Are you ready to run a Marathon?

Record numbers of recreational and competitive runners are flocking to the marathon distance. According to the latest Running USA Marathon Report, 550,637 runners ran a marathon in 2014, up from 541,000 in 2013, and nearly half of these runners were in the masters division, 40 and older. With such popularity one could mistakenly assume that somehow the marathon distance has grown easier to cover.

I don’t think the marathon distance will ever seem easy, but with a healthy dose of motivation you can select a proper training program and find yourself at the starting line of a marathon in as little as 18 weeks’ time.

Answering these questions will help you gain the most from your training, establish your personal goal for the race, and protect your body in the process.

image#1: How Fit Are You?

A few years ago, the word on the street was that endurance running caused heart disease – a claim widely supported by the sudden deaths of multiple elite and recreational runners. Numerous articles were written, based on varying studies, although opinions clearly differ depending on the author’s view.

One such study, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise, included the following statement in the opening Abstract:

… 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.

While more conclusive testing is obviously warranted, an interesting study emerged from Sweden in 2009, as reported by Ned Kock, a researcher, software developer, consultant, and college professor (interestingly, not a runner).

Data was collected on males and females aged 55 or older who had participated in a 30-km (about 19-mile) cross-country race. Only runners who had no diagnosed medical disorders were included in the study. The data included patterns of exercise prior to the race, as well as participation in previous races. Blood was taken before and after the race with several measurements obtained, including measurements of two possible heart disease markers: N-terminal pro-brain natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP), and troponin T (TnT).

The BNP test is used as an aid in the diagnosis and assessment of severity of heart failure. Low BNP was found to be a predictor of survival to age 90 in men. For patients with heart failure, BNP values will, in general, be above 100 pg/mL.

Tests confirmed both markers increased significantly in all participants after the race. Excessive elevations during the race would be problematic, as would permanent elevations. In these test subjects, however, the levels do not stay elevated.

The fascinating observation was that the increases in NT-proBNP and TnT are generally lower in those individuals that had participated in 3 to 13 races in the past (154.5 post race). They are higher for the inexperienced runners (180 post race), and, in the case of NT-proBNP, particularly higher for those with 14 or more races under their belt (204 post race). Baseline values were also lowest among the groups with 3-13 prior races (53 for runners with 3-7 prior races; 52 for 8-13 prior races).

The study’s findings concluded that (1) individuals who had elevated markers of heart disease prior to the race also had the highest elevations of those markers after the race, and (2) large increases in NT-proBNP were more common among the runners who were too inexperienced, or too experienced. The ones at the extremes. In this study, how much was too much? 14 prior races.

Eliminating the controversial aspect of whether endurance running causes heart disease, this data warns us that entering a race under-trained is as dangerous as over-training……we should avoid the extremes.

#2: Finish or Place?

A pack of street sweepers and security vehicles trail behind the last runners. They knock on the plastic doors of every Porta-Pottie checking for race participants.

An 80-year old man in Arizona laughs over the parade of vehicles behind him at the back of the pack. “I don’t care about that,” he chuckles. “I’m here for myself, and I will be the first last walker in this race.” With the finish line in sight, he breaks into a run, crosses the line and throws his arms up to receive the very last finisher’s medal… as the crew breaks down the barricades around him.

For some, just finishing the race is why they started the race in the first place. For others, it is a race against their own personal best time, and as compared to others on the course that day.

Runners are often obsessed with Race Pace – the fastest speed per mile that can be maintained for the duration of a race.

There is, however, such a thing as a Pace Race: a competitive, timed race in which the objective is not to finish in the least time, but to finish within the prescribed time and in the best physical condition. It’s a personal choice – no wrong answers.

Boston Memorable finishes An exhausted John Moe, 50, of British Columbia (2:50:22) gets a pick-me-up from medical personnel after crossing the finish line. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

#3: Ultrarunners: the lunatic fringe?

A study involving 1,212 subjects, the Ultra runners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) Study (Martin D. Hoffman and Eswar Krishnan), has something that may surprise those who believe ultra runners as a bit of a lunatic fringe: ultra runners experience no more injuries than runners in shorter distances. Similar to the findings from the Swedish study,however, runners who were younger and less experienced in ultra marathons – races longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon – appeared to be most at risk of injury.

Ultra marathon runners who had sustained an exercise-related injury in the prior year were distinguished by several characteristics from those who remained free of injury. Those sustaining an injury were younger and less experienced at running, had relatively less focus on running, spent a greater proportion of their exercise time at high intensities, and were more likely to have performed regular resistance training.

What do the ultra runners know that the younger runners should learn? Ultra runners, especially older ones, tend to run long, but not very fast. They know how to pace themselves.

“Even if I have to crawl, I’ll finish.”

On March 1, the day after his 80th birthday, Bill Dodson of Mountain View, Calif., tested his limits.

On a frigid day in Caumsett State Park on Long Island — competing in a 50-kilometer (31-mile) race, Mr. Dodson made a dogged effort to set a record for the 80- to 85-year-old age group. The existing record: 5 hours, 54 minutes, 59 seconds.

As the wintry day wore on, flakes began descending, and by the time Mr. Dodson was on his final 5K loop, it was snowing heavily.

He struggled on, slipping and falling twice on the slick pavement. Both times, he arose and continued to shuffle along. With the finish line in sight, he fell again. And this time, crawled across the finish line.

He missed the record by eight seconds.

Just over a month later, Dodson attempted another record, this time at the National 100K Championship (just over 62 miles) in Madison, Wisconsin. He finished in 15 hours, 5 minutes and 47 seconds, beating the national record for 80- to 85-year-olds by more than two and a half hours.

“Most 80-year-olds can’t do that, but if you can’t, you ought to be doing whatever you can.” (Dr. William Roberts, medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon).

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