughts, Aurora. Though I’m truly astounded by the detail in the comments I’ve received, no addition is extraneous. Your 52 halfs in one year was definitely one for the books — I’m sure not ALL of it was fun or smooth, but I can say with complete confidence that you will look back on it in years to come as a revelatory experience.

      And that’s a very important part of this potential tradeoff: do we just go with what makes us feel good even if we’re not 100% sure it’s the best thing for our bodies, or do we play it safe at the expense of pushing our limits and conquering new challenges? The challenge is that the sport is extreme by nature, so pegging down a “happy medium” is almost a joke. How can you “do everything in moderation” when just doing the bare minimum to finish a marathon is above and beyond the norm?

      Anyway, lots to contemplate. All these follow-up comments will most likely lead to additional posts on the topic. Thanks for joining!

  12. I really enjoyed this post, Dan. Very thought provoking. A little balance and perspective is certainly worth calling for.

    • Dan says:

      Balance and perspective are crucial when approaching this sport. Given that the bare minimum amount of training to complete a marathon is already an intense endeavor, it can be very easy to go overboard. Thanks for reading!

  13. Pingback: Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway | Dan's Marathon

  14. MedalSlut says:

    Stopped by to wish you luck on your big race because I thought it was tomorrow. Realize you’re probably done by now! Hope everything went well and your feet don’t hate you too much! 🙂

  15. Pingback: Heavenly Gait: Running as a Religion | Dan's Marathon

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