Friday, September 14, 2012

Science Friday: Calories and Aging

Note: This post doesn't have much to do with running or exercise, but it does talk about staying healthy into old age, which I think is something of interest to most active people

A few years ago I was watching a segment on the Discovery Channel about diets and aging. It was discussing how starvation conditions (a man was trapped in a cave) tell our bodies to shut down the aging process. (When the man emerged from the cave weeks later, he hadn't aged a day.) Fascinating stuff. It went on to suggest that if we reduced our calorie intake we would live longer. Still not too much of a stretch. But then it used an example of someone slashing their normal diet in half, from 4000 calories/day to 2000 calories/day, and (surprise!) that would lead to a longer life.

That's when I turned the TV off. First of all, 2000 calories/day is not near starvation, it's the recommended amount for the typical adult. (Whether or not people are actually eating closer to 4000 calories is besides the point.) Obviously cutting back from overeating will lead to a longer life. But what about reducing a 2000 calorie/day diet? Is there a benefit to that? Ever since the Discovery Channel completely misinterpreted the point, I've cringed a little when I read calorie restriction studies. 

Granted, it's difficult to do these studies in humans. There aren't many volunteers ready and willing to be nearly starving subjects, let alone graduate students who want to wait a lifetime to get the results. The next best thing is primate studies. In the 80s, two groups started putting monkeys on calorie restricted diets (30% fewer calories than normal diets) and then let them age (for 20+ years). One study was done at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) and published in 2009. It showed some promise for calorie restriction: the monkeys fed less outlived the monkeys on a normal diet. However, another study, done at the National Institute of Aging (NIA), came out this month and found much the opposite.

The NIA study looked at two cohorts, one that was started on the restricted diet at an old age, and one that started at a young age. The monkeys put on restricted diets in old age had no difference in survival compared to monkeys eating the normal amount of calories. However, there were some health benefits; compared to monkeys on a normal diet, they weighed less and had lower levels of triglycerides, cholesterol, fasting glucose, and oxidative stress. The animals put on a restricted diet at a young age also had no benefit in survival. Furthermore, no other health benefits were observed. Although they weighed less, there were no striking differences between triglycerides or glucose levels. They did have fewer cases of cancer, but diabetes and cardiovascular disease were not prevented.

The results from this study suggest that diet restriction doesn't increase longevity. The major difference between the WNPRC and NIA studies (besides the genetics of the animals, which is a factor, but I won't get into it) is the diets given the monkeys. The diets from the NIA study were healthier: they had less sugar, more antioxidants, and fish oil. (Give the WNPRC some credit; they started these studies in the 80’s when most people were concerned only with total calories.) Additionally and importantly, the control animals in the NIA study weren't allowed to eat as much as they wanted, like the WNPRC animals. They were slightly restricted in order to maintain a healthy calorie intake. The control animals in the WNPRC study may have represented more of an overweight population. So perhaps the WNPRC study was doing more of what I feared these studies would do: just slash the calories of a diet that's too caloric and not very healthy to begin with. Of course you'll be healthier after eating less of a poor diet.

There's a lot more research to be done here.  There may be some benefit to smaller, nutritionally complete (an important point!) diets, but we aren't sure yet. The diets themselves matter, as well as the genetics, the current age, etc. Another study looked at people and found those within a normal weight range (BMI 20.0-24.9) had the lowest mortality rates. So we shouldn't be gorging ourselves, but maybe not starving ourselves either. That sounds good to me.

Dream big,

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Blast from the Past Race Report: Boston 2011

I signed up for Boston yesterday, as soon as it opened. It’s by far my favorite race and just signing up makes me excited for next spring. Since the race has been on my mind (and Paul Ryan got everyone talking about sub-3 hour marathons), I got to reminiscing about my first serious attempt at sub-3, at Boston 2011. I’d like to do a Blast from the Past/RunnerTeal History Lesson/very late Race Report from 2011. Please pardon the fact that it’s outdated, and any mistakes or inaccuracies are completely unintentional.

