On Running the Marathon in North Korea

Jeré Longman recently ran a marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea. He was one of several hundred foreign tourists allowed to participate in the spectacle. Writing for The New York Times, he reflects on the experience:

We could not leave the loop course, but we could leave our minders for an hour or two or four. Maybe we could make a personal connection that seemed less scripted than the opening ceremony: a brief smile, a wave, a hello, a thank you, a small encouragement.

Or would it all be staged, a Potemkin race in an authoritarian capital for the elite and loyal, our perceptions influenced by stories in the West, true or not, that Kim Jong-il scored a perfect 300 in his first bowling match and five holes in one on his maiden round of golf?

An early uphill stretch carried us past modest but encouraging crowds along a wide street of apricot blossoms. A soldier high-fived a few runners. A woman waved from the window of her apartment building. Other women in red jackets poured water into cups at small hydration tables.

The 6.2-mile loop brought us back and forth across the Taedong River via bridge and tunnel, the roads decorated with clusters of North Korean flags, their red star and red field meant to symbolize the spilled blood of liberation in a military-first nation.

For the natives, the marathon may have been a chance to act rebelliously:

During his half-marathon, Hank Mannen, 36, of the Netherlands, was startled to see a young woman blow him a kiss. He said he reciprocated, then thought for a moment, “She’s in big trouble now.

Great read.

On Bad Investments and Marathons

This week, The New York Times launched Upshot , described as “a plainspoken guide to the news” and in essence, similar to two other explanatory new sites that have recently launched (Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight.com). My favorite piece so far on Upshot is Justin Wolfers’s “What Good Marathons and Bad Investments Have in Common” (because it combines two of my interests: finance and running):

In the usual analysis, economists suggest it’s worth putting in effort as long as the marginal benefit from doing so exceeds the corresponding marginal cost of that effort. The fact that so many people think it worth the effort to run a 2:59 or 3:59 marathon rather than a 3:01 or 4:01 suggests that achieving goals brings a psychological benefit, and that missing them yields the costly sting of failure.

But in other domains, this discontinuity between meeting a goal and being forced to confront a loss can lead to bad economic decisions. Because losses are psychologically painful, we sometimes strain too hard to avoid them.

For instance, when you sell your house, your goal may be to get at least what you paid for it. But this simple goal has led to disastrous decisions for those who bought homes in Florida or Nevada during the housing bubble. Too many homeowners set their selling prices with an eye on recouping past investments rather than on current market conditions, and as a result, their homes didn’t sell, deepening their financial distress.

Well worth the read in entirety.

On Competitive Running with Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis has no cure, and yet, Kayla Montgomery, age 18, has found a way to persevere. She is a competitive track and medium distance runner and has been setting records. What’s unusual is that when she breaks her running stride at the end of the races, she collapses:

At the finish of every race, she staggers and crumples. Before momentum sends her flying to the ground, her coach braces to catch her, carrying her aside as her competitors finish and her parents swoop in to ice her legs. Minutes later, sensation returns and she rises, ready for another chance at forestalling a disease that one day may force her to trade the track for a wheelchair. M.S. has no cure.

Last month, Montgomery, a senior at Mount Tabor High School, won the North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters. Her time of 10 minutes 43 seconds ranks her 21st in the country. Her next major competition is the 5,000 meters at the national indoor track championships in New York on March 14, when she hopes to break 17 minutes.

Kayla Montgomery, #4, racing.

Kayla Montgomery, #4, racing.

No pain, no gain. Amazing story.

On the Sub-Elite Wall Street Runners

The New York Times Dealbook blog profiles the non-elite runners at the New York City Marathon, which took place this past Sunday. These people have day jobs but are still amazing athletes. An accompanying piece in the sports section is excellent:

Cass, 29, is a member of a mostly invisible and underappreciated group known as the sub-elites. They have more than respectable times — the men finishing in the 2:20 to 2:35 range, the women in the 2:50 to 3:05 range — but have no chance to win the biggest marathons and receive little attention and even less financial reward.

Still, they are superb athletes, and although they may lack the speed of the world’s best, they are not missing the drive, discipline or commitment. Many log 80, 90 or 100 miles a week in training while holding full-time jobs. Cass’s career is more notable because he did not run track in high school or college.

I am similar to Cass: I hadn’t run in high school or college and only recently have picked it up as a hobby (about one year). My ideal distance is 5K, but I am slowly gearing up to do longer distances.

Dean Karnazes: The Man Who Doesn’t Tire of Running

Most runners have to stop when they reach their lactate threshold, but Dean Karnazes’ muscles never tire: he can run for three days and nights without stopping. What’s his secret? The answer: he doesn’t have a lactate threshold.

When running, you break down glucose for energy, producing lactate as a byproduct and an additional source of fuel that can also be converted back into energy. However, when you exceed your lactate threshold, your body is no longer able to convert the lactate as rapidly as it is being produced, leading to a buildup of acidity in the muscles. It is your body’s way of telling you when to stop – but Karnazes never receives such signals.

