Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 15 Dec 2011 05:03:34 -0500

Gotta Run


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from February 1983. It also now appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

We have it on usually reliable authority that runners who run in sickness and in health, for better or worse, are a troubled lot. The New England Journal of Medicine tells us so.

The popular media delight in repeating such stories now that running is well into Phase Two as a phenomenon. In its first phase the healthy benefits were overstated. Now that error is counterbalanced with stories exaggerating the risks of being a runner.

I read the story behind this story – the original research paper in the New England Journal. It’s called “Running – an Analogue of Anorexia?” and it tiptoes around the subject of running too much and eating too little in much more cautious terms than the news reports did. Note, for instance, the question mark in the title.

The authors – Dr. Alayne Yates, Kevin Leekey and Catherine Shisslak from the University of Arizona – state right off that they interviewed a “limited” number of runners (60) and that their “preliminary observations will require further study for validation.”

The researchers have no desire to stab running in the back. They say, “All three of us run. Two have run marathons, and one is a trail runner.” They all admit a “tendency to use running as a focus in our daily lives.””

“Obligatory running,” as they call it, can be the problem. “When the obligatory runners in our sample were unable to run, they experienced depression and anxiety about physical deterioration. Not surprisingly they continued to run in spite of illness – which was often denied – and [serious problems] such as arrhythmias, atherosclerotic heart disease or stress fractures. Such unreasonable dedication has resulted in permanent disability and even death.”

They compare runners (most of whom are mature men) with anorexics (most of them young women), whose drive to be skinny takes such a strong hold on them that they’re literally starving themselves to death. They carry to extremes a discipline that sometimes wins them praise: the runner for dedication to logging miles on the road, and the dieter for self-control at the table.

I defy you to read this report without seeing yourself in it. That’s a hazard of reading medical literature and the reason why Mark Twain warned against it, saying you risk “dying of a misprint.”

Most runners carry some of the obsessive-compulsive traits that these authors identify. Running is filled with addicts, and if we weren’t addicted to this activity then something worse might hold us in its grip. Matters of degree convert a positive addiction into a negative one, a harmless quirk into a consuming disease.

The University of Arizona shrinks assure us that most runners aren’t sick, any more than most dieters are. “In our culture,” they report, “most people experience some anxiety about their appearance and strength, and many decide to go on a diet or follow an exercise program. By and large, such efforts are beneficial. Only a small percentage of runners or dieters become obligatory runners or anorexic patients.”

Where, then, lies the line between health and sickness? In psychological jargon, “Behavior becomes pathological as a result of an extreme degree of constriction, inflexibility, repetitive thoughts, adherence to rituals, and need to control themselves and their environment. Thus, they can be clearly differentiated from those who run and diet for health or to relieve a common anxiety. In this respect anorexia and obligatory running are comparable to religious fanaticism or ‘workaholism’ in that the pathology resides in the intensity and exclusiveness with which the adaptation is maintained.”

In other words it isn’t what you do but how you do it that counts. Running can make you well or make you sick, depending on how you use it. Running itself is an innocent vehicle. Whatever harm comes from it is the runner’s fault, not the activity’s.

Yates, Leehey and Shisslak only appear to find fault with two runners by name. The first is George Sheehan, who in an out-of-context quote seems to support placing running above job, family and friends.

They later point to some of Alberto Salazar’s extreme exertions and well-publicized collapses, then say, “We do not condone, covertly or overtly, self-destructive behavior.” This is a cheap shot and one that misses its mark. Neither Salazar nor any other athlete at his level can court self-destruction and expect to stay at that level very long.

Running has the same natural-selection effect on all of us who try to make too much of a good thing. We aren’t likely to run ourselves to death, but we can and do commit athletic suicide when we let the obsession take over. It stops us sooner or later, one way or another, while allowing the more moderate runners among us to keep going.

UPDATE: Jim Fixx probably read that last paragraph. After writing his blockbuster, the Complete Book of Running, he subscribed to my little newsletter from issue one.

A year after this piece appeared, Jim died of a heart attack on his daily run. We runners wondered how safe we were, then kept running. Non-runners now could forever invoke the name Fixx to justify their inactivity.

Jim Fixx’s lesson wasn’t that running can kill us. It was that running can’t cure all that ails us.

Jim, whose father had died young of heart disease, extended his own life by running. Then he lost it, still too early, because he couldn’t run away from his history.

[This piece and others now appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you into that group by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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