Church of Sunday Long Run

“I thought everyone’s parents ran.  I thought everyone got up and went to … the Church of Sunday Long Run.  That’s what my dad would call it.” ~ Shalane Flanagan, April 13, 2014, 60 Minutes interview

Not everyone was born to talented long-distance runners, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Shalane learned that her weekly family tradition was unique, or even bizarre.  But when she said this during an interview with Anderson Cooper, it made me laugh and think.

Over the years, the Sunday Long Run has become more than a weekly run, it’s become a ritual.  Three out of four weekends of every month typically feature a run of 13 miles or longer.  It is simply a thing I do now, like going out on a Saturday or watching The League on Wednesdays.  So when she said those words, Church of Sunday Long Run, I realized with some consternation that perhaps I did belong to a religion (though outsiders may call it a cult).

Or as my wife so eloquently said, "Look at this dweeb."

Or as my wife so eloquently said, “Look at this dweeb.”

But every church or religion has to have its high holiday.  And that for me, without a doubt, is the second Sunday of October, when the city hosts the unrivaled Chicago Marathon.  That wonderful day is like Christmas to me, a magical time of year when extended family descends on Chicago for a weekend of big meals, shopping and fond reflection.  The city teems with people from all over the world with flags proudly draped over their shoulders.  Reservations at Italian restaurants are impossible to get, the Magnificent Mile enjoys rising revenues and all around are eager, nervous faces ready to run and get to know the Windy City.

I haven’t run the Chicago Marathon since 2011, but I’ve always been in town for the celebration.  Every year I have a blast seeing the multicultural hordes on the trains, cheering for each runner who puts their name or country on their shirt, and hosting the ceremonial Deep Dish meal after the race is done and the city shines with the glint of swinging medals.   

For the last two years, I have escorted people to my favorite spectator spots in hope of seeing their significant other’s first ever attempt at 26.2 miles.  But this year, I was given no such duty, so I visited the course with Otter to see the elite race play out in four different spots.

We watched the East African lead pack rocket up LaSalle Boulevard around mile 4, gliding past us almost effortlessly.  They ran easily, lightly on their feet.  You could be forgiven for thinking they were barely trying.  They ran alone, with the next cluster of runners a block away.  Tucked in the middle was Kenenisa Bekele, already a legend in the running world, wearing the coveted #1 bib, as defending champion Dennis Kimetto had chosen to run Berlin instead, where he ran a gobsmacking world record.  Around him were the other top stars, Eliud Kipchoge and Sammy Kitwara, accomplished runners in their own right competing for their first World Marathon Major victory.

They continued their blistering pace down Wells Street at mile 11.  Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion and 5-time Chicago finisher, had dropped from the lead pack but stayed close to the leaders.  His full-time job as a member of Kenya’s parliament had surely taken a toll on his training, but that wasn’t stopping him from running a world-class time.

Mile 2

Mile 2

By the time the elites had reached mile 21.5 in Chinatown, we were down to an aggressive lead pack of three Kenyans.  Kipchoge, Kitwara and 2014 Tokyo Marathon champion Dickson Chumba led the race, having recently dropped Bekele.  The Ethiopian great was not far behind, but at this stage in the race, it was all but guaranteed that he was not going to make the podium despite his impressive track credentials.

We reached our last spectator spot at the base of “Mount Roosevelt,” the only significant hill in the entire race, sadistically located at mile 25.9, just in time to see the winner.  By the time the pace car arrived, there was just one man running behind it –  Eliud Kipchoge, donning a neon yellow singlet, hammering out a celeritous pace, chasing his 2:04:05 PR from last year’s Berlin Marathon.

About twenty minutes behind him was the female leader, Rita Jeptoo, who went on to win her second consecutive Chicago Marathon and fourth straight World Marathon Major.  If she wasn’t already the #1 female marathoner in the world, then there’s no doubt about it now.  Just a few minutes behind her was top American Amy  Hastings, who equaled her personal best of 2:27.  I would have followed the female elites more closely but it would have prevented us from seeing the male competition at every spot.

By finishing in 2:04:11, Kipchoge ended up missing both the course record and his personal best, but nonetheless gave Chicago a brilliant performance.  Not only was it the third fastest time ever run in Chicago and the Western hemisphere on a record-eligible course, but he did it all smiles.  And why wouldn’t he?  This is the best race in the world.  It has a pancake-flat course, thousands upon thousands of eager spectators, twenty-nine distinct neighborhoods, and an incredibly deep elite field that always put on a real race.  Oh, and the weather has been absolutely perfect for the last three years.  Seriously, I should demand that race director Carey Pinkowski pay me not to run, because it basically guarantees ideal conditions.

I already know that I won’t be running the 2015 Chicago Marathon (you’re welcome, everyone) for the same reasons that I haven’t run it the last three years: there are other states to conquer.  By running Chicago, I am essentially not running a host of other races that could help me reach my goal.  And yes, the lottery system is also a huge bummer, but at least I don’t have to deal with hometown rejection for another couple of years.  As Mike said, the London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons will provide that in spades over the next decade.

But that doesn’t mean that I won’t relish the day when it arrives yet again next October.  I will be there, along with all the other acolytes of the Church of Sunday Long Run, cheering happily with a hint of vicarious envy, for the world’s fastest runners and the 40,000 athletes behind them.

Congratulations to every proud finisher!

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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.