IN the same week that East Anglia’s fittest woman Chrissie Wellington quit full-time sport, there was another scare story in the media about people who overdo exercise.
The two things were not related of course. Chrissie was quitting purely to take up fresh challenges in her life, and not because she’s clapped-out from thousands of miles running and cycling.
She announced on Monday she was retiring as a professional triathlete at the age of 35, bringing to an end an incredible career devoted entirely to the ‘Ironman’ discipline. She won Ironman world titles four times, remaining unbeaten at the distance and clocking the four fastest female times on record. Not bad for an ordinary working-class girl who grew up in the sticks (that’s ‘boondocks’ for any American readers, and ‘Back o’Bourke’ for any Aussies).
She went to school in the unremarkable little town of Downham Market, and lived in the even less remarkable village of Feltwell. In recent years the only time I’ve had occasion to visit those two places was in the wee small hours, towards the end of the annual Round Norfolk Relay. Being weary and irritable from lack of sleep, I barely noticed them at all, let alone looked upon them as places where an elite endurance athlete was made.
Being a bit of a ’townie’ myself, it’s tempting to suggest that growing up in a quiet place like Feltwell would be enough to prompt anyone to run/cycle as far away and as quickly as possible. But that would be out of order. I’m sure Feltwell is a very interesting place. For example, here’s an interesting fact about Feltwell: It’s village school headmaster for 20 years was called Mr. Don Feltwell. Yes, really!
If you don’t believe me, ask Chrissie Wellington, because he used to teach her! And Mr Feltwell had other star pupils too, including TV weatherman Jim Bacon and two members of Katrina and the Waves. I told you Feltwell was quite interesting, didn’t I?
And there’s more. Mr Feltwell of Feltwell was a wireless operator during the Suez crisis who played football for the likes of Downham Town FC into his late 40s. And when his school opened its new swimming pool he showed he was no ordinary headmaster by leaping in fully clothed to entertain the assembled crowd. Dull in Norfolk? You must be kidding.
But I digress. The main topic of this week’s blog was supposed to be those scare stories mentioned earlier about the effects of intense exercise - i.e. the sort of thing Chrissie Wellington did every day until last Monday.
According to the report published by a group of cardiologists, fitness fanatics should restrict themselves to only the odd one or two marathons or full-distance triathlons in their life-time, because over-exerting the heart for years can lead to long-term damage.
They reckoned repeatedly asking the heart to pump massive volumes of blood can lead to an array of problems - overstretching the organ’s chambers, thickening of its walls and changes to electrical signalling. These could trigger dangerous rhythm problems.
Their warnings were directed at those of us who exercise hard for long periods, often repeating their training programmes over many years. They cited the example of ultra-runner Micah True, the hero of the 2009 book Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall. Micah died earlier this year in the USA aged 58, collapsing during a 12-mile run on a remote trail, his body undiscovered for several days. Micah routinely ran a marathon a day, sometimes more. An autopsy revealed heart problems, although it was not immediately clear whether this was genetic, or whether his extreme training did the damage.
The cardiologists insisted that most people should limit vigorous exercise to 30 to 50 minutes per day, only tackle the odd marathon or two, and then proceed to “safer and healthier exercise patterns.”
Many news outlets ran the story, and, predictably, it was not universally well received. Ultra-runner John Storkamp, one of my 'Facebook friends’, responded angrily:
“And what oppressive tax shall be levied on our spirit should we become stagnant and quit running out of fear? Running is one of the most natural acts most people will ever do. My dad gave me this article and said it was very interesting. No, it’s bullshit! Even if it were true, it’s bullshit and a waste of paper and ink. Don't they have anything better to do with their time? When the time comes, I’ll be happy to run into the woods, have a heart attack, die doing something I love and will be honored when the ravens, turkey-vultures, hawks and eagles pick my bones clean so I am reincarnated in all of nature. The other alternative is to quit running, get old and sick in a nursing home and die a long, drawn-out, painful death. ”
Basically the cardiologists want mileage freaks to become more moderate and circumspect. But I’m sure I’m not the only ordinary club runner who has many friends and colleagues unable to stick to ‘moderate’ levels of competition and exercise. These people need new challenges and new adventures so they can stretch themselves to the limit. Ageing and injury are just occupational hazards.
In the case of your Clapped-Out Runner, my marathon days seem to be long gone thanks to knee trouble. Runs of around one hour – and not too many of them – are my maximum these days.
And my pitiful efforts over the years in the swimming pool have always ensured I’d never be able to complete a full triathlon. Way back in 1989 I did manage a desperate 25 metres at a pool in Stowmarket. The sheer bizarre spectacle of it stopped everyone else in their tracks and led to huge cheers when I finally smashed into the far wall. I wasn’t able to join the celebrations due to my innards being full of chlorinated water instead of oxygen. I had simply been too low in the water to breathe for the entire 25-metre journey!
My claims about having ‘heavy bones’ and ‘dense muscles’ and therefore a seriously-compromised buoyancy have always raised a laugh. But I’m sure there must be others out there who have the same genuine excuse? Aren’t there?
* Rob Hadgraft’s five books on running now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each. Go to: Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon