State 42: Maine (2014 Maine “Half” Marathon)

I awoke on Sunday with a serious, credible issue in my right knee. My IT band was extremely tight and would complain loudly every time I raised it off the ground. It could bear weight, but the minute I sprung forward, it tingled with pain. The hilly and challenging New Hampshire Marathon had pulled something out of alignment and I had hoped against hope that a good night’s rest would somehow nudge all the pieces back to their original positions.

It hadn’t, and I was due to run another marathon in just two hours.

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

My friend Javier dropped me off at the start line about an hour before the race was to begin. I made use of that time by walking in circles, hoping to somehow shake off the pain, as if it were a pesky bug that had gotten caught in my leg hairs. As more runners arrived, I felt like I was doing something right. Lifting my leg so that my knee was almost touching my chest, I felt better. I even dashed for a hundred feet and the discomfort felt manageable.  Perhaps I would be able to survive this marathon after all.

It took just one tenth of a mile to crush my optimism like a mallet to an egg.

If I felt any sort of relief, it was gone by the time the smoke from the cannon had faded from the starting line. With hundreds of runners zipping by me, I stopped to walk just a minute into the race. The pain in my right knee was unbearable, sending acidic stings with every step, each one worse than the previous. In that moment, I knew that 26.1 more miles of this would be impossible, if not absolutely excruciating. In my hand I clenched my phone, which I had sealed in a ziploc bag, and every slow, stumbling step I took, I gripped it harder. It was my way out, my lifeline. I could use it to call Javier and this whole thing would be over. I had that power to drop out.  I just worried that I didn’t have the maturity.

Mile 4, by the sea

Mile 4, by the sea

I sent him a text message instead.  “This is not working out.”  It was like mental insurance, an early warning sign of things to come.  But I stopped just shy of using it to call for a rescue.

That first agonizing mile was slow.  Every time I broke into a run, pain would singe into my knee and I would be forced back to a walk.  In that time, the one thing I managed to do very quickly was burn through the five stages of grief.

Denial

This can’t be happening. This is my thing, running is MY thing, and I’ve proven to be pretty good at it. There’s no way that this pain is really such a big deal. I just need to keep running on it so it loosens up my knee.  After that, everything will just click. All pains eventually go away, so it’s just a matter of ignoring this little hiccup, steel yourself, use mind over matter, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Just keep going.

Anger

Ow, ow, ow, this is bullshit and not working. I absolutely killed my training for this without a single issue. There’s no reason why my knee should be hurting this much. It hasn’t ever been this bad. In fact, my right knee has NEVER hurt, so why start now? I didn’t even push myself yesterday and suddenly it’s punking out like it’s never experienced a race before? Unbelievable. Ow, ow, ow …

Bargaining

You know, if I switch my gait to my old, maligned heel-strike, then I can actually pick it up a little. Maybe I can stay with this run/walk business until the end. Can I hobble the full distance?  But then we’d miss our hotel check-out and Javier and his family would end up waiting far too long for me. I wouldn’t be able to shower either – is that such a bad thing though? Is it too much to ask a family of four to wait for five hours and then endure the mephitic odor of an unwashed runner in the car for another two? 

Depression

This sucks. This really sucks. I came all the way here and now I might have to bail. There’s a reason that many runners re-brand DNS from “Did Not Start” to “Did Nothing Stupid” and I’m about to discover just what Stupid is. Man, each step hurts; this is the worst. People are going to give me that smirk and tell me SEE? They KNEW running was bad for your knees, and the proof was in my pudding-like pace. I wish people would stop staring at me.  I know, I’m walking at the first mile, thanks for your concern, but please move along.  And on top of all that, I now have to come back to Maine eventually to re-do this state.

Acceptance

… or do I? This slower pace and awkward stride is actually working pretty well. In fact, check it out, I’m at mile 4. I can probably keep this up for another 9 miles, cut my losses, run a half marathon instead and stay on track for all fifty states. It wasn’t my original plan, but if I stop running and go home now, I’ll be very upset at myself. Am I alright with doing “just” a half marathon?  Yeah … yeah I’m okay with that.

