on the heels of nyc

The anatomy of a marathon: Runners' highs and lows

The anatomy of a marathon: Runners' highs and lows

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Marathon runners hit the street.

Thousands of runners made it across the finish line in Central Park to complete the ING New York City Marathon Sunday afternoon. The men’s winner, Geoffrey Mutai, of Kenya broke the marathon record with his time of 2 hours, 5 minutes and 6 seconds. Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia won the women’s race, finishing in 2 hours, 23 minutes and 15 seconds. 

As the first female American runner to cross the finish line, Lauren Fleshman stated in the NY Daily News, “Every place had its own personality,” adding that cheers from New Yorkers screaming her name helped her get through. “You don’t think your legs can do it and somehow you manage to do it... Thanks, New York.”

I’ve always found it fascinating to witness the wide net that big city marathons cast today. There are men and women, young and old…. tall, short, thin and, well, not so thin. Some show up in Spiderman suits, others in hair rollers, still others in G-strings. There are highly trained athletes, of course, but also many people who will surprise you by looking like a marathon is not quite the place they should be. Thousands of runners line up in Staten Island in the early morning cold… many serious marathoners, and some not-so-serious. How do all of these people get through it?

Plenty of runners climb on their treadmills or jog around their neighborhoods every day to build mileage. Some of them run for good health, some for fun—but most competitive runners find that racing is where their hard work pays off. You don't have to finish first—or even close to first—to feel like a major sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line. Many who run marathons today do so for a cause, to beat their own personal records, or to lift and inspire others.

One factor that may keep the masses going in order to get to mile 26 is commonly referred to as “runner's high”. There comes a point in a long run when everything clicks: breathing is steady, the stride is even and easy and the body feels great. Runners have referred to this state of euphoria as runner's high, which can be described as a reduced state of discomfort or pain and even a loss of concept of time. So how does runner’s high occur? Scientists once thought it came from exercise-released endorphins, but they now also think that it's got to do with repetition, rhythm and duration [source: WebMD].

A study at the Georgia Institute of Technology and University of California, Irvine, found that long-duration exercise produced a chemical in the body called anadamide, which is a cannabinoid. While the human body makes this naturally, it elicits a feeling not unlike those caused by THC, a chemical found in marijuana. Does the body make itself high?  Dr. Arne Dietrich hypothesizes that the body makes these chemicals to counter the sometimes painful effects of exercise [source: CNN].

During the NYC Marathon along First Avenue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, onlookers line the streets (see photo gallery); it is said that this is the loudest part of the race, with thousands on the sidelines cheering on the runners and bands playing on the sidewalks of local clubs. Runners often report a boost of adrenalin around this area (the 16-17th mile marker) as they are rallied on by a sea of New Yorkers flocking the streets to wish them well on the rest of their run.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the feared phenomenon of “hitting the wall”. When runners hit the wall—usually around mile 18 or 20 in the course—their bodies simply stop functioning. This extreme fatigue can incapacitate runners to different extremes. Some may find that they can limp to the finish line while others have to be carried off the course by medics. So what causes a runner to hit the wall?

Basically it has to do with how the body stores and utilizes energy during such a test of physical endurance: namely, glycogen and fatty acids. Glycogen is the body's biggest source of fuel for running the marathon, and it is stored away in the muscles. When the body needs extra energy, glycogen is broken down into glucose, or sugar that can be used rapidly. The primary reason that marathoners carbohydrate-load before the race is to store glycogen (glycogen reserves can also be built through training).

Unlike glycogen, fatty acids are released even more slowly. The body stores them in its tissues and then draws on them in case of emergency or starvation. When you're hitting the wall your body has become depleted of its more accessible forms of energy and can't always draw on the reserves fast enough. For those runners you see limping across the finish line, you can assume their bodies have tapped into fatty acid reserves; for those who don't make it, all reserves are likely depleted or some other physical malady has occurred.

In addition to training there are other measures taken while running a marathon to stay in the game. Hydration is most important, and most marathons offer water and electrolyte-infused energy drinks at nearly every mile marker.  There are also food stations on the course with items like bananas that help you rebuild your glycogen stores.

It's an impressive site to see the runners in the NYC Marathon wearing jogging shorts, banners and shirts with flags from all over the globe on them crossing the finish line. And many proud Texans too, I might add.