Friday, August 8, 2008

"Runner's High": Is There a Limit?

I've sort of written about this before. But it's come up again, as I'm currently reading Off the Deep End, a tale of a 45-year-old man's quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics (sound familiar)?

One chapter he writes focuses on the physiology of the act. Looking at the average age of Olympic swimmers, society scoffs at the thought that a man (or woman) in his (or her) 40s is capable of the Herculean feats, the incomprehensible times posted by the world's fastest.

The point he makes is that beyond talent, desire, training, motivation, and opportunity, older athletes must be able to overcome the brainwashing effect of society's (especially western society's) collective beliefs regarding age and aging.

And I have one friend who is intent on qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For her, it's not really a matter of if so much as it is when. Right now she runs around a 10:30/mile marathon pace. To qualify for Boston, she'll have to run for like 8:20. Boston may be somewhat elite, but with enough hard work, she plans to achieve it.

Both these situations are strongly resonant for me.

Because I've been wondering just how fast I can run. I don't run fast, now. Maybe I'll never run fast, taken as an absolute measurement ('cause let's face it: right now a sub-9:00 mile is fast for me).

But I have somehow been conditioned to think that my genetics hold me back. My legs are too short. My lungs aren't strong enough. My muscle fibers are all wrong.

In my mind, I've set a limit for myself, and am convinced that I am physiologically incapable of running any faster than, say, a 24:00 minute 5k.

But what if I'm wrong?

It comes down to a question of limits. Once upon a time, running a mile in under 4 minutes was impossible. Once upon a time, swimming a 200 m fly in under 2 minutes was impossible. Once upon a time, qualifying for the Olympic swim team past the age of 40 was impossible. And the inherent socialization of "4 minutes, 4 laps of a track, perfect"; "200 meters, 2 minutes, perfect" was a barrier that had to be overcome before those things could be done. Not only did talent and training and genetics and opportunity and conditions and motivation all have to come together for the athletes who busted through those barriers; they also had to contend with an inculcated sense of the impossible, that what they wanted to do--or what they suspected they could do--was beyond the realm of human possibility.

Those things have all been done. Which leaves me wondering:

Are there any limits? Or is it all in my head?

On a somewhat related note, I've decided that my best chance for qualifying for the Olympics someday is to take up Olympic weightlifting.


  1. I feel special! :)

    About the "short legs" thing:

    I feel like shorter legs (I'm 5'3") give us an advantage when it comes to distance if not when it comes to speed because...Well, I'm not quite sure. My theory, though?

    I don't know if you read Nitmos' post on "prancing" while running, but it seems that the shorter the person the less inclined he/she is to lift his/her legs unnecessarily far off the ground. We have less "prancing" room so we expend less energy along the way (read: better endurance). Ideas?

  2. Good point. There are plenty of excellent runners (Emma Snowsill comes to mind, in the triathlon world) who are incredibly petite with very short legs. But that's kind of the point; of course it's possible for me to overcome short legs and run fast. Many athletes have overcome much more (i.e. having no legs at all). It's more a mental than physical issue, I think.

  3. A valid point. The part about a sub-4:00 mile being impossible until someone *did* it really resonated with me. Often with math proofs, people will slave away for years and years and never find anything...until one person does, and then 12 others do, too, all within a year.

    I'm definitely coming from the other side of athleticism, though, in the sense that I just started with running < 3 months ago, so everything is new and I haven't really pushed my limits yet. I'm scared of hitting a mental wall, though, because I just see and hear all sorts of nasty things (I'm sure you've seen how many books there are at Borders or B&N on "Breaking Through the Wall!" *shivers*), which is one reason I find Dean Karnazes so interesting. Dude goes out and *finds* the wall, then kicks its ass. :)

  4. My first marathon is 2002 was a 4:52. I'm gunning for a 3:20 in October. You CAN get faster...take it from this stubby 5'1" chick!!!

  5. Im in!!
    when do we start training for the olympics!

    and Jackie? she escaped my clutches.


  6. 1. I don't see why swimmers, of all sports, would have to be so young. It's non-impact, and more based on technique than anything else. How would that change with age? I watched Dara Torres swim last night... she was the only female swimmer in the water that didn't look, well... CHUNKY! What IS it with swimmers?!

    2. According to Jack Daniels and his disciples, if you can run a 24:00 5K, then you should be able to run a 3:50 marathon. Then all you have to do is take another 10 minutes off, or wait for the qualifying time to come to you. Piece of cake, right?

    Cool new digs, btw.

  7. Oh...I think you can do it. I run a 24:30 5k. My tri speed is a bit slower. I have extremely short legs to boot. I think my short legs do give me an advantage. I can't prance. I can't lift them high off the ground. All I can do is move them faster. I really focused on running this past winter. I took about 2 minutes off my time by forcing myself to run as fast as my short little legs would go on the treadmill.

    You can DO IT!

  8. You need to rent the movie "Rudy" and watch what happened to him. It's a true story about overcoming "genetics" in sports and getting where you want to be just by believing that you can.

  9. Just a note to thank you for your really awesome and thoughtful comment. It was really helpful & reassuring!

    Thanks again! :)

  10. Personal physiology is not a static factor. The human body reacts to the environment that you put it in.

    Train, live and eat like a marathoner. You will have a marathoner's body.

    Train, live and eat like a weightlifter. You will have a weightlifter's body.

    Too many people focus on Phelps' genetics, with his work ethic and training as a side note. If he had picked up football as a kid, he may hve the same height proportions now, but would have completely different flexibility and specific strength.

    Natural born talent is an illusion. You may never break the tape at Kona, but the only thing stopping you from unleashing the pain at local sprints is the environment you put your body in every day.

    :-) Just my $.02