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

I would love to say that a smile burst from my visage from that moment onward and I waltzed happily for the next nine miles. Instead, I was locked in a grimace, a vestigial emotion leftover from the Anger phase. Denial was quickly overcome – there was no getting past the obvious pain. I bargained with my goals and ultimately accepted that I would rather not crawl for five hours, kill my enjoyment of the event and ruin everyone’s plans. But anger would stick around for several thousand strides.

It wouldn’t be until mile 10 that I began to run fast again. I wasn’t in the clear, as my IT band was still pretty tight. But it was no longer feeling like it was getting squeezed. I even sped up to a 6:47 pace toward the end and only then did I let myself smile. Maybe I hadn’t really accepted what I was doing until this point, as if the last two hours had only existed to get my mind off what felt like cheating or giving up.

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

It took me a while to get over it. I thought of people like Steve, Danielle and Otter, who have gone on to finish long races with terrible, probably worse pains, crossing the timing mats often smiling and with absolutely no regrets. It made me wonder if they know something I don’t, or if their worldview is somehow more mature than mine. Maybe they’re just better actors.  A childish part of me believes that accomplishments are only worthy or important if someone else thinks they’re impressive. I know that’s not true, but I can’t help but think on it from time to time.

I wish I had been able to fully enjoy the friendly volunteers, the flanks of cheerful spectators who assured me that I was “looking good” and encouraged me by name to “keep it up.” I’m sure they had seen my scowl because I had never gotten that much dedicated attention before. It would have been nice to enjoy the picturesque neighborhoods that came alive to witness the stream of people flowing through them. I would have taken more time to breathe in the beautiful seaside vistas and wispy cirrus clouds vanishing into the horizon.  Because the race really was quite scenic and very well organized.

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker.  And yes, that IS a can of baked beans.

But I did finish smiling. Oddly enough, part of me did have fun at this race, even if the majority of it was spent wincing and facing the possibility of dropping out. If the physical act of running weren’t fun by itself, then I wouldn’t have come all the way here in the first place. Though they were emotionally charged and far from graceful, the miles I ran in Portland were still miles run. And of course, beyond the race itself, there was plenty to enjoy. When I wasn’t running, I was spending a fun weekend with a good friend and his family, happily noshing on local seafood during a gorgeous time of year.

It’s a strange thing, dropping to half the distance.  As the day went on, I quickly forgot about the race, almost as if it had happened weeks ago.  Despite how much those early miles hurt, they didn’t seem to register in my mind.  Maybe my subconscious is already quite aware that I will come back to Maine for the distance I originally wanted to run.  But that comeback will have to wait, and for now, I’m happy with my memories of the Pine Tree State.  Though I will certainly look back on this trip as “the time I dropped to the half,” I will also remember Maine for many other reasons.  There was the lobster, the chance to reconnect with friends and the realization that these events can bring out more than just the strength in your legs and the sweat from your pores.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 053 (ME)

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State 41: New Hampshire (2014 New Hampshire Marathon)

Autumn in New England, best place and time for a pretty run

Autumn in New England, best place and time for a pretty run

A side-effect and direct consequence of marathon-related selective memory is that you forget how painful and arduous some undertakings are and decide to try them again. One of those is the tricky double-marathon. Last year to the weekend, Otter and I went to the Pacific Northwest to run the Leavenworth and Portland marathons on consecutive days. Though the endeavor did a number on Otter’s knee, I left the region with two new marathon states and a hipster co-op’s worth of confidence.   It wasn’t all perfect, as I didn’t enjoy the otherwise beautiful and impeccably executed Portland Marathon as much as I could have because my brain was too focused on how much my legs were hurting.

Erin ran the point-to-point half marathon on little training like a champ

Erin ran the point-to-point half marathon on little training like a champ

But for some reason (runner’s amnesia), I decided to do it again. In the interim, my West Coast running pal Mike ran two marathons in one weekend and finished each in under 3:45. So, obviously, being the brutish male that I am, I found myself wanting to improve that impressive mark by running both of my marathons in under 3 hours and 40 minutes. And so it was that I found myself in Bristol with my high-school friend Javier and his family for the 22nd running of the New Hampshire Marathon.  I was huddled with Larry Macon and a few hundred runners listening to the Newfound Memorial Middle School band get ready to play the national anthem.  The bassist kept compulsively breaking into the opening notes of “Seven Nation Army” but would repeatedly get hushed down by the conductor.

