Exercise and Cancer

More reminders. Life is fragile. A three year old child at our church has a brain tumor. Same with the English Teacher/coach at our local high school.  Same with Iram Leon.

Unless you’re already perfectly appreciative of your health, see a picture of Iram and read his entire story here.

Short version. Iram is 32. Kiana, his daughter, is 6. Iram Leon has an untreatable and inoperable cancerous tumor lodged in his brain. Statistics suggest the tumor will kill him before he is 40. He recently lost his job as a juvenile probation officer because his thinking is clouded and he says, “I was making too many mistakes on the stand.”

Instead of retreating into sedentary hopelessness, he runs. To the surprise of the medical community, a few weeks ago he ran a 3:07:35 marathon. While pushing Kiana in a baby jogger. “She had a blast,” Leon said, “listening to Disney songs and getting food from volunteers.”

From the story. “Recent research clearly shows that exercise improves outcomes for cancer patients.” And “Few other leads have shown as much promise as physical activity in extending the lives of cancer survivors, ” said an editorial last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The problem is oncologists often urge their patients to take it easy. But the American Cancer Society and other medical groups now encourage exercise among cancer survivors including encouraging breast cancer survivors to lift weights.

A doctor in the story says, “Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to when a person fighting cancer says, “I can’t do it.”

I say Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to whenever anyone is trying to be a good father and human being. He’s only racing in events that will allow him to bring along Kiana. “I want her to have as many memories of me as possible,” he says. “I want her to remember us having fun together, not me being sick.”

Thanks Iram for the inspiration.

Ironperson Canada 2012—Almost “Go Time”

As ready as I guess I’ll ever be to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112, and run 26.2 on Sunday, August 26th in Penticton, British Columbia.

I’m assigning myself an “A-” for my prep. I’m most proud of the fact that without being accountable to a coach, or anyone, I put the work in. I’m fit. There have been times in the last five to ten years that I’ve been faster in the water, faster on my bike, and I’ve ran faster, but I’ve never been as strong in all three disciplines. I am trained for a steady and solid all day effort. I’ve gone from doubting whether it’s possible to run a marathon off a long swim and bike, to dialing in the salt supplements, and thinking I can. When I get in trouble during the day, I’m confident I can pullback, regroup, and continue on. The half grade deduction is due to the record amounts of sugar I’ve consumed over the last few months. I’ve blown through pack after pack of Costco cookies and thoroughly tested a wide range of Dreyer’s ice-cream flavors. Someone asked Charles Barkley what he thought of my nutrition and his answer is below.

The four consecutive recent Tampa, FL runs were more important than meets the eye. It took me 15 of the 30 miles to learn to slow down and sustain anything through the heat and humidity. Mid-day Friday in Olympia I ran for an hour steadily and fairly hard in a long sleeve winter shirt. I couldn’t have done that before FL. I feel fairly acclimated to heat, an achilles heel of mine. Then again, it was 94 in Penticton yesterday. If it’s that warm on race day, all bets are off.

Recently, I met two people who couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to such extreme physical activity. I’ve wondered the same thing for years, but have made peace with my motivation which I’d describe as one part peer pressure and two parts the lure of trying to pace such an event correctly.

I am an ordinary age group athlete, but I am above average at pacing events correctly. I love the challenge of spreading out my effort as evenly and efficiently as possible. That’s part of my competitive advantage. I first learned to pace a 10k well, then a half marathon, then marathons, then half irons, then rides around Mount Rainier. This event intrigues me because it will be the ultimate test of that skill. The line between my “all day” pace and “too fast” is razor thin especially on the run. Even 10-15 seconds a mile too fast in the opening miles could very well cause me to blow up in the middle or late stages of the run.

The question is do I have sufficient self-understanding and body awareness? No power meter or heart rate meter for me, just g.p.s. and intense attention to my “perceived rate of exertion”. Put differently, for eleven hours I’ll be closely assessing whether I’m breathing too hard. I have a hard time living in the present for 11 minutes, here’s hoping I can do it for 11 hours.

