Marathon Mania

Just how healthy is an addiction to running's greatest test?

On the third Monday of April, annually since 1897, thousands of athletes have gathered in Boston for a sporting event that now draws half a million spectators every year . . . and it has nothing to do with the Red Sox. The most famous professional footrace in the world, the Boston Marathon is to your neighborhood jogger what Wimbledon is to your local tennis coach. Just over 26 miles (26.2 to be exact) of exertion, exhiliration, and yes, agony. Why the attraction to this ultimate athletic test? What does a marathon do for a runner? And what does it do to a runner?

Richard Banks (a former editor at Memphis) has run five marathons since 2000, including the New York City Marathon last November. Whatever agony might be endured through the hundreds of miles required for marathon training, Banks, 43, has an easy answer for just why he pursues the mileage. "It comes down to passion," says Banks. "For some reason, I can run like Forrest Gump. I've just been lucky enough to have a little bit of talent intersect with something that I'm passionate about."

Sean Gillespie took up marathoning in his early 30s and has completed the Seattle Marathon twice. A three-sport athlete in high school, Gillespie, 33, sought an outlet for his physical energies at precisely the time he started to see among his peers the results of not exercising vigorously. "I have friends and acquaintances who -- in their early 30s -- are showing high cholesterol and blood pressure. One was recently diagnosed with diabetes." A new father, Gillespie seeks to exemplify how achievable fitness can be.

As for running the race itself, both Banks and Gillespie acknowledge feeling a kind of pain at mile 20 that is known only to marathoners. Having outlasted the endorphin rush that pushes a runner early, those last six miles are a time when a runner's mental strength is tested as much as his or her muscles and tendons. Says Banks, "My quads feel as if someone has poured concrete in the veins, the feet feel as if there are little fires burning on the soles, and my arthritic big toe on my right foot starts to feel as if someone is hammering a chisel through the joint. God, it's great."

At their training peak, marathoners will run in excess of 100 miles a week. Which begs the question: How does your body react to such intense exercise?

"The biggest advantage," explains Dr. Jeffrey Dlabach, "is that weight-bearing activity builds bone density, and bone density is what keeps us walking well until we're very aged." A sports medicine specialist with the Campbell Clinic, Dlabach works with the cross-country teams from Collierville and Houston High Schools. "Especially in women, who might have or develop osteoporosis that requires drug treatment, weight-bearing exercise can be critical."

In addition to the obvious cardiovascular benefits of distance running, Dlabach notes how the increased blood flow strengthens tissue which, in turn, strengthens the functioning capacity of a runner's legs. It's only when a runner tries to do too much, too soon that injuries -- as opposed to the expected discomfort of a marathon -- start to bite.

"People who love running, it's like an addiction," says Dlabach. "They'll run through pain that they shouldn't. And the most common orthopedic injury is stress fractures. Repetitive microtrauma will weaken the bone in a certain area until it fractures."

Dlabach says he has a steady flow of patients a few weeks before the St. Jude Marathon in December. Most are runners who began training for their 26.2-mile jaunt a mere five or six months before the race. He advises at least a year of training -- and running every other day at first -- for the novice marathoner.

And what, pray tell, is a marathoner's reward? Beyond the sense of having survived what killed its ancient Greek pioneer, runners -- so lonely during so many hours of training -- tend to embrace having done what they love in front of a few witnesses. "Running in front of a crowd," notes Banks, "waving to them, egging them on, yelling at them, somewhat salves the ham in me." 

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