“This kid just really wants to play that song,” I said to the runner next to me.  “It wants to explode out of him.”
“Teach, I can do it!” he replied, imitating the feverish bassist, “I can rock this bitch, Teach, just gimme a chance!”

It was a foggy, chilly morning

It was a foggy, chilly morning

The famous foliage of New England had started and most trees were shedding their orange leaves and pine straw, preparing for winter. The entire race would be run surrounded by this beautiful change. While the trees were transitioning between forest greens and bright oranges, my feet would soon be in the process of changing from uphill to downhill. It wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t done the proper due diligence for this race. Not only did it start with a very long, gradual uphill, but from there it rarely flattened out.  Many of these descents would be pretty steep.

So what does a smart, reasonable person do? He or she would evaluate these new environmental conditions and adjust their time expectations accordingly. Perhaps 3:40 would be a little ambitious given the constant elevation change and the fact that their training grounds afford no hills for practice. It is entirely acceptable to simply dial it back, given that no one below the podium cares about finishing times.

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

But I am not that person. I set out to run under 3:40, come hell or high water. Even worse, I told people about those goals. You can’t just back down after you’ve proclaimed it to the world.

I started with an easy, slow pace and ramped my way up to my target speed.  The course traced a path around central New Hampshire’s Newfound Lake, with many hills lumped along the way. There was a near constant fog hovering above us for the entire race, often descending to the pavement as a light shower. I realize that I boast having never run in rain, and while this race may have proven that long-standing claim untrue, it was quite refreshing and rarely ever felt like a meaningful weather event.  Water wasn’t dripping off me and my shoes hadn’t yet begun to squish against the road.

For virtually the entire race, we ran on the left side of a two-lane road, open to traffic.  The chilly, damp air was being moved briskly by a breeze and as the sun hid from view all day, I was all but ensured to stay chilly for the entire race.  Leaves would rain down from above, along with tine pine needles and the occasional acorn. Boats were moored on the shore by beautiful lake houses, every bit of ground covered in damp leaves. The race claims to be “the most beautiful marathon in New England” and I believed the hype.  Between the tranquil, fog-draped lake and the rich tapestry of autumnal colors, it was indeed the picture of pulchritude.

No more dedicated shoulder, runners are on the edge of the road

No more dedicated shoulder, runners are on the edge of the road

About halfway through my left knee began to feel slightly out of place. I instantly panicked and slowed to a walk. It happened on a downhill, and each stomp moved the knee ever so sightly out of alignment. Dark thoughts raced through my mind and I muttered a soft curse into the autumn air. But once on flat terrain, it seemed to recover and I continued the rest of the race without any serious problems. But the specter of an injury lurked in the back of my mind. After all, many tiny little issues have a way of coming back after the running is over.

Mercifully, the biggest climbs were all in the first half of the race. I would dedicate the majority of my energy in the latter half to maintaining an even pace and keeping my feet even on the ground. When you’re running on roads that bank upwards on hills, you’re essentially running on the sides of your feet, lop-sided. This isn’t much of an issue if it’s temporary, but it happened for most of the race and I was worried about how it would affect my knees.

Approaching halfway, the road has narrowed

Approaching halfway, the road has narrowed

Aid stations came and went, staffed by two volunteers each. I might have guessed that about 800 people were running the marathon, so there wasn’t much need for large, industrial aid stations. But despite the slow trickle of runners, each volunteer was nothing but assiduous in making sure we were hydrated.  There were several aid stations through which I walked, but even my slower pace didn’t dampen the volunteers’ dedicated energy.  They would walk right up to me with two cups and hold them right at my chest level, as if offering me the elixir of life.

As the race drew to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how my legs were going to wake up the next day. I wasn’t tired, but the near constant mix of ups and downs had pummeled my quads more than any 20-miler in recent memory. It wasn’t too late to slow down and give them a rest, but my troglodyte mind had been made up days ago; I was here to run a certain time and no amount of sound logic would get me to stop. I had built up a lot of momentum scaling these hills and I wasn’t about to let that meaningless 3:40 threshold pass me.

Miles 20-22 were right on the shores of Newfound Lake

Miles 20-22 were right on the shores of Newfound Lake

Three hours and thirty-eight minutes later, I was crossing the finish mats at Newfound Memorial Middle School. I happily downed a bottle of water, some orange wedges and a few cups of Gatorade before heading to the school locker rooms for a much needed shower. It took a long time to change out of my running clothes, rinse them and put on new ones. Though I strode confidently over the finish line in a time that would have been a PR two years ago, I was aching. The adrenaline had receded from my muscles and without my body’s mechanical, forward chug, I found myself hurting.

Mile 25 runs along the Newfound River

Mile 25 runs along the Newfound River

And this time, the pain was coming from that hitherto impervious joint, that steely bastion of endurance that had almost never complained in all my years of running: my right knee.  The usual culprit was always my left side.  For some strange reason, which a detailed gait analysis might disinter, most of my running pains emerge on the left.  Historically, it’s my left metatarsals that get aggravated; my left knee was to blame for my first ever DNF; even my left elbow was struck with bursitis three years ago.  But my right side had always kept it together until the afternoon after the New Hampshire Marathon.

You wouldn’t have guessed it on my face. I left the locker to find Javier and his family, actively disguising my clumsy limp, trying to look confident for the next day’s event. I did mention that I had overdone it, but said it with such sangfroid you’d think I was talking about putting too much barbecue sauce on a McRib. I had no idea how tomorrow would unfold, but knew without a doubt that I wasn’t going to laugh through it. After almost seven months of near invincibility, something had gone wrong, and I had yet another 26.2 miles to face down the next day.

Marathon_Map 052 (NH)

Marathoners, Get an EKG

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and do not have the credentials to provide medical treatment or advice.  This post is only my personal opinion based on my own experiences with medical tests and running.  It is not meant to be used as a guide for your own health decisions.  If you think you need an EKG or a similar procedure, please consult your personal care provider.

Getting into marathon shape is not easy, regardless of your weight, height or athletic history. Even once you make it to the finish line, you feel like your muscles are full of battery acid, ready to eat through your skin. You limp for days and wonder how you’ll ever manage to take another airborne step again. But one thing is certain: you’re likely to be in pretty good shape.

The buildup of mileage, the rush of oxygen and tearing up of muscle over the last four to six months have made you stronger. Your legs can carry you forward for hours, your resting heart beat has dropped a few beats per minute, and your body has become more energy efficient. There’s always one sign at every marathon emblazoned with some variation of the oft-quoted (but statistically unreliable) factoid that only 0.1% of the population has finished a marathon. We take that to heart, pun intended, because despite the noise and talk, we really are a minority.

The problem is that after many years of this, long-distance runners can fall into the trap of thinking they’re invincible. While the country (and increasingly the world) experiences public health and obesity crises, we stand somewhat apart, logging weekly miles and trying to eat right. Our reasons are diverse. We might have started training to lose weight, to challenge ourselves, or to carve out daily time to clear our minds. Whatever the cause, running between five and ten miles in one sitting is rarely a big deal to us.

But every so often the specter of doom rears its ugly head. I’m not talking about injuries – those happen to all of us and often enough that we know how to deal with most of them. I’m referring to the sobering fact that every so often, we are flooded with emails from friends and relatives all reminding us that someone died mid-race.

Long distance running is a unique sport. Few other sports allow thousands of amateur athletes to compete alongside the cream of the crop. Few other sports allow spectators to witness such incredible variance in performance over such a long period of time. We watch professional athletes on TV perform amazing feats, as they drop to the ground, heaving and sweating, but we never think they’re in any real danger. They are, after all, professionals. But that moment of security last a few minutes in a marathon as the elites and top 1% zip by. After that, it’s the throng of every-people, who run for fun or a sense of accomplishment.

