marathon challenge

A couple of weeks ago, Kris and I watched an incredibly inspirational program from the PBS NOVA series, called Marathon Challenge.  You can watch the program online here.

The premise was this : select a group of sedentary people, give them 9 months of training, and then watch them complete the Boston Marathon.  Easy, right?

I’ve been a first-time marathoner filled with doubt myself.  And having been with others who were essentially raising themselves from couch potato to marathoner status, I’ve definitely watched people I never would have imagined completing 26.2 miles cross the finish line.  It’s amazing, and wonderful to see people do things like this.

The Nova program was interesting.  They selected these people, based on factors they never really explained.  Suffice to say that some of the folks faced significant challenges.  One woman was 70 lbs overweight, another smoked.  There was a guy who faced a heart disease risk that felt daunting.  Another woman was diabetic.  None of them exercised regularly prior to joining the Marathon Challenge.  Initially, the NOVA folks felt that they would probably lose 30-50% of the participants over the course of time.  This is a bit higher than I’d seen in my Team in Training days.  It makes sense though, given the smaller population and the fact that all were sedentary prior to joining.

Let’s talk about the human drama involved here, because that’s easily the most interesting part.  Real world people facing real world problems, while attempting a significant physical challenge beyond any they’d ever faced before.  A woman grieving the death of her mother to a drunk driver.  A man enduring a difficult divorce and a custody trial over the kids.  A man worrying about whether he’d be able to run in the New England winter, because he’d suffered a heart attack several years before while shoveling snow.  Despite these doubts and fears, and despite facing long odds based on their initial stress tests, they all gathered each week for their long runs.  Starting at a couple of miles, they gradually increased the distance to 5, 10, and more miles.

Along the way, they forged supportive bonds that motivated each other.  Even when they struggled with injuries, they stuck with it.  If they were sidelined for a while, the group would rally behind them as they rehab’d, and when they rejoined the group runs.

The medical/physiological story could have been its own program.  During the first stress test, most of the participants struggled with low scores, measuring their VO2 max.  One participant scored “exceptional”, indicating a probable genetic advantage.  In a fairly short amount of time, all participants VO2 max scores soared into the exceptional range.  This reinforces what I’d heard before about the aerobic system being very easy to train, even if the joints and muscles present more of a challenge. 

Additionally, they found that people’s weights stayed fairly stable, illustrating that exercise alone isn’t a weight loss program, that what you eat matters a lot.  This also agrees with my own anecdotal evidence, wherein my own weight has rarely decreased when I’ve trained for a marathon.  It might even increase a bit, as I tend to eat more, as my body tells me it needs the fuel.

One of the participants had to leave the program, after suffering multiple stress fractures on two occasions.  She did not leave due to a lack of determination – clearly there was a larger medical issue there.

On race day, there was a lot of nervousness.  One of the participants was ill with a urinary infection which made her quite uncomfortable when running.  A number of them struggled in the later miles.

Amazingly, all participants other than the woman who left with the stress fractures completed the program, and the marathon.  I can’t tell you how touching it was to see the woman who’d been so overweight, sprint over the final quarter mile and cross the finish in tears.  Made me cry – and yes I’m serious.

This is one of the things I truly love about running.  There are enough difficult things in the world that get us down.  Yet, when I’m out running with friends, the best in us seems to come out – it’s all about being positive – even when our goals get a bit crazy.

Facing a challenge like this changes your life.  It teaches you that you can do most anything when you set your mind to it.  And unless you have a significant medical issue – you can do it.  On a more basic level, it teaches you how you can surprise yourself in some nice ways.

I would definitely recommend this to runners and non-runners alike.  It’s a great story of what determination and positive energy can do, even against the odds.

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