To Catch A Marathon Cheat

Rochelle Yang started marathon training two years ago, working her runs into her hectic schedule as a full-time pharmacy student at the University of Iowa. She trained year-round, putting up with snow, sleet, and regular sub-freezing temperatures. Sometimes, it was hard fitting in runs into her day. After a 12-hour day of classes, studying, and working a part-time job, she’d get home at 7 PM, have a quick snack, and then bang out somewhere between 7 and 13 miles, sometimes on less than 5 hours of sleep.

“I’ll be honest,” Yang wrote to me via email, “there were many days I hated running” (although she did add a smiley to the end of that sentence).

She dreamed of running in the Boston Marathon someday, but didn’t think she’d hit the qualifying time in the near future. Her goal for the first marathon she ran, in June 2015, was simply to finish without stopping or walking. She finished in 3 hours 50 minutes, only 15 minutes shy of hitting the Boston qualifier time, commonly referred to as “BQ.” For the next four months, she trained hard trying to shave those 15 minutes off her time.

Read More: Running to Narnia: The Quest for the Two-Hour Marathon

At the IMT Des Moines Marathon in October 2015, Yang pushed herself, particularly in the last four miles, to hit BQ, which is 3 hours 35 minutes for her age group. “I remember thinking I would be okay with everything in my life going wrong for the next year if I could just beat the 3:35 pacer to the finish.”

Yang crossed the finish line, exhausted and numb. Once she regained a modicum of wind, Yang called her parents, fighting to catch her breath and holding back tears at the same time, which, she remembers, made her sound like she was injured. Her parents asked if they needed to call an ambulance. Finally, she got the words out so they could understand.

“Dad, I just qualified for Boston!” She ran 3:32:51, or BQ-2:09.

Yang at the Newport News One City marathon in Virginia.

Yang wasn’t automatically invited to run in Boston even thought she ran a fast enough time to qualify. Every year, more runners apply for Boston with BQ times than the race has slots. So they take applications on a rolling basis, accepting the fastest runners first and working their way backwards. Usually, all the slots are filled somewhere in the final group—between BQ-5 and BQ—but nobody knows exactly where the cutoff will be until the announcements go out. For the application period that ended just before Yang ran in Des Moines, the cutoff was BQ-2:28, 19 seconds faster than Yang’s time. It would be close.

Yang put in so much work to BQ that it never even crossed her mind that some people don’t put in the work. Some people cheat.


Derek Murphy started Marathon Investigation as “kind of an afterthought.” He followed the stories of notorious alleged marathon cheaters like Mike Rossi and Kip Litton on the LetsRun.com forums, but didn’t post much. Still, he realized the reason they aroused suspicion and got caught was because they publicized their fabricated accomplishments, attracting attention. After following Rossi’s case closely, Murphy wondered, “How many more people are like this guy but we don’t know about because they don’t put themselves out there?”

A business analyst in Cincinnati with a wife and two kids, Murphy downloads race results and looks for anomalies. For the Boston Marathon, bib numbers are assigned in sequential order, so the earlier you get accepted—and, therefore, the faster time you have—the lower the bib number. Based on this, Murphy can roughly predict what time that runner ought to run in Boston if they qualified honestly. If a runner is far off his or her predicted time, Murphy flags it.

From that list, Murphy looks at the mat times, which, using a digital chip in the race bibs, logs a runner’s splits every time they cross a mat at certain mile markers. From here, Murphy can spot issues quickly. If Murphy finds several missed mats in conjunction with impossible splits, such as a runner increasing their pace significantly over the second half of the race, they probably cut the course.

All in all, it takes Murphy about 30 minutes from the time he gets the data set to when he has a list of people who almost certainly cheated. From there, he researches their qualifying times and races, looking at photos, split times, and communicating with race directors on individual cases.

These methods are not all that different from those employed by LetsRun forum sleuths. Those threads—hotly investigating claimed athletic feats—have been some of LetsRun’s most popular, according to the site’s co-founder Weldon Johnson. Rossi, for example, gained international fame after the principal at his kid’s school sent him a letter about the child’s unexcused absences surrounding the 2015 Boston Marathon, in which Rossi ran. Rossi posted a snarky reply to Facebook, touting his personal accomplishments in qualifying for Boston. “They watched their father overcome, injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.” The Facebook post went viral and got him immense media attention.

But LetsRun’s forums uncovered what they believed to be conclusive evidence that Rossi cut the course in his qualifying race, and that he should have never been allowed to run in Boston. Rossi has denied that he cheated in the race, and Lehigh Valley Marathon race officials did not disqualify him after the fact despite LetsRun’s evidence.

More recently, a man named Robert Young tried set the record for fastest time running across America, but fell short amidst suspicions he was fabricating his efforts.

In the Rossi and Young situations, Johnson said, the threads were likely so popular because both runners insisted they were innocent. Young’s feat was under suspicion in real time, so there were always new developments for the message board to discuss. Most of the other cheating threads tend to be shorter-lived. “But,” Johnson added, “people are amazed at the sleuthing ability of some of our posters.” Indeed, these threads involve hundreds if not thousands of intense runners with finely-tuned bullshit detectors, all doing their own smaller version of Murphy’s marathon investigations.

Sometimes, commenters on Murphy’s site or in the LetsRun forums wonder why someone would cheat in a marathon, the ultimate individual sport. But that’s just one side of the question. After all, if running is such an individual sport, why would anyone spend so much time trying to catch them?


“For serious runners, race day is sacred,” Matt Taylor, Founder and CEO of running apparel company Tracksmith and former head of global marketing for running at Puma told me over the phone. This is in contrast to what he called the “health and wellness movement” over the last decade or so, which encourages people to be active, raise money for charity, and jog in goofy costumes where everyone gets a finisher’s medal. “I think that’s rubbed serious runners a bit the wrong way because it’s something we’ve always held as sacred.”

So is the sleuthing and outing of cheaters a way to re-claim their territory? Taylor thought it was possible, but allowed that it’s only part of the explanation. Particularly in the Rossi and Young cases, these guys were publicly bragging about their accomplishments, using social media to promote themselves. (He also emphasized that he doesn’t much care what other people do and doesn’t “want to be lumped in with people losing their shit over this.”)

Social media and modern technology function as a double-edged sword. The tweets and Facebook posts people put up of finisher’s medals they might not have earned taunt serious runners to out them. And the message boards, digital time mats, and race photos make it possible for it to happen in a matter of minutes.

But the main reason marathon cheats likely incite so much outrage in the running community is because cheating violates the very essence of the sport down to its philosophical core. As LetsRun’s co-founder Johnson explained, “Running in its purest form is not a battle for external recognition but a battle within ourselves. Cheating changes this and is such an affront to the sport, that people spend a lot of time combating this. Many hard-core runners can’t fathom why a runner would cheat in a race, so they go to great lengths to expose them.”

This is, more or less, why Murphy spends many of his nights sorting through spreadsheets and looking at marathon photos of people he’s never met. He also hopes it serves as a deterrent for anyone else who might course-cut their way to Boston. But there’s an even simpler reason why he does it.

Murphy has run in 10 marathons himself, but his last one was eight years ago. Then, he had kids. He doesn’t have the time or energy for training anymore. But, he still cares about running and considers himself a part of the community. Catching cheaters is his way of contributing now that he no longer participates. Also, spreadsheets and data analysis are his thing. He’s good at it.

We’re not saying any of these people cheated, but statistically speaking, one of them might have. Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Murphy first wrote about Jeff and Sheri Donnelly in April. According to Murphy’s research, Jeff ran the Boston Marathon four times: 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. Jeff qualified for 2015 with a time of 3:27:49 at the Desert Classic in Arizona, but ran a 4:28:04 in Boston, a full hour slower. Or, to put it another way, he qualified with a 7:55-per-mile pace but ran Boston at a 10:13 pace.