The farther down the course you traverse, the more ragged everyone looks. The enthusiastic smiles of the first 10k become contorted in rictus grimaces, ebullient cheers are now hissed through gnashed teeth. As you watch people struggle to stay strong over such an unforgiving distance, it’s only natural to wonder whether the sport is good for them. And every so often, it seems like that question is given a dark answer.

First, the good news is that the numbers are on our side. If marathon running were truly bad for us, then we’d be seeing a lot more deaths. A recent Forbes article pins the likelihood of death from a marathon at 0.5 to 2 deaths for every 100,000 participants. While that is absolutely no comfort to the friends and family of the rare death, it does put the activity in perspective. For example, you are more likely to die while swimming, biking, playing football or even playing tennis and far more likely if you drive a car. Even with the boom that the sport is experiencing, deaths are very rare. A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that despite the increase in participants from 2000 to 2009, the low incidence remains the same.

But the fact that they still happen sends a shiver down our spines, regardless of our PR ambitions. This year alone there have been deaths at the New York City Half Marathon, the London Marathon, the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach and the Rock ‘n Roll Raleigh Half Marathon.  The fact that three of those examples were half marathons shows that the phenomenon is not limited to runners journeying 26.2 miles.

So why is it that some runners never cross the finish line? Dr. Peter McCullough from Dallas’ Baylor University Medical Center says that whenever a young, relatively fit person collapses mid-race, it’s most likely due to hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is a condition where the heart muscle or myocardium is thickened and thus restricts blood flow. The biggest issue with this condition is that it is asymptomatic, or difficult to detect until you’re having a cardiac episode.

But there is a way to detect if you have any abnormalities in the heart, including HCM, and that’s by getting screened. This is done via electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), a device that measures the electrical activity of the heart. I went through the procedure in early May and it was completely painless. In addition to the EKG, I also underwent an ultrasound and a stress test, where I walked on an inclined treadmill with several electrodes attached to my chest. Every two minutes or so, the speed and incline increased until I was sweating bullets. During the ultrasound, I could see my heart expanding and contracting and each individual valve flapping effortlessly.

Most of the screening was, to be completely honest, a fun ego stroke. The majority of the patients that walk into the doctor’s practice were there because they had a problem and not for some peace of mind. Since HCM is a largely unfelt heart condition, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t that one unfortunate runner among the masses. After all, the most common fatalities occur in men in their 30s, albeit those with pre-existing, undiagnosed heart abnormalities.

It would seem somewhat reasonable to suggest then, that you too should get screened. If you are a serial marathoner, an ultrarunner or someone who routinely logs over 30 miles a week in the sport, it wouldn’t be unwise to take a look at your heart, especially if you experience any sort of chest pain or pressure during a run or if you have a family history of HCM.  Some might even say that routine checkups should be compulsory.  However, the American Heart Association has oddly not recommended mass screening. Their reasons have to do with resource allocation and logistics – there are simply many more health issues to tackle that take more lives and there are far too many active, athletic people in the United States to warrant that many EKGs (it’s also suggested that it would cut into cardiologists’ profit margins if widespread EKGs achieved economies of scale).

“The cardiac community is divided on this,” says Dr. McCullough. “But I fall in the camp where I think that everyone involved in serious athletics should have a echocardiogram, just like every woman who gets pregnant has two or three ultrasounds.”  Source

I agree completely. If you have the incentive (you are a serial marathoner or an ultrarunner) and the opportunity (you have decent health insurance), then by all means, get screened and run calm.

Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer

Music: A Legal and Healthy Performance Enhancer
Do you run with or without tunes?

I spun the click wheel of my old iPod until I found the song I wanted: “Farewell” by Kamelot, a power metal assault on the senses, fueled by multi-layered guitars, furious keyboards and a galloping double-kick bass beat.  By all accounts, it would be the perfect song to fuel several laps around the track.  I hit “Play” and took off, each step hitting the track as if it were a giant snare drum.  However, this was 2004 and I still had a second-generation iPod that would look like a shiny microwave by today’s standards.  So two laps into the run, the constant shaking had caused the tin can to panic and shut itself down.