I first ran Boston in 2009. It was awesome; I loved the excitement of a big city event, got a PR, and realized this “marathon phase” I was going through would be longer than originally anticipated. In 2011, I returned, but with entirely different goals. I wanted to PR again (don’t we always want a PR?) but I already had the Boston experience, fought Heartbreak, bought the jacket. This time, I was in it for a sub-3. I had had a disappointing fall; my worst marathon to date was 2010’s Chicago, where I fell wildly off pace and blamed the heat (and my lack of respect for it.) I was heading to Boston for redemption, but with even higher expectations than Chicago. It was sub-3 or bust.

I told everyone who cared to listen (and many more who probably didn’t) that I was going for sub-3. I figured if I told enough people it would hold me to it, but in the weeks leading up the race I was more nervous than ever. I wished I hadn’t blabbed to everyone about a ridiculous goal like that. If I missed it, even by a second (especially by a second), I knew I would be devastated. At the pasta fest the night before, Dad tried to put an end to the madness: “Wouldn’t you be happy with a big PR? If you have a great race, but finish just over 3 hours, won’t you be happy?” No, I won’t.

In an attempt to win the Brother of the Year Award, Brother offered to pace me. My parents, Sister-in-law, and (future) FiancĂ© came all the way to Boston to cheer. The conditions were perfect. (In fact, more than perfect, as determined later when the men destroyed the world record, but it didn’t count because of the tailwind and net downhill.)

As always, I started a little slow, partly due to necessity because of the large crowds and partly from the fear of starting too fast: a dead man’s game. Once Brother and I got going, I felt pretty good. I tried not to assess myself too much, but focused on staying out of my own head. I enjoyed the crowd, the course, the fact that this is Boston. Brother had GPS in his ear, I had GPS on my wrist, the mile markers were in our sights. There were no excuses for pacing errors. At one point, a fire truck had to veer onto the course (!!) but we got just ahead of it and barely missed a beat.

At the 10k we saw our cheering squad. High fives, high spirits. I love this part of Boston; you’re still so excited just to be there, you’re absorbing everything with nothing but a grin on your face. Best of all, your legs haven’t started rebelling yet.

When we got to the half, I was still repeating “stay out of your head,” but I had to admit I was feeling pretty good. Until Brother broke the news: he had to make a pit stop. This was bad news; I was to go on ahead into the hills, into the pain, into the actual hard part of a marathon—alone. I remained calm, he promised to try to catch up (is he crazy?!) and I just glued myself to some unknown strangers for a few miles. I was on my own. Without the extra pacing technology (how much technology do I need?), I somehow missed a mile marker and started to wonder if I had lost pace. Don’t focus on it, just keep forging on.

Around mile 17, just before the turn towards the Newton hills, I heard someone behind me: “Teal, I’m here. I’m here, Teal.” It was Brother! He was back. If you thought he deserved the Brother of the Year Award for pacing me (you were right), here he was going for some kind of Brotherly World Record. He had timed the pit stop, knew how much he lost, how much he had to cut his pace by to catch up with me before the hills. It was madness, but he was committed to getting me my sub-3. He knew after the hills it would be over. My relief was so great it made me realize maybe I had been freaking out slightly.

We started heading up the hills. They weren’t as bad as my first Boston, maybe because I knew I had tackled them once and could do it again. I had memorized the times I had to hit in 5 mile increments (the splits for 5 miles, 10 miles, etc.) We hit the 20 mile mark and were 9 seconds ahead of pace. I thought that was pretty good, but Brother said later that scared him. Nine seconds are lost in a heartbeat. Or a Heartbreak, which was looming.