The Desert Classic didn’t have mats, but Murphy looked up photos from the race, which occurred at the same time as a half-marathon. Both the half and full marathons were out-and-back loops. Jeff was photographed racing next to a 2 hour 30 minute half-marathoner towards the middle of the race, which doesn’t make any sense. Jeff clocked a full marathon in only an additional hour.

His wife, Sheri, ran in the same race. She signed up for the full marathon, but the organizers dropped her to the half-marathoners because her time—identical to her husband’s—would have meant she was the first female to finish, but they knew she wasn’t.

In late 2015, Jeff and Sheri ran the Surfer’s Point Marathon in Santa Barbara, CA, a two-loop marathon rife with course-cutting opportunities. Murphy found that Jeff wore a blue shirt over a green shirt for part of the race, but switched them at some point; a typical move for course-cutters in order not to be recognized by other runners.

Both Jeff and Sheri—who was also busted for course-cutting at the 2015 Big Wildlife Run in Anchorage, AK—ran BQ times at Surfer’s Point and, according to Murphy’s research, registered for Boston 2017, the same race Yang worked so hard to qualify for. Several calls to the Donnelly home were not returned.

Murphy also suspects Sheri ran the 2014 Boston Marathon with her husband despite the fact that she didn’t qualify by using his bib to forge her own, changing his number #5895 to #5855. As Murphy points out, bib #5855 for the 2014 Boston Marathon was a 42 year old male who was photographed throughout the race.

When asked about Murphy’s efforts specific to the Boston Marathon, a spokesman for the Boston Athletic Association, or BAA, told VICE Sports: “We rely on the race organizers and timing systems they employ to produce true and accurate results, and we also rely on the honesty and integrity of 99.99 percent of competitors who compete fairly and strive for their own personal records.”

Murphy couldn’t offer a precise number, but he estimates roughly three to four percent of Boston Marathon runners qualify by cheating. If accurate, this would mean roughly 600 runners out of 30,000 may have lied their way to the marathon.

“For the relatively tiny minority of participants who seek to gain unfair advantages,” the BAA said, “there is sometimes no better method of rule enforcement than from witness accounts and reporting of fellow participants who also believe in a clean sport. And when such transgressions are reported, we trust race directors to fully investigate the matter, and adjudicate their race results if necessary.”

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After putting together his dossier on the Donnellys, Murphy notified the Surfer’s Point Marathon race organizer, Bill Escobar, who reviewed the evidence and agreed with Murphy’s findings. In September, Escobar disqualified the Donnellys, and notified the BAA that these runners were no longer eligible for Boston.

That same week, Yang didn’t sleep well. She had applied for Boston and was anxiously waiting to hear back. She knew her chances were slim and tried her best to temper expectations, knowing -2:09 wouldn’t have made the cut for the previous year’s Marathon.

On Wednesday, September 28, she got the email. She was the only one in the office, so nobody heard her shout.

“YES!”

She didn’t know it then, but the 2017 Boston Marathon cutoff time for the female 18-34 age group was BQ-2:09, precisely Yang’s time. She straddled the cutoff line, but managed to fall just inside. Yang may have been the last person accepted for Boston 2017.

That day, another runner, via Reddit, brought Murphy’s website to her attention. The Donnellys weren’t the only runners disqualified thanks to Murphy’s work. Yang concluded that, if it wasn’t for him, she might not be in Boston.

Yang wrote Murphy an email, which he then posted to the site. She explained how she was just barely accepted, calling it “the biggest stroke of luck I may ever experience in my life. And I know I would not have gotten in if it weren’t for the investigative work you do!

“You help get illegitimate runners kicked out of Boston so those spots can be filled by runners who have earned them. The time that you’ve put in, the work that you do that maybe feels thankless sometimes–has allowed a young runner to be able to complete her dream and run in her first Boston Marathon. And for that, I cannot thank you enough.”

It’s hard to say whether this conclusion is true. As Murphy wrote in the post, his work doesn’t free up additional slots. A BAA spokesperson confirmed that disqualified runners don’t have their spots filled. Instead, fewer people run.

But, Murphy also uncovered several dozen runners in