It wouldn’t be until eight years later that I would go out on another run while listening to music.  My reasons for eschewing an mp3 player in those early days as a nascent distance runner were twofold.  Normal headphones fall out of my ears with just a gentle nudge and I was too lazy to buy specialty sports earbuds.  Secondly, there might be a scientific explanation for this, but covering my ears with anything warms me up considerably.  As someone who sweats just thinking about the sun, I opted to keep my ears well ventilated.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my head is a quiet echo chamber when I lace up.  I always manage to find the right song from the mental jukebox, but it can’t just be any enjoyable tune.  There are two characteristics it must have.  It has to be good enough that I can listen to it on repeat for an hour and its tempo has to line up with my gait so that each footstrike is a (half/quarter or full) beat.  For example, “The Takedown” by Yellowcard could get me to conquer a small country but my feet can’t sync with its beat.  Similarly, “Tucked Away” by the Goo Goo Dolls might not rile up a Viking horde into battle, but it matches my cadence perfectly.

(It only sounds OCD when I spell it out because I’m pretty sure this is how most runners behave … right?)

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Motorola MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player

Eventually, I started using an mp3 player for the stationary bike at the gym but it got to the point where I would simply not exercise if the device was out of power.  My running buddy at the time would also completely forego runs if his Nano were out of juice, which led me to believe that it was possible to become so attached to running with music that the two could become indivisible.  The idea of being so dependent on a shiny box of circuits, which could literally decide whether or not to run, was so crazy, that I almost felt indignant toward those who behaved in such a way (and we can ignore that this describes exactly how I am about my Garmin).

But my sneer wouldn’t have very much company.  A quick glance at the treadmills of any gym will show that pretty much everyone is listening to something while they run.  Nine out of ten runners that I see on Chicago’s lake front path have a pair of colorful cables wired into their ears, feeding them whatever catalytic melody gets them moving.  On a few occasions last year, I took a shiny new MOTOACTV player to the lake to try it out and write a review.  For those select runs, I was part of the music movement, experiencing firsthand what the vast majority of runners do every time they lace up.  The results were remarkable.

Evidence From People More Reputable Than I

It didn’t surprise me to learn that the scientific studies on the issue almost universally support music’s positive effects on athletic performance.  A simple study out of the University of Texas A&M had students running a maximal 1.5-mile run with and without music.  Not only did they find that they finished the run faster while listening to music, but their level of perceived exertion was kept constant.  In other words, they didn’t notice how much faster they were, most likely because their brains weren’t focusing on the body’s natural feedback.  This latter finding intrigued me because the fact that they were faster shouldn’t surprise anyone.  But in knowing that the students themselves didn’t feel like they were running faster lies the real potential for performance enhancement.

The 2012 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

The 2013 Garmin Marathon, the race where I easily carried the most STUFF with me while running, but a portable music player was not one of them

But perceived exertion is so subjective.  Although the students ran the course faster, it’s possible that they had higher heart- and sweat rates while listening to music but simply didn’t know it because they were being distracted by the tunes.  A study by Brian Matesic and Fred Cromartie published in the Sport Journal in 2002 has compelling evidence against this claim.  In their study, they actually measured trained and untrained students’ heart rates as they completed laps around a track both with and without music.  Predictably, lap times were faster while music was playing.  But even more fascinating was the effect it had on their heart rates.  “Among the untrained runners … a significant relationship was found, namely that average heart rate fell by almost six beats per 2.5-min interval when music was played.”  Trained runners also exhibited a drop in heart rate, but only by less than 3 beats per interval.

These findings therefore suggest that music has not only a psychosomatic effect on the subjective experience of running, but can provide an actual physiological advantage that can improve performance.  As I ran on the lake path with my MOTOACTV blaring fast songs into my head, I was experiencing this boost in real time.  I felt like I was out for an easy run, barely breaking a sweat, only to realize I was flirting with the 7-minute pace barrier, which is usually reserved for intense tempo runs.  The chorus to a mosh-worthy song would kick in and I would find myself running 6:40 splits as easily as ordering a milkshake.  Not only was I faster, but I felt like I was barely trying.  Why wasn’t I doing this all the time?

