On March 3d, Roger Bannister passed away. In 1954, he became the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes, a feat which was instantly recognized as one of the greatest sporting achievements of modern times. Since then, over 1000 athletes have run a sub-4, and the record stands at 3:47, but there is nothing like being the first. It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like for Bannister – and for the other athletes at that time who were also chasing that goal – to push up against the unknown. There were doctors who insisted that the human body was not meant to push that hard, and that anyone attempting that feat would have their heart explode. Still, to borrow a modern phrase, he persisted.
These days, it’s easy to be jaded about all athletic records. Every time we hear about a new standard being set, we brace for a new round of revelations of doping. But let’s try to suspend out cynicism for a moment and imagine what it was like then to chase this magical goal, to, as Jack London wrote, “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of run.” Just for the sheer joy and challenge of it.
For many of us, Roger Bannister represented more than the attainment of a new record. He represented that striving and almost childlike disregard for caution. He ran the sub-4 because no one convinced him that he couldn’t. We could all use a little of that attitude in our lives. He will be missed.
I’m asked this question all the time: is running on the treadmill as good as running outside on the roads? This is more than a fanciful question, since many people are training for spring races and want to make sure that they get as much benefit from their training as they expect.
To answer this question, let’s compare how they stack up. Ease of Access
Road running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise available – it can be done anywhere, at any time. At least, in theory. In practice, there are concerns that limit a runner’s options. Running in the dark or alone can create anxiety about safety – made all the more potent by news stories about attacks on runners. Bad weather is also a concern; even with the best of gear, it’s hard to get motivated to run on icy streets when the temperature is in single digits, or less.
Treadmill running, on the other hand, provides the same experience every time: a predictable and replicable workout in a temperature-controlled, safe environment. Advantage: treadmill. Injury Risk
Road runners report all manner of injuries from running on uneven, hard surfaces, from shin splits to sore knees, to bruises from tripping.
Treadmills generally provide a softer, more even and predictable running surface. Advantage: treadmill. Running Efficiency.
Road running is the best exercise to prepare the body for running on the roads, like in a race. That’s an example of the “specificity of exercise.” By running on the roads, the body learns to deal with impact, hills, and uneven surfaces.
Treadmills provide a somewhat artificial experience, since it feeds the road to you and doesn’t challenge you to deal with wind or uneven surfaces. But it does give you a good sense of pacing because once you set a speed on the treadmill, that’s what you’ll be running. You can’t lack and surge on a treadmill, or you’ll find yourself thrown off. Advantage: road running. Experience
Road running allows us to each become explorers as we check out new neighborhoods and paths. In DC, our options include streets, bike trails, and off-road trails. With a little planning, every run could be an adventure.
With treadmills, the benefit of predictability is matched by the tedium of repetition. On a treadmill, there is no journey, there is no adventure, and there is no exploration. Advantage: road running. Bottom Line
If you want experience the joy of running, head outside. But if you want really improve as a runner, go indoors to treadmill to work in a controlled environment on your form and speed. Or best of all, include both in your routine to get the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, though, it matters less which format you choose than it matters that you run consistently.
This past weekend I was in Tennessee to run in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. The Race was a joy, with the mostly flat course passing along the mighty Mississippi, past the blues halls on historic Beale Street, past the Gibson guitar factory, and along beautiful mansion row on North Parkway, to a welcome finish at the AutoZone baseball stadium. Along the way there was live music and plenty of support from the locals (including free beer at the unofficial rest stations, for those brave enough – or foolish enough! – to drink and run).
The highlight of the weekend wasn’t the race, however, or my sampling of the famous Memphis bar-b-que. It was my visit to St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital. Founded in the 1960s by entertainer Danny Thomas, St. Judes is dedicated to helping save children from live-threatening diseases, especially cancer. It now treats over 7,800 children a year, providing free treatment, and also free lodging, food, and support to their families. Its research division has produced new protocols and life-saving drugs in they battle, improving the survival rate of some forms of blood cancer from a heartbreaking 4% to a heroic 96%. Hearing this story, and seeing the bald but happy children in the kid-friendly facility was a life-changing moment.
Over 24,000 people participated in the 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon this past weekend, but the important number is this: together they raised almost $10.5 million dollars to continue the mission of the St. Judes Hospital. To find out more about the hospital and next year’s race weekend, visit http://www.stjude.org/memphis-marathon.html.
Last week I experienced the rarest of racing adventures: a mid-week marathon. This was the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Marathon in Frostburg, Maryland. Organized by Altis Racing, loosely named for the Olympic motto “cities, altius, fortius”, meaning “faster, higher, stronger”, the race is held on a mostly flat hard-pack dirt and crushed rock trail alongside an old railway line in old coal country.
Some 50 hardy souls lined up with me at the start line, drawn with a heel in the dirt. At exactly 7:30 we were off for an out-and-back run (once for half-marathoners, twice for full marathoners). The route was lined with beautiful fall foliage, which occasionally gave way to vistas of a distant hillside covered with windmills. Aid stations were more like what you would find in an ultra marathon – PB&J sandwich wedges, cookies, m&ms, in addition to water and gatorade. This was no coincidence, as race co-counder Mike Samuelson is himself an ultra-runner. Most runners were local, though one came in from Oregon for the race, and one, Bill Howes, was visiting from England and was running his 440th marathon.T-shirts were optional for a small fee, which seemed appropriate for a crowd that likely owned plenty of race shirts already, but a finisher’s medal is always appreciated, and the Gap Marathon did not disappoint, providing custom steel medals to all who completed the course.
All in all a great experience, for around half the price of most big city races.For more information on the GAP Marathon and other races produced by Altis, visit altisendurance.com, or go to their Facebook page.
Last week I took a class in Mechanicsville, Maryland to become a Spartan Obstacle Specialist. For those of you who might not be familiar with Spartan, they produce obstacle course races (OCR) world-wide, ranging from a 5K Sprint to the marathon distance Ultra Beast. Obstacles test strength, agility, and athleticism, as participants scale walls, swing through hanging bars and rings, hoist weights, and negotiate a wide range of challenges.
The Obstacle Specialist course is a 5-hour one-day tutorial to provide tips, strategies, and training on some of the most challenging obstacles. This particular class was taught by Kevin Donoghue, a pro OCR racer who brought insight, passion, intelligence, and perhaps most importantly, patience, to his work. Now, I consider myself to be quite fit, but these obstacles revealed lots of holes in my fitness. It was a humbling experience, but still fun and completely worthwhile, especially if you are considering doing a Spartan race.
the Spartan Obstacle Specialist courses are usually offered on race weekends. Click here etc see a calendar of classes: http://www.spartancoaches.com/spartanfit-course-calendar.php
Bike to Brooklyn is a fully supported endurance cycling and running challenge from Washington DC to Brooklyn NY, all to raise awareness and funds for a great cause. I’ve done this ride the past two years, and it’s an amazing experience. Proceeds support Run Hope Work, a non-profit organization that uses fitness, mindfulness, and professional development to support young people by bringing stability to their lives. You don’t have to do both the bike ride and the run, but being a participant for either or both legs will be the adventure of a lifetime.
I join host Diane Jenks on her podcast show “The Outspoken Cyclist” to discuss strength, balance, and functionality for aging athletes. My interview begins at minute 42 in the show, but you’ll want to hear all of her fascinating guests as well!