My physical ordinariness is evident in the fact that true fish make me look silly in the water; I can’t hang with Cat 1, 2, and 3 cyclists; and the fifty year-old down the street would have to spot me at least 30 minutes in a marathon. But 90% of triathletes have a weakness. In contrast, I’m decent across the board. That’s another advantage. Being 50.5 in the 50-54 year old division is yet another.

Given my successful training and those advantages, what are some realistic goals? I’m conflicted. Half of me feels conventional, I want to start the run right around the seven hour mark and finish 10th in my age group (last year there were 245 in my 50-54 age group). The other half wants to have a spiritual experience and learn more about myself and life independent of the race clock. That’s vague because it’s not a goal as much as a tough to articulate feeling.

Recently, a friend and fellow long distance athlete had an epiphany. He realized that racing is about learning to set goals and persevere in attaining them and then applying those skills and discipline to his non-athletic life. For me, that’s too linear, or for lack of a better term, too Western. I want to experience something of the divine. Is that asking too much?

Post race I’ll share my more specific pre-race goals and my unconventional mental prep. Ultimately, finishing 10th in my age group will come down to one thing, being able to run steadily for the whole marathon leg. In training, salt tabs have been a godsend, keeping my chronic cramps at bay. I expect them to work on race day too. So then, only two things will determine my relative success, smart pacing, and mental toughness, or guts.

Do I have sufficient guts? I think so.

p.s. Noticed the dearth of pics lately? I gave my camera to 19 for her 20th b-day. I will buy a new one soon and jazz the place up. In the meantime, I will deputize 17 and 20 as race photogs.

Points to Ponder

• From Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis-Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomPleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.

• From The Atlantic: Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant. [strong counter argument]

• From Sports IllustratedIt’s hard to come up with any measure sufficient to characterize the strength of the Kenyan marathon army, but try this: Sixteen American men in history have run faster than 2:10 (a 4:58 per mile pace); 38 Kenyan men did it in October.

Grit follow up. In Monday’s Boston Marathon, the dude on the far left, Michel Butter, from the Nederlands, was hangin with the Kenyans. Pre-race, the Dutch track federation told him if he finished in the top ten they’d put him on the Olympic team. He finished seventh because of training sessions like this one.

Correction from the exceptional The Science of Sport blog: Michel Butter’s requirement was either to run 2:10, or finish in the top 8 with a 2:12 or faster. He ran 2:16:38 for 7th. So he got the place, but missed the time, and hence the Olympic spot. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, because as I mentioned earlier, the elite men were 7.8% slower than last year’s times, and about 5% slower than their typical race times. Butter missed the target time by 5.1% (the 2:12 standard). Bearing this mind, and that Boston is typically a slower course than the flat races of Rotterdam, London, Berlin etc, I would use discretion and pick him anyway…

Ethiopia’s Epic Underachievement

I was cycling indoors at home recently while watching a tape of the just completed LA Marathon. Like the movie Groundhog Day, Ethiopians moved to the front of the both the men’s and women’s races. Ethiopia’s Bizunesh Deba, looking freakishly fresh, sat on American rookie Amy Hastings for the first 18+ miles at which point she slowly put 150-200 meters into her for victory in 2:26:34. Deba, 23, has won seven of the nine marathons she’s entered. Someone is mismanaging her, but I digress.

In the men’s race 26 year-old Ethiopian marathon rookie Markos Geneti ran a 1:02+ half and blew away the field coasting home in a course record 2:06:35. He’s a preeminent short and middle distance runner, but the marathon is where the money is in track and field these days. From now on, he’ll get six figures to show up at races.

The LA Times reported that Geneti plans to invest his $125,000 in earnings in a school in Addis Adaba (correct spelling, “Ababa”).

I was intrigued by Amy Hastings grittiness and guts. When she fell off Deba she crawled back into touch, fell off again, and got back in touch, before fading right before the finish. It was an incredible debut. Afterwards, I read an interview with her from before the race that included this question: One of the appeals of elite-level running is that the people, by and large, are smart, nice, insightful, introspective, all those good things. In addition to the fact that you obviously love the sensation of running, I would think that the kind of people that you meet in running, the kind of people you’ve been teammates with, the kind of people you’re rivals with, have been a big part of the appeal, isn’t it?