After all, the effects were real and significant.  During the course of my research, I noticed that many authors were citing Brunel University’s Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a leading researcher in sports psychology with a keen interest in the effects of music on performance.  In one of his many studies, he notes that music “promote[s] an ergogenic (work-enhancing) effect.  This occurs when music improves exercise performance by either reducing perceptions of fatigue or increasing work capacity. Typically, this results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength.”  Earlier I noted that I only run to songs that match my gait.  Karageorghis goes on to explain that “[s]ynchronous music use (i.e., when an exerciser consciously moves in time with a musical beat) has been shown to provide ergogenic and psychological benefits in repetitive endurance activities.”  In other words, matching music to your gait can improve your endurance.  In his studies, this can mean a difference of 15%.  It can also make your movements feel more natural, thus increasing your efficiency and delay fatigue.

So music not only has the potential to make you faster and lower your heart rate, but it can control you like a witch doctor and improve your form?  That’s perhaps taking it a bit too far.  But the idea that your body can latch onto a beat, run consistently to it and thereby increase its biomechanical efficiency is fascinating.

Of course, not all studies show the same results.  In a widely cited 2010 study from John Moores University in Liverpool, cyclists exercised while listening to pop songs at varying tempos.  Some listened to the songs in unaltered states, while others listened to the same song but sped up or slowed down by 10%.  Predictably, they found that those who listened to the “fast version” cycled faster and enjoyed the exercise more than those who were subjected to the slower version.  “Paradoxically,” experimenters noted, “[participants] did not find the workout easier … but [the up-tempo music] seemed to motivate them to push themselves.”  This goes a bit against the earlier studies on perceived effort being lowered by music.  In this case, having fast music made the athletes accept an increased level of effort and discomfort in exchange for a more enjoyable exercise session.

But what if we were to knock up the tempo more than just 10%?  Does this boost still apply in the upper echelons of training?

Karageorghis’ studies focused primarily on what he called “exercise participants” rather than elite or professional athletes.  However, the many benefits of music are not strictly reserved for mortals.  Matt Fitzgerald, a prolific runner, correspondent for Active and Competitor, and author of many books on running, met with US 50k record holder Josh Cox and Olympian Kara Goucher to learn that they too need an extra jolt now and then to get through particularly brutal workouts.  In a very revealing moment during a 15-mile tempo run, he witnessed as Cox turned on an mp3 player midway through the run, as if asking for a stamina-boosting fix.  Fitzgerald did the same at his next marathon, where he noted that “[i]t made a difference. The pain I experienced in the last 5 miles was no less severe than in any other marathon I’ve run. But the music made the pain more bearable … I’m convinced I wouldn’t have finished as strongly as I did without the iPod.”

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the king himself listens to music while he trains.

Even the great Haile Gebrselassie, the Emperor of Distance Running, the Smiling Assassin, says he listens to the late Scatman John’s eponymous hit “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-ba-dop-Bop)” for intense runs because it puts him in the kind of mindset that grants him access to new gears.

“Especially in harder workouts,” Fitzgerald writes, “like Josh Cox’s epic tempo run, the right music almost seemed to act like a (fair, safe, and legal) performance-enhancing drug.”  It’s no wonder then that mp3 players are banned for runners competing for prizes in all major US marathons (though that has more to do with the USATF ban on two-way communication between athlete and coach, which could be done through a cleverly re-engineered iPod … and literally as I type that, I realize that I just described an iPhone).

It really makes you wonder whether Gebrselassie or world-record holder Patrick Makau could run a marathon under 2:03 if they were allowed a Nano with their favorite pump-up jam blaring from mile 20 onward.

Science says: unlikely.

According to Karageorghis, “the benefits of listening to music decrease with the level of intensity of the running. The faster you run, the less effect the music has.”  While music can serve as an effective distraction for those of us on a long run or during those middle miles of the marathon, elite athletes run at such an unfathomably intense level that anything shy of complete focus would prove deleterious.  Citing Karageorghis’ 2009 study, the New York Times notes that “when you increase the speed and intensity of a workout, ‘perceptions of fatigue override the impact of music, because attentional processes are dominated by physiological feedback.’”  In other words, no amount of Blink 182 can get Dathan Ritzenheim’s mind off the strains of running a 4:53 pace for over two hours.