Turning onto Beacon, with Brother just behind.
Indeed, Heartbreak’s mile was the slowest of the day. But the other side of Heartbreak was where things really went downhill. I started to feel it, all at once, just as predicted. Brother was screaming at me, “C’mon, Teal, C’mon!” There was fear in his voice. I tried to stay optimistic, telling myself it was just exhaustion in his voice, but he said later it was fear. Then the turn onto Beacon, make it or break it time. I had practiced it in my mind over and over again. The crowds are amazing, there are only a few miles left. You’re hurting and exhausted, but you’re through the hills, done the majority of the race, this is the time to fight for it. Brother started slipping behind (he had sacrificed everything to come back to me and take me through the hills) but he kept screaming cheers at me from behind. I was hurting, but his screams kept me going. When I hit the 23rd mile, I did some calculations (I’d say quick calculations, but at this point in a marathon, simple math is difficult) based on the time I knew I had to be at mile 25. I calculated (whether accurately or not, I'll never know) I had 14 minutes to get there = 7 minute pace. I could do it. I just couldn’t slow down a step. The realization that sub-3 was still possible, that I could do this, kept me going. By mile 25, I was 20 seconds ahead of pace. 20 seconds! I could lose that in a mile, so I tried not to get ahead of myself. Keep pushing, keep pushing, until I cross that line.

The turn onto Boylston is the biggest tease. You dream about it for 26 miles, you will make that last turn, see the finish line, and you will be there. The thing is, you make the turn, see the finish line, and it is still SO FREAKING FAR AWAY. It’s enough to stop you in your tracks, doubt you’ll ever make it, but you must keep pushing, pushing, pushing, until you’re under it and you’re done.

As I got closer and closer I started realizing I was going to do it, finish in sub-3. A few meters from the line I knew I had it, but no celebrating until I crossed the line and checked the watch. 2:59:30. I beat it by 30 seconds! Thirty seconds is nothing, but I didn’t care if it was 1 second or 100, the first number of my time was a two, and that is all that mattered.

TWO hours! (...and 59 minutes.)
I waddled through the finish, got my medal, my food, my belongings, and waited to meet my family. I could barely contain myself; I wanted to jump up and down and celebrate, but I had to wait to share it with someone. After a few minutes, Brother arrived. “I did it! I did it!” I told him. His face lit up, he had no idea if I would make it, and we rejoiced. Then the cheering squad arrived and joined the celebrations. We went out for a post marathon meal (burger, fries, and beer) and I don’t think I’ve been as excited, happy, relieved, exhausted, thankful, and thrilled.

The next day, in post-marathon I-can’t-move-my-legs bliss, I got an email from Dad with a link to the Boston Globe list of the top 100 women. The kicker was the end of the URL, where they referred to the list as the “elite women.” It was certainly the first time anyone had put my name on a list with the word elite, and I teared up reading it. (Disclaimer: I tear up a lot.)

We did it! (Yes, "we." My support team deserves a lot of the credit.)
Some non-runners wonder why the heck it matters if you’re 2:59 or 3:00. It’s so much more than a number. It’s a sign that you belong to a group of (dare I say it?) elite runners who have put in the hard work, trained their butts off, and made sacrifices (along with their families) to make themselves into great marathon runners. There are no awards or prizes for being sub-three, just pride. But it is so worth it. It's the same with qualifying for Boston; others may not understand, but runners do. A BQ is a badge of honor. And you've earned it the hard way.

In April, I’ll be back on the hallowed roads of Boston. Back to the guys who jump off the course at mile 1 to pee in the woods. The endless smiles of the early miles. The signs to beat the Kenyans, that you’re crazy, that you're a "wicked fast runnah." The girls of Wellesley, of course. (Even for women, it’s awesome.) The college kids handing out beer. The downhills you don’t notice until you start going up, and simultaneously begin hating yourself for loving marathons. The excruciating pain that doesn’t come at the top of Heartbreak, but just on the other side, when the crowds thin and your quads revolt. The turn onto Beacon, where the crowds are going wild and won’t stop until you do. The turn onto Boylston, when you can finally see the finish line. The last moments of doubt, will you make it? The moment you realize you will, and you have.

Good luck to all those signing up for next year’s Boston, to all those going after BQs this fall, to all those dreaming of someday lining up in Hopkinton. It’s worth all those miles and all that dreaming.

Dream big and go after Boston,

Friday, September 7, 2012


I hate hiccups. My friends and family know this about me; I can't stand having them and I despise when other people are overcome by them (call me overly empathetic). Not only are they uncomfortable and annoying, but they make you wonder if they will ever stop.

Similarly, I hate hiccups in training. Inevitably, every workout won't go well. But when a couple bad ones string together, it seems like a downward spiral. It's annoying, uncomfortable, and you wonder if and when it will stop. 

This past week has been full of hiccups. It started last Wednesday at track practice; right from the beginning, I felt a little off and just didn't seem to have it. But I surprised myself, held on, and handled it. 

Two days later I was back at it, trying to squeeze a long run in before a holiday weekend getaway. It wasn't the best of plans, realizing I wouldn't have ample recovery after the track workout, but it was a "now or never" situation. I had planned to do a few miles at a good clip, but faded quickly. I hit every water fountain, splashed water all over myself, nothing helped. I gave up on my pace. But by the end, I was crawling, slower than I've run in a long time. When I got home, I was completely drained. I skipped my strength exercises (against my blogger advice) in favor of recovery. Looking back, I could come up with a zillion excuses as to why this run went poorly (too little recovery time, a killer combo of heat and humidity, a new sports drink that I was a "tester" for; it will not be getting good reviews), but all I can think about is how that was the last solid long run before the half and I bombed it.

I enjoyed my vacation for the next few days, relaxed at the beach, the pool, went for one short, slow run, and took two days completely off. I figured I'd return extra recovered and ready to go. 

But I wasn't. Tuesday's run wasn't anything special, but I couldn't help but notice that it was quite a bit slower than the same route last week. I blamed the humidity. 

But then came Wednesday. I started feeling a tickle in my throat, and my stomach was a bit off all day. The track workout was daunting: 4 x 2k, much faster than I prefer to go (or, possibly, am capable of going). Again, I felt it from the beginning. But I hung on last week, so I tried to keep at it. My stomach was not having it, and threatening action. On the second repeat, I fell far back. The second repeat!? I usually fall off on the last, but we were barely started. And the pace was continuing to drop. On the third, far back again, Coach made me call it at a mile. I took the extra break, debating if I had one more in me. I decided I would it give it another go, but only a mile. Once again, I fell back after 2 laps, and barely got through it. I felt completely wiped and drained. I couldn't even keep up with the girls on the cool down. Moreover, I was upset because I can't honestly remember the last time I cut a workout short. I've definitely adjusted my expectations and slowed (see above for the long run disaster) but never didn't finish. I feel like endurance is my thing, and until now, I've been able to at least endure the workouts, even if they are at a slower pace than I'd like. Maybe that's a silly philosophy to have -- there is certainly no reason to run yourself into the ground if you don't have it in you -- but I'm disappointed I couldn't complete it. 

The biggest problem is the half marathon is looming, a short week and a half away. My confidence is lacking, and that's not the attitude I want to go into a race with. With no marathon this fall, I feel like this is my moment to shine. This will be my favorite and best distance until the spring. Of course I'm shooting for a big PR, but I need to build my confidence back up to believe that's possible. 

One way to get rid of hiccups is to focus on something else--to ignore them. Easier said than done. There is a great quote in the Wear Sunscreen graduation speech-turned song: "Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how." Everyone has bad workouts, but they are so much harder to forget than the good ones. Particularly in the days leading up to a race, why can't we forget the discouraging days and focus on the encouraging ones? If anyone knows how to do this, how to ignore the hiccups, tell me how. 

Dream big,