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What Are They Running From?

David Landau

I see them on my way to work. I feel relaxed and stress free, but they are huffing, puffing, and straining as I drive past them in my air conditioned car. Pain is etched into every part of their exposed body. The facial expressions are sometimes horrid, as if they were attempting to exorcise their own demons. Taking a closer look at them reveals that their cheeks are rather hollow with that certain sunken-eyed look, accompanied with pairs of spindly arms and legs. I almost want to stop to offer food and drink, but I know better. Be the case as it may, they endure with special designer outfits with corresponding bandages that cover scars and braces that are wrapped around twisted knees. Are they survivors of a battle lost? No, this is the tormented runner. This is an assemblage that is forever engrossed in their lonely pursuit of an unreachable utopia. Be it snow, rain, or even threatening hurricanes they dare not to miss their run. It could be nearly 100 degrees in the shade, but they remain unwavering in their pursuit to blaze their trails. The searing pain again is ever evident in their faces as if to say: “If only I can make it a few more miles.”

Many fight through their knee/ankle injuries, back/hip sprains, torn hamstrings, maimed Achilles tendons, herniated discs, hernias and multitudes of bodily stress fractures, but all for the pursuit of what? Why do they do it? What compels them to do it? It is likely partly to do with an inborn internal addictive obsessive personality (Type A) that sees vanity, heart health, eternal youth, and heart strengthening with an impossible quest for immortality. But the writing is on the wall, as all of these objectives are just continually lost and turned out. They simply remain just mirages in an ever obsessive quest for it all. When all else is lost and as if they were thrown the last life vest, they will proudly point to their heart as their only savior. But is this all but blind hope that is risked at the total expense of their entire body being wrecked as a result? I am afraid so, as their heart is not really designed to stand all this extra punishment. The evidence is in and as you will see, the end result is a proverbial dead end.

The Deceptive Cure

In recent times, the running game has been front-page fitness news—actually since the turn of the 1970s. It was then when the trails, roads, and parks became populated with weekend warriors, former competitive athletes, wannabes, and those yearning for that new identity. It was then found however that the finish line with the supposed pot of gold at the end was never quite there. Undaunted at best, they still repeated this grind over and over again. But where did it really all begin? Unlike other fitness follies, we will see that it was born out of a legitimate concern for heart health.

All of this anxiety can be pointed back to a research paper born in jolly old England in 1953. They were going to solve the issue of activity and heart disease once and for all. It was there when Dr. J. N. Morris and his colleagues studied the drivers and conductors (ticket takers that were always on the move) of London’s double deck transport buses. In their study, they found that the active conductors were far less prone to heart disease than the slovenly lazy bus drivers. They also noticed in another study that government clerks suffered more incidence of heart disease than their active counterparts. Unbeknownst to all, the factors of family history, stress, diet, and after job activities were excluded from their findings and years later their conclusions had to be changed as a result.

Was it a lack of understanding of cause or effect? Were the findings based on gross inaccuracies? Yes largely, but the damage however was already done, as it did not take Americans time to notice as the news spread worldwide. As a result of this initial “research,” running and activity books became culturally hot items into the 1960s. The Presidential Council on Physical Fitness (Instituted in 1956) picked up on this and presented a crusade for all to join in. It was President John F. Kennedy that pushed it over the top as he announced in a conference:

“We want a nation of participants in the vigorous life. This is not a matter that can be settled, of course, from Washington. It is really a matter that starts with each individual family. It is my hope ... that the communities will be concerned, to make it possible for young boys and girls to participate actively in the physical life; and that men and women who have reached the age of maturity will concern themselves with maintaining their own participation in this phase of national vigor – national life.”

This speech was so far-reaching that a few politicians at that time actually launched their campaigns on running trails as a result. However, the tide became larger in the late 1960s. It was tipped over the top by one man, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a former air force medical corps major. He was out to devise the ultimate running/activity cure. Cooper, having the ideal body type for endurance, was equipped with plenty of inborn passion for physical activity. Energetic as he was, he decided to use some of that energy to write passionately on his pet subject in a book he named Aerobics. It was in a time where sports and competition had caught many Americans’ fancy. He thought that people in the Land of Milk and Honey lacked endurance exercise and suggested a variety of forms of “circulatory” conditioning. He pleaded for those TV-watching sedentary slugs to get out on the roads, exert, and rejoice so they could get cured of maladies they didn’t even know they had.

Naively, they followed in droves, clearly not understanding the fact that no disease or pathology is alleviated by increased physical performance or activity. Many “experts” followed in suit by inculcating that belief system. So their fearless leader, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, then conveniently disguised and devised a competitive generic sports points system that was to be included in the book. Like the childlike mentality: more is better, his point system emphasized a position that a greater volume of exertional activity was better than less. His pet “cardiovascular” activity was of course running, as he had always been an avid runner. Running therefore headed the list of supreme activities. Higher points were awarded, of course, to the ultimate distance runners. In other words, if one was a marathoner, he implied that they would be indeed be more immune from heart disease, which was again his main concern.

By 1975 an addicted marathoner/pathologist named Thomas Bassler formulated a hypothesis that claimed a total immunity against the disease. All one had to do to ward off the onset of heart trouble was to run a marathon or two. Nothing could be further from the truth! Classic history suggests that the word marathon originated from the ancient battle between the Persians and the Greeks. Victory was eminent and they sent their one-man pony express Pheidippides to proclaim victory. He ran from the battlefield through the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens, a distance of 21.4 miles. (A marathon is 26.2—close enough.) At the end of that run, he pronounced the victory and then died on the spot. Marathon running can only point back to its roots, not to health but rather to transportation and death. So when this certain hypothesis was exposed as a complete sham (as it failed miserably to show any slight correlation), he quickly suggested that it was the lifestyle changes associated with the marathoner. Sure! He then took the high road and left his followers hanging in myths.

It was too late, as the message was delivered to the masses. But of course the fitness elite cried out for more. The question to all was how much was really needed and where was the magic formula for those to bide by? Quickly and with great haste their dreams were answered. Researchers created an elixir formula like mad scientists in a horror film feature. They proceeded by taking in everyone including strangers off the street, as they hastily meshed, mashed, and cobbled together their prescription. Clever looking but simple mathematical equations had to be indoctrinated. The more uncomplicated the recipe, the better it was to cover all comers. The physiologists figured a nice round number (220) minus your age was roughly the limit of your heart-beating rate for approximately 15-60 minutes (many cases more) from 3-5 times a week at 60-90 percent of your maximum heart rate. Just like that, poof, and there was a formula as quick as the fitness public had clamored for. Cardiovascular exercise physiologists were faster at the draw than Wild West gunslingers and likely killed more people as a result. Either it was wishful thinking or faulty design or a combination of both. The damage unfortunately could not be reversed. The collective effort of the choir boys of exercise physiology and their enthusiasts marched straight forward to media outlets, television, and radio. The running “healthy lifestyle” was not to be denied.

Running Out of Control

The cumulative effect was undeniable. Come hither and yonder, tens of thousands of people suddenly started showing up on streets, sidewalks, and roadside tracks. This self-absorbed army full of jock straps and jock bras wore the same outfits, trained the same way, and lived a lifestyle that had never been seen before or nor has since. Running became a total American affliction. Health became infused with this over-the-top addiction, as many running “contests” were then sponsored by many wellness organizations, hospitals, and even the American Heart Association.

However, a brewing storm was on the horizon. Running enthusiasts were dropping dead at an alarming rate! But wasn’t this was supposed to be Health and Fitness Marriage at its finest? Wasn’t it the case that many running authorities and authors readily agreed that runners were indeed much healthier than their counterparts or were they just consumed also? Was it cause or effect, or affecting the cause? In 1984 it came to the pinnacle of this quandary when Jim Fixx, the ultimate running guru (10 miles a day), dropped stone dead during a run of his own. Heart disease was the culprit and it caused this jogger mania to slow down a bit. But of course the so-called experts suggested that this was only a glitch, for poor Jim was the product of a family history prone to heart disease. Alas, it was simply a little bobble as the tide gates began again to spring open again.

Open invitations for the commercialization of this exercise dogma were there in the offering. This included a showcase of fashionable vogue apparel and the introduction of indestructible track repelling shoes. Casual athletic footwear or wherefore art thou Red Ball Jets were a thing of the past. If you wanted to be with the “in” crowd, it was now Reebok and Nike. Wherever there was the jock vogue, there were surely a few new industries to market the hype and take their bite of the pie. Regardless of this being pseudo science at best and skeletal destruction at worst, you could not stop it with a million P. T. Barnums.

Henry the Maverick MD

Running had become the “new religion” so to speak and no one dared to refute its supernatural claims until King Henry Solomon arrived to stem the tide. Henry Solomon, MD, Cardiologist scorned the need for exertions such as running. Dr. Henry, a prominent New York cardiologist wasn’t sold on the inane notion of “aerobic conditioning.” He knew there was something inherently wrong with the idea and therefore thought outside the box. Such exertion, he initially reflected, was at best for horses, as he saw that it was fine and dandy for our four-legged counterparts.

Man was a rational creature with two legs and was not physically armed for running as in animal locomotion. Physical fitness, he thought, was to be cultivated from the neck up. Voluntary gross anatomical exertion at face value was bad enough, but when he discovered that the get-up-and-goers were no healthier that their sedentary counterparts, he began to wonder. After decades of empirical observation, he decided that enough was enough. He wrote a landmark book entitled The Exercise Myth. It was an expose on the exercise dogma he often saw outside his office in New York City. Talk about insulting the Pope—in his book, Henry exposed physical exertion from all sorts of angles for what it really was.

In The Exercise Myth, he wrote about the allure of obnoxious marketing that created new and unnecessary industries, specious activity magazines, recreational social gatherings, extensive media hype, and the calling of so called corporate fitness, to name a few. In defining health, he saw that simply feeling great during and after “exercise” was an undefined emotion devoid of the actuality of being healthy. It was as simple as “tell me how you feel and then I will tell you how you really are.” Henry rationalized that untold pathologies will lurk in spite of the individual’s assumed well being. He then committed the cardinal sin of telling all those involved in physical activity that “aerobic fitness” was independent of cardiac health.

Solomon actually saw that “cardiovascular fitness” was paradoxical—as the skeletal muscles perform the work, then the heart becomes the slave, so to speak. People were acquiescing to the cart before the horse mentality. Famous physician and running philosopher, Dr. George Sheehan, summed it up as saying, “You might suspect from the emphasis on cardiopulmonary fitness that the major effect of training is on the heart and lungs. Guess again. Exercise does nothing for the lungs; that has been amply proved... Nor does it especially benefit your heart. Running, no matter what you have been told, primarily trains and conditions the muscles.”

Solomon went on to suggest that stress tests (used to this very day) were considered by his physician cronies a testing of “cardiovascular health.” He said that such tests are no better than assessing a sporting event on a treadmill, which is an exercise in futility. It was as simple as a competition, so to speak, in which no winner could be declared. In other words, to “pass” such tests and be deemed healthy, a patient could easily train on a treadmill weeks prior to the procedure and pass with flying colors. Heart disease very well could be present, but the condition of the said muscles will have adapted to the test protocol by weeks of prior rehearsal. This is known as a false negative reading, as heart disease is not physical-performance-related, it’s a pathological condition. So testing of this genre has its good intentions but leaves far less to be desired as any reliable indicator.

Dr. Solomon also attacked the methodology of studies that were pointed to by the crusaders of fitness. Many physiological and psychological factors are not only difficult to separate in human research but are often left out of the picture in the grand scheme of it all. Study outcomes can be shown to be heads or tails and when commercial interests are evident, it will somehow be conveniently twisted to show some sort of biased “truth.” As someone once said, “Nevertheless, when any such outright bullshit gets published in a supposedly scientific journal, which it frequently does, it is then accepted as proven fact by almost all scientists and a large number of other idiots.” So with all this cultural “science,” the consumer is left only with the lame choice of rolling the dice when their ass is on the line with it most likely to come up as snake eyes.

Solomon eventually made headlines across the country as he continued to whale against all of the suggested fitness holy grail. He even graced the nightly news program Nightline in a debate ironically against the one and only Dr. Kenneth Cooper. But as the 1980s began to fade, Solomon retreated back to his most successful cardiology practice. He stayed clear of the mainstream thereon in and avoided anymore controversy. He was justly labeled an iconoclast as he labeled the fitness crusaders a bunch of dreamers, as he does to this very day.

Fizziology

Present day “experts” that have graduated from the Ivory Towers of Exercise Physiology (formerly the athletic teams’ water boy) contend the following aspects are written in stone. They claim that running and like activities improve cardiovascular health, increase energy reserves, lower body fat, lower the cholesterol levels, provide the relief of muscular stress, promote restorative sleep, improve the regularity of bowel movements, and far more. Much of these claims are exposed as bogus in other chapters.

But the case in point here is that the physiologists, specialists as they are, forget the aspects of simple physics. G forces (gravitational) are a factor that is largely ignored as if they did not ever exist. For example, each time a foot slams into the pavement during running it multiplies the force generated by 3-5 times the individual’s body weight. Over time it results in tons of force that has to be absorbed by the human skeleton, the organs, muscles, and connective tissue. At face value, do you think the body is capable of such pounding or is supposed to absorb such forces, meanwhile improving the aforementioned aspects and just get away scot-free? Lots of luck!

“My joints are wearing thin, the body’s getting older. I have been training for so many years that some of the bones in my feet and legs have become worn down—tired from so much running. If I was a car, they’d just take out the bad parts and put new ones in, but you can’t do that with a human being.”

Grete Waitz – 9-time New York City Marathon Champion

Modern day Ivory Tower Intellectuals in any field of endeavor do not have a stranglehold on the intellect, contrary to popular belief. Harvard-schooled or Yale-bred is an impressive premise to mainstream followers, but potentially promotes a reliance on pseudo-intellectualism. It is especially apparent in the field of exercise physiology where the choices by the populous are source over substance. In other words they might ask, what are your schooling credentials and certifications?

Arthur Jones, former Founder of Nautilus Sports Medical Industries and the Medx Corporation, once said: “While even a casual look around makes it obvious that very real improvements have been made in many fields during this century, it does not follow that many, if literally any, of these improvements have resulted from the efforts of scientists; in fact, almost without exception, the greatest improvements in almost all fields have resulted from people like Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Einstein, Tesla and a long list of others who not only were not scientists in any sense of the term but generally had little or nothing in the way of a formal education. In the field of exercise physiology, to the best of my knowledge, scientists have contributed literally nothing to our knowledge of the subject apart from dozens of utterly stupid theories and a few worthless and dangerous practices.” In other words, stop running now!

© 2010 David Landau