So why do I still, in spite of all the studies, insist on running without music?  What kind of idiot would forego such a simple, free and amazingly potent enhancement?  With the ever-growing catalog of fast, heart pounding songs out there, why bother sticking to just the sound of wind, breath and cars?

The Verdict

“Music is a legal drug for athletes [and like] any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.”  Like Fitzgerald, Karageorghis uses the uses the word “drug” liberally – and not altogether jokingly – when describing the effect of music on the run.

All serious runners are intimately familiar with the body’s remarkable ability to condition itself to increasingly tougher training loads.  It’s therefore not a stretch to say that listening to music during every single run will eventually attenuate its jolting effects.  In fact, it might even make it so running without music would have negative effects both psychologically and physiologically.  After all, if the cyclists in the Liverpool study came up short in performance and enjoyment when the music was slow, what if the tunes were shut down completely?

That question will be left to other studies to explore.  As for me, I could say that I’m perfectly content with the sounds of my body, the pavement and the world around me.  Like journalist Matt Kurton, I could take the free-spirited approach that tends to characterize the stereotypical trailhead and say that “listening to birdsong and rainfall rather than Bill Withers and Radiohead, I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”  But that’s only half the story.  I run without music because, so far, I actually enjoy just running.  I fear that if I were to start adding fast songs to my weekly mileage, no matter how much faster they make me, I would risk eventually losing the enjoyment of plodding along to my own beat.

It’s very easy to talk about this topic and divide people into those who leave the tunes at home and everyone else.  Karageorghis has his own categories for it: associators, who focus inwardly and dial into their exertion; and dissociators, who look for external stimuli and distractions to get through the activity.  Given the vast wealth of runners out there, I think this black and white sorting is too simple.  After all, even the most insistent purist will probably find themselves kicking a little harder as they pass a rock band playing their favorite song near the end of a marathon.

But if it were completely up to me?

Where It Gets a Little Wacky

One day ...

One day …

I would want a music player to seamlessly gel with my body, wires and hard drives meshing in perfect symbiosis with my neural circuitry.  In the last third of a long race, I would turn it on with simple taps to my palm (or temple or shoulders, naturally I would know the best spot after several weeks of beta testing) and I would instantly hear songs playing in my head in beautiful high fidelity.  The device would know the tempo of each song and calibrate each selection according to my cadence.  Changes in speed would result in real-time changes in song.  As I ramp up, 311’s “Down” would lose its zip, prompting the device to intuitively segue into Yellowcard’s “Breathing.”  Once the effects of the SoCal quintet’s infectious pop-rock have been exhausted, the player would kick it into high gear with Amon Amarth’s “Live for the Kill” because nothing lights a fire under my ass like Nordic death metal.

Finally, when there’s only five minutes left until the finish line, the iDan would unleash its wild card, the song that I only play in a car if I have a wide open road ahead of me.  Sure, it’s a frontrunner for the dorkiest song you’ve ever heard and the band likely met while LARPing in an open field, but on the run it’s like an injection of ox blood and shark teeth:


(Only partly ashamed to admit that I love, love this song)

Once this musical singularity happens, I’m pretty sure you’ll see me destroying PRs left and right.  My blood would be tested by anti-doping officials, displayed prominently in museums of human achievement and used to make redwoods reach maximum height in just weeks.  But as long as man and machine remain separate, I’m happy just listening to the sounds of a person putting one foot in front of the other.  There may come a day where I’ll channel my favorite metal gods for the last haul of a marathon, dialing down my perception of pain while putting a little more spring in my step.  Only time will tell.

Do you listen to music while you run?  Do you do it because it helps you pass the time?  Or because it makes you feel like a demigod?  Are you as OCD as I am or can you run to any beat?  What song makes you want to start a bar fight with a wolf?  Did you know that “Bye Bye Bye” perfectly [N]syncs with my cadence?  Might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie.