Archive for January, 2012



In the last month or so I have fallen upon several references to running related incidences of heart attack or cardiac arrest, including deaths.  One of these was a study reported popularly in the newspaper and another was extensive coverage in a book I am reviewing for this space.  All point in a different direction than you might at first imagine.

Marathon Start - Eugene 2010

The gist of the whole thing is that running, particularly long distance races like marathons, at the very least is no more risky than, well, living.  Yes, there are more reports these days of cardiac arrest at running events, but there are also vastly more participants.  And, incidentally, if you must have yourself a heart attack, then a race is the place to do it because there are generally people around to see you go down and lots of assistance, including professional assistance to get on the case very quickly.  I know of at least a couple of cases where the afflicted individual had barely hit the ground before someone was there to provide assistance.  Both individuals survived and recovered.

I am raising the matter here under the heading of things ‘seasoned runners’ ought to know.  There is good and growing evidence that running and the training aspect of running that racers go through is one of the best ‘medicines’ for heart issues.  More precisely, that the practice of running is a ‘tonic’ or preventive with respect to cardiovascular problems, as well as a good many other health issues.

Well, if this be so, then let’s get out there and run us a marathon!  Waste no further time!

But wait you must.  Just like the fifty-something guy who goes out to shovel a tonne or two of snow off his drive (I live near Vancouver where the difference between ‘snow’ and pure water is very little – ie SNOW IS HEAVY).  Said typical fifty-something of today generally works at a desk, drives to work and pretty much anywhere else and gets more exercise yelling at the referees in the hockey game on TV than anything else.  In order to get that car out of the drive, our friend gets up out of his big comfy chair or bed (if the snow dump came overnight), puts on his winter coat, gloves and a toque, finds the biggest snow removal device he has in the garage (because he doesn’t want to miss the next game on TV, or to be fair – be late for work) and sets out to shovel the drive.  No big surprise that the first snow of the winter tends to fill emergency rooms with people with heart problems.

Now that we runners are feeling duly smug about this couch-potato neighbour, we can turn to the issue of marathons and heart health.  There is abundant evidence that people are increasingly turning to the marathon as personal challenge.  In days of yore, when most of us really seasoned athletes started running there were different views as to what “running a marathon” meant.  When I first started there was an elitist attitude that if you took more than four hours, you couldn’t really say you had actually run a marathon.  Now, thankfully, we are ready to celebrate the dedication and courage shown by anyone willing to tackle 26.2 miles/42.2km.  Pace is another matter, yet quite relative.  We have the absolute pace shown by truly elite runners who are now pushing the two hour barrier for the marathon.  We have the pace of the just amazingly good and the pace of serious runners, which in absolute terms pretty much gets us to that four hour limit if you factor in age and gender.  What did I just say?  I’m a serious and dedicated and have run 15 marathons, but at 67 with some physical issues over which I have no control, I can’t do a four hour marathon unless I age grade the result.  Aha!  On that field leveling basis I have run all my marathons between three and four hours, including the last one, which was a bit of an injury marred debacle that still graded to under four hours.  So, as I said – doing the distance is one thing, pace is quite another.

Rotary Run Half Marathon Start

Rotary Run Half Marathon Start

So, what about this personal challenge marathon thing?  Even people who run some, but maybe do one race of 5-10K per year and just jog/run for their own pleasure and benefit, must respect the challenge of moving up to the marathon.  Most training plans suggest that you should build a solid running base before beginning the formal marathon training plan.  People like me, who run much of the time, several days a week and race fairly frequently, will still generally employ a 15-20 week training plan when tackling a marathon.  The whole point of this piece is to say that a marathon is a major challenge to anyone, but more to those who are in the ‘seasoned’ category.  In truth, the training phase is what will be physiologically good for you, far more than the actual event of a full marathon.  For anyone wanting to take up the challenge in those seasoned years after – oh say, 40, the key is patience and respect.  Patience in first getting a base and secondly in building racing capacity.  Respect comes in regard to just what you are taking on, regardless of the pace.  In my opinion, just like our snow-shoveller, it is those that show neither the patience nor respect for the long-distance event that are at greatest risk.

The popularity of the ‘bucket-list’ marathon will put some people more at risk than others, but only if the individual is taking the challenge without proper preparation.   I am one of the biggest cheer-leaders when it comes to people deciding to do their first half or full marathon, but only when they approach the challenge with proper training and a goal to just ‘do’ the first one.  For someone really getting up off the couch to run a marathon, the first training run should be at a very easy pace to the doctor’s office for a full physical to be sure there are no underlying or
hidden issues.  In fact, said issues need not prevent a person taking on the challenge, but may well influence how he or she approaches the preparation and execution phases.  There is much good evidence that running after a cardio-vascular “event” is not a risk but rather part of the cure and prophylactic treatment intended to ward off future repetitions.

Once the way is officially clear, then it is well advised to shop around for a training plan that is achievable for that particular individual.  We MUST prepare properly, but we all have our lives that must also be lived and managed with respect to the time available.  If you can’t dedicate the necessary time to the project you either need a new project, a new plan or a new life (often not a bad idea if yours has become too cluttered and/or stress filled).  Normally, for relatively new runners or those stepping up from the annual 5K charity run, I strongly recommend against setting any precise goals for a first half or full marathon other than completing it.  There is nothing wrong, once you have trained and know what you have achieved in training, in setting a race day goal as a guideline for pacing.  But, declaring before you even start that you will run your marathon at sub-four hours is a recipe for potential problems, including what started all of this, a heart attack.  I want to be clear here that the situation may be very different for experienced runners who are performing well at shorter distances.  With a good training platform it is possible to set challenging goals for the first try at the marathon and achieve them, but the whole point is that these runners already have a very solid running base and excellent level of fitness in the first place.

LSD Marathon Training

LSD Marathon Training Group

In my opinion, the GOAL (even when it is simply to finish the marathon) is important and once achieved, something to celebrate.  However, we should also enjoy the journey as much as the destination!  Done right, training has many rewards and achievements in its own right, and I’m not just talking about running things.  You may meet new friends or develop new perspectives.  You may realize new emotions and sensations as you follow your plan.  I have been running for so long and having completed 15 marathons, no longer appreciate training milestones as I once may have in the misty past.  More than once in recent years I have been with individuals who are emotionally overtaken by the fact that the 20 miles (or whatever distance) we just completed as a training run is the longest distance that person has ever run.  I may have a good feeling about it in the sense of recognizing stages of preparedness, but that is far from being the same thing.  Friends have actually been in tears (happy, I assume!) as a result of making that new peak of accomplishment.  In fact, that is one of my own rewards: the knowing that I have helped them get to that point and that level of personal accomplishment/realization.  Enjoying “the journey” is a key to the patience mentioned above.  Accept that some days will be hard, while others will be relatively easy.  Remember that marathons are not a walk in the park.  Well, OK, they could be, but you know what I mean.  Even walking 42.2km is not to be under-estimated.  Passing 15km, then 20 – 25, 30, 35 as you rack up the Long Slow Run sessions of your training gives you a new achievement, a real achievement every time you do a new distance.  Don’t forget, if you are following my proposal that finishing the marathon is what counts, not how fast, then every new “longest distance ever” is your own personal achievement even if it is only done at training pace.  Have you ever run that far before?  No?  Well, now you have.  Even if you never run another step, you can say “I once ran 30km”.  Of course, your goal is to do your first marathon, but don’t miss the excitement along the way.  Get your money’s worth out of every step.  It will make the final run, your marathon (or half, or whatever) all the more sweet and satisfying.

As an example of the last point, my very first marathon turned out to be my best.  Now don’t go jumping on the obvious contradiction of this statement and a couple that will follow.  I did my first marathon when I was in the midst of the best running and most rigorous training I have ever done.  I had run several half marathons at very respectable pace and was running 5-6 days a week before I started marathon training.  The real example in terms of the journey or preparation was that when I actually got to the start of that first marathon, I was truly well trained.  I
did have a plan, based on my training.  Here comes the important point!  As much as that first marathon was my fastest, I more significantly still
consider it to have been my most nearly perfect race not because of the time but rather HOW I ran it.  During training I had really come to know what I could do.  If you pay attention and no matter what your pace, if you train well and properly you too will have a very good idea of what you can expect of yourself.  When I finished I knew I had delivered every bit of what I had to give and had run a very well managed race.  To this day, there is not one aspect of it that training/race I would consider doing differently.  I ran both to my expectation and to the base of my training program.  I repeat though that the specifics of what I achieved and the training program itself are relevant only as my personal story.  My time was great for me.  I am still proud of it today.  I was 43 when I did that marathon.  As far as absolute marathon times go it was far from spectacular.  That said, it was fast enough that nobody would question my credentials as a “real” marathoner.  So, even though some might be impressed with what I did way back then, it was still just a personal accomplishment.  Whatever time/pace an individual may achieve in that first event, the real achievement is entirely personal.  As such, the pleasure and pride should come from the doing of it and part of that is every step of the preparation.

I feel that if a person approaches the project as suggested, taking every step as it comes and squeezing all the good out of it that is possible, he/she will be hooked for life as a runner.  Then, the benefits of running will surely accrue to that person.  There are a growing number of sound studies that show the physical aspect of such training has a positive impact on physical health, but there is little doubt that it also helps our mental well-being as well.

So, now we have the rules straight – What are you waiting for??? Let’s get training.

ED NOTE: This was written strictly as a personal observation, opinion.  I have not referenced various supportive publications, even though they are out there. I am presently reading/reviewing a book which is a rich source of the kind of information that underpins the thoughts in this post. Stay tuned for that review and the more rigorous references to the related science.