Monday, August 18, 2008

Triaspirational woes

I have been laid low for the last couple days (startling stomach-ache while watching women's marathon on Saturday night made me realize, with hindsight, that my stomach had been slightly off from Friday night onwards) with some sort of virus, more stomach-based than not though nothing dramatic, that is preventing me from doing anything useful or interesting - I cannot write my wretched novel, I cannot run, I cannot work out, I cannot swim, I cannot even read a book for more than ten minutes without feeling like maladjusted binoculars are squinching up my eyes in a motion-sickness-type and mildly stomach-turning way! I will hope to feel better tomorrow...

On a brighter note, via the Bookforum blog, I learn that Peter Hessler's article on Ryan Hall is now online in its entirety. The whole thing's well worth reading, but it was the personal reminiscences in the middle that really struck me - I'm pasting in a whole string of paragraphs because I thought they were so excellent & will be of interest to readers here:
In 1971, my family moved to Columbia, Missouri, one of the few towns in the Midwest that sponsored a 26.2-mile race. A local boxing trainer had founded the Heart of America Marathon in 1960, as a way of forcing his fighters to get in shape. None of that trainer’s athletes actually finished the inaugural race, but somehow the event survived, and a small community of diehards trained for it every year. My father became fascinated by the challenge, and as a professor of sociology he liked the weirdness. His training partners included Vietnam vets and religious fanatics and oddball academics; the only thing they had in common was a desire to run as fast as possible. They competed in local races, which tended to be poorly organized. Before the start, they’d give the stopwatch to whoever was expected to be the best runner. If he got passed, he handed over the watch to the new leader. They left a clipboard at the finish line, and it was the winner’s responsibility to pick it up and record the times for everybody who followed.

“Nobody knew what the heck we were doing,” my father told me recently. “But after Shorter, that changed everything. It became a whole lot easier, with equipment and everything.” Shorter came out with a line of specialty clothing, building on his experience of Olympic improvisation. Many of the early runners were tinkerers. Ron Hill, a British marathoner who finished sixth at Munich, was a textile chemist who experimented with mesh shirts and reflective materials. Bill Bowerman, the track coach at the University of Oregon, messed around with a waffle iron and created a new type of shoe sole. Soon, the company he co-founded, Nike, was selling models specifically designed for the marathon. Races became better organized, and publications like Runner’s World taught people about élite training methods. In distance running, an athlete with some natural talent can improve quickly if he trains right, and by 1976 my father had come close to qualifying for the Olympic trials in the marathon.

Health had little to do with this initial wave of runners. “I didn’t know anybody who did it for health,” my father said. “You became intensely aware of your body, but it wasn’t like, I want to live a long life. It was more like, What can I get out of this machine? It was very competitive.”

For a marathoner, though, competitiveness tends to be directed inward. In training, the long buildup to a race may be similar to what a boxer goes through, but the focus is completely different. A boxer prepares for a specific opponent; a marathoner prepares to push his body to the limits of endurance. At the élite level, marathoners are well aware of their competition, and tactics are important; but everything begins and ends with individual fitness. The most crucial opponents are found within: the accumulation of lactic acid in muscles, the depletion of glycogen. A marathoner worries about hitting “the wall”—the moment at which glycogen stores are so low that an athlete can become disoriented.

During the seventies, runners became obsessed with learning about such physical limitations. In Dallas, a doctor named Kenneth H. Cooper conducted a test in which he put athletes on treadmills, connected tubes to their mouths, and ran them to the point of exhaustion. By collecting all the expelled air, Cooper calculated the volume of oxygen consumed, in relation to body weight. This figure, known as the VO2 max, quantified cardiovascular fitness. Cooper tested élite athletes like Frank Shorter, and the results became well known in the running community. Even today, in the airport of Eugene, Oregon, a town famous for its track tradition, a small display notes that the Oregon native Steve Prefontaine had the highest VO2 max ever recorded in Cooper’s lab.

Periodically my father participated in such experiments. In those days, serious runners imitated whatever the élites were doing, even in the lab. One of my father’s running buddies had a Ph.D. in cardiac physiology, and at the University of Missouri he and his colleagues conducted tests on top local runners. My father was an ideal subject: he ran a hundred miles a week, and he had an inquisitive streak. He also had an appetite for pain. They tested his VO2 max, and they conducted lactic-acid experiments, which involved running him hard and then drawing large amounts of blood. They did a muscle-fibre test in which they extracted a chunk of my father’s thigh. The moment they snipped the tissue, the muscle contracted so violently that the doctor had to stand on my father’s leg in order to yank out the sample. “And then they said, ‘You’re ninety per cent slow-twitch muscle fibres,’ ” my father recalled. “Well, brilliant—so what?”

One year, physiologists designed an experiment to test whether it was best for a marathoner to wear a mesh shirt, a solid shirt, or no shirt. In order to discover this elusive truth, they put my father and other runners on a treadmill for an hour at a fast pace, in a laboratory with a controlled temperature of ninety degrees Fahrenheit and ninety per cent humidity. They weighed each athlete before and after, to calculate lost sweat. They also tracked body temperature with a rectal thermometer. They didn’t anticipate, however, that a human being running at a pace of ten and a half miles an hour naturally expels a rectal thermometer. Taping it in place didn’t work. Finally, my father had to reach behind him and hold the thermometer while running at full speed. He did this a total of seven times, always for an hour, sometimes with a mesh shirt, sometimes with a solid shirt, sometimes with no shirt. Recently, I asked him why he had agreed to participate in such a study.

“I figured what the hell, I want to know what’s better,” he said. “I wanted to get my time down.” The results indicated that a mesh shirt was best, followed by a solid shirt, then no shirt. (“It’s like a radiator,” my father explained.) Nowadays, at the age of sixty-six, my father runs ten miles a day, six times a week. He still has a scar on his thigh from the muscle-fibre test. He says that if a doctor told him that running would shorten his life he’d keep doing it.