This got me thinking about what else we may be able to generalize about elite marathoners. To the interviewers list I’ll add: self confidence, intense competitiveness, extraordinary self-discipline, resilience, optimism, and off the charts toughness.

If I were to write about every elite Ethiopian runner, you’d have to set aside the next hour. It’s Kenya, Ethiopia, then all the other countries of the world combined. I like Geneti and Deba in London (assuming Deba starts spreading out her races better).

And when I taught at a private international school in Addis Ababa, my best students were Ethiopian public school students who won scholarships to our school and went to Harvard and other elite universities after graduating. These athletes and these students accomplishments beg the question, how does a country with Geneti and Deba and Nebiyeleul Tilahoun type of human resources continue to struggle to meet people’s basic needs?

The short answer is poor governance. No doubt Meles Zenawi celebrates “his” runners accomplishments and uses them to bolster his own image among his people. Here’s his story.

I hope Ethiopia’s runners, young students, and other citizens find inspiration from the Middle Eastern protestors to help close the Great Rift Valley that exists between their impressive human potential and bitter day-to-day realities. And I hope upon hope that Meles Zenawi is living in exile when Geneti and Deba walk into the opening ceremonies in London in the summer of 2012. Assuming, that is, they make the team.

Marathon Pacing

There are three types of endurance athletes. The first, which make up about 1-2% of the total, are the elites who race one another in an effort to win. The second and third, genetically speaking are the remaining 98-99%. The difference between type two and type three endurance athletes is that type two-ers bring a lot more discipline, consistency, and focus to their training; as a result, they finish well ahead of type three-ers.

Each group has different objectives—1′s) win; 2′s) set personal records of different sorts, qualify for the Boston Marathon, etc.; and 3′s) finish.

I assume each elite athlete enters endurance events with detailed pacing plans which they often have to chuck when the lead group goes unexpectantly slow or fast over the early and middle stages. Have a plan, but be flexible.

Type three-ers, who may also be known as “one and done-ers” or “bucket-listers” go into races seriously undertrained, inevitably go far too fast early on, aren’t quite sure what to drink and consume, and fade big time over the later stages. I don’t know how they can go into marathons with detailed pacing plans when they haven’t done enough long runs from which to extrapolate.

I’m a two. There are two types of twos, those that lean heavily on science to aid their pacing, and those, like me that base their pacing on feel, or perceived rate of exertion.

My science is checking mile splits. Overtime I’ve learned to adjust my pace based on my breathing and my mental state. More specifically, by listening to how hard I’m breathing and thinking deeply about whether I can maintain my pace for another hour or two or three. Like turning a dimmer switch ever so slightly, I’ve learned to modestly increase, hold steady, or slightly back off my level of exertion. As a result, I usually perform very close to my limited potential.

I have a few different paces in my quiver. First speed is what I label my “steady/all day” pace. When I’m in good shape, hydrating, and taking in calories, this is the pace that I feel I can maintain for hours. Third speed is “moderate-hard/on the edge/85%/half marathon” pace. My optimal marathon pace is splitting the difference between the two. Easier blogged about than done because I don’t know if I’m in optimal shape. Trying to run optimal pace on something less than optimal fitness could backfire bigtime.

To be successful, twos have to learn to let faster people go. When passed, the tendency is to to say one’s self, I’ll show him or her. When marathoning, I wear horse blinders until the last 10k when I sometimes try to settle in behind someone stronger to shake things up and expedite finishing. To refine this skill I visualize my eighty-year old mother passing me with her reconstructed knee.

The exercise scientists would have chuckled at me one morning last week when I ran down to Capital Lake, around it, and back. Eight miles. Felt really good for the first four and then glanced over at the lake and saw wave action. Oh oh. A few hundred meters later and I was heading back into the 15mph wind that had assisted me over the first half hour. My worst marathon (Boston ironically) was one where I didn’t adjust my dimmer switch fast or significantly enough in light of the warm temps and how much I was sweating (I was fooled by the breeze that was masking my sweating). Again, the scientists would say that was avoidable and they’re probably right. But I’m stubborn and I accept the unpredicatability that comes with running by feel.

Here’s a summary of Saturday’s run. Don’t tell the team we were short a tenth of a mile.