“To be honest, what eventually happens is that I get sleepy. I’ve run through three nights without sleep and the third night of sleepless running was a bit psychotic. I actually experienced bouts of ‘sleep running’, where I was falling asleep while in motion, and I just willed myself to keep going.”

A brief explainer on the lactate process:

Your body clears lactate from the blood via a series of chemical reactions driven by the mitochondria in your muscle cells. These reactions transform lactate back to glucose again and they are enhanced by specific enzymes. The clearance process also works more efficiently if your mitochondria have a larger capacity, increasing their ability to use lactate as a fuel.

Years of training will improve both your enzymes and mitochondria and so improve your clearance, but there is a limit to how much you can improve your lactate threshold by training alone. If you inherit these enzymes and a larger mass of mitochondria genetically, your personal limits will be far higher.

In this 2006 interview with Outside Magazine, Dean offered his thoughts on pursuing his passion:

Outside: I know you just ran a marathon and want to get back to the bus to relax, so I’ll jump right in. The theme of our story is how to take your life from a seven to a ten. How did you decide to do that for yourself? 

Dean Karnazes: I made the commitment to turn my passion into my vocation. I’d always thought if I start making my life what I love, I might hate it. I might not enjoy it as much for some reason. I think that was an excuse more than anything else, because now that I’ve decided to do exactly what I love to do, it’s been the most rewarding, fulfilling experience of my life.

On Locomotion Dynamics in Cheetahs

Per a recently published paper in Nature, it turns out the long held assumption that it’s the cheetahs’ remarkable speed that helps them in hunting is not entirely correct. Cheetahs that chase prey in the wild shows that it is their agility — their skill at leaping sideways, changing directions suddenly, and slowing down quickly — that gives those antelope such bad odds. From The New York Times summary:

Until now researchers had been able to gather data on the hunting habits of cheetahs only by studying the animals in captivity, or from direct — though relatively imprecise — observations of their movements in the wild. But Dr. Wilson and his team spent nearly 10 years designing and building a battery-powered, solar-charged tracking collar, one that uses an accelerometer, a gyroscope and G.P.S. technology to monitor the animal’s movements.

They attached these collars to five cheetahs in the Okavango Delta region and observed 367 of their hunting runs over six to nine months. The cheetahs ran as fast as 58 miles an hour, and their average speed was 33 m.p.h.. High-speed runs accounted for only a small portion of the total distance covered by the cheetahs each day, the researchers found.

They also found that a cheetah can slow down by as much as 9 m.p.h. in a single stride — a feat that proves more helpful in hunting than the ability to break highway speed records. A cheetah often decelerates before turning, the data showed, and this enables it to make the tight turns that give it an advantage over its fast and nimble prey.

A fascinating study on the land’s fastest mammal.

Haruki Murakami on the Spirit of the Boston Marathon

If you’re as much a fan of Haruki Murakami as I am, then you know how much of an avid runner he is. He’s run more than two dozen marathons in his life. But the Boston Marathon is his favorite. Writing in The New Yorker, he reflects on the spirit of the Marathon with the April 2013 bombings in mind:

What’s great about marathons in general is the lack of competitiveness. For world-class runners, they can be an occasion of fierce rivalry, sure. But for a runner like me (and I imagine this is true for the vast majority of runners), an ordinary runner whose times are nothing special, a marathon is never a competition. You enter the race to enjoy the experience of running twenty-six miles, and you do enjoy it, as you go along. Then it starts to get a little painful, then it becomes seriously painful, and in the end it’s that pain that you start to enjoy. And part of the enjoyment is in sharing this tangled process with the runners around you. Try running twenty-six miles alone and you’ll have three, four, or five hours of sheer torture. I’ve done it before, and I hope never to repeat the experience. But running the same distance alongside other runners makes it feel less grueling. It’s tough physically, of course—how could it not be?—but there’s a feeling of solidarity and unity that carries you all the way to the finish line. If a marathon is a battle, it’s one you wage against yourself.

Running the Boston Marathon, when you turn the corner at Hereford Street onto Boylston, and see, at the end of that straight, broad road, the banner at Copley Square, the excitement and relief you experience are indescribable. You have made it on your own, but at the same time it was those around you who kept you going. The unpaid volunteers who took the day off to help out, the people lining the road to cheer you on, the runners in front of you, the runners behind. Without their encouragement and support, you might not have finished the race. As you take the final sprint down Boylston, all kinds of emotions rise up in your heart. You grimace with the strain, but you smile as well.

I love Murakami’s message on how to cope with the pain, and how to remember the victims of the Boston bombings:

For me, it’s through running, running every single day, that I grieve for those whose lives were lost and for those who were injured on Boylston Street. This is the only personal message I can send them. I know it’s not much, but I hope that my voice gets through. I hope, too, that the Boston Marathon will recover from its wounds, and that those twenty-six miles will again seem beautiful, natural, free.

Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.