ultra miles

Upping the Ante: From 5KaDay to 5MaDay to 100Miles…

by Patrick Reed

Disclaimer: I am no physician. Proceed at your own risk.

I am becoming enamored with ultra distance races. Whereas in college I constantly begged my coach to “put me in” for the 1500 meters instead of the interminable 10,000, ever wishing myself to be a dream miler, now I am begging my wife to give me the green light for 100 mile ultra marathons and beyond. It seems I agreed to 2 stipulations upon our upping the wager from boyfriend/girlfriend to husband/wife 14 years ago: no motorcycles in my future & no ultra-marathons…. The motorcycle thing is more than understandable. Despite the certain thrill of speeding 100+ miles an hour inches from the pavement on a two-wheeled rocket, I can find adrenaline rushes in many safer endeavors. Also, I grant my wife that I am not the most “common-sense” equipped potential rider. Given to extremes, I may just have throttled too aggressively… Thankfully, we’ll never have to know — as I am happy to give on this compromise.

But ultra distance races. These are of another ilk. Though some do look askant and doubting at me when I beam with excited tales of wrong turns in desolate canyons and parched tongue and salt-encrusted shorts during desert crossings and the joyful interludes amidst hours long runs, the risks of ultra running are far less than those of crotch-rocketing. At least, I am pretty sure they are…

speeding      extreme_endurance_exercise_heart

A bit of research has me scratching my head. A June 2012 blog post in Scientific American headlines: “Ultra Marathons Might Be Ultra Bad For Your Heart.” Katharine Harmon cites a 2012 Mayo Clinic study which hypothesizes some potential negative effects of ultra distance training. Here is the abstract from the study:

A routine of regular exercise is highly effective for prevention and treatment of many common chronic diseases and improves cardiovascular (CV) health and longevity. However, long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries. Emerging data suggest that chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races, can cause transient acute volume overload of the atria and right ventricle, with transient reductions in right ventricular ejection fraction and elevations of cardiac biomarkers, all of which return to normal within 1 week. Over months to years of repetitive injury, this process, in some individuals, may lead to patchy myocardial fibrosis, particularly in the atria, interventricular septum, and right ventricle, creating a substrate for atrial and ventricular arrhythmias. Additionally, long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening. However, this concept is still hypothetical and there is some inconsistency in the reported findings. Furthermore, lifelong vigorous exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity. Notwithstanding, the hypothesis that long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce adverse CV remodeling warrants further investigation to identify at-risk individuals and formulate physical fitness regimens for conferring optimal CV health and longevity.

~Mayo Clinic Proceedings

There are some quite concerning ramifications of this study’s hypothesis, and it makes sense that prolonged, ultra-intense training efforts and races over decades can have some detrimental effects on the heart of the athlete. Alternatively, such training may also have some great benefits, it stands to reason. Regardless, there are enough “mays” and “mights” and phrases such as “in some individuals” in the above abstract to provide the ultra distance athlete fair comfort. One line in particular has me wondering how forced this study may be:

“However, this concept is still hypothetical and there is some inconsistency in the reported findings.”

Additionally, Harmon’s haphazard citing as an example of such negative potential effects of ultra training the death of Micah True — beloved icon of the Born To Run school of the ultra distance regimen — the article waxes only cynically about running great distances. In addition to the science in the article, the author is devoid of any any insight into the, shall I say, adventurous bliss of the extreme endurance athlete. Inspect the sport with gloves and antiseptic spray and circular reasoning all you like, the allure of the ultra marathon, and the risk-benefit analysis therein, lay beyond. The slam of the shotgun’s wakeup volley at 4 a.m. in the dreamy central coast hills of California, the hooting defiant call of “God Bless America!” at 5:50 a.m., and the boom of the starter’s 5-guage 10 minutes later lack quantification. Should all of this be drain on the heart, what American stupor should drug the arrythmias to sleep — and to what end?

For my part… to be more succinct, my daily running regimen of 5 kilometers a day is in jeopardy of giving way to 5 miles a day at a minimum. The ultra distance races are too grand to afford me a 5k day at the least. And so I have imagined committing to this 5 miles a day.

Surely, the ultra-marathon I wish for is within reach. After all, my wife has already given in. Now, it is Badwater which she is defending against. I have multiple ultras under my belt — all with her blessings, encouragement and pride.

With a greater commitment fairly agreed upon, it is time to ensure realistic goals and clear victory. Thankfully for us ultra runners, to make it to the start is victory; to cross the finish line, familiar icing!

Keep pushing. What they say can’t be done, is.

~ Coach Patrick

image credits: motorcycle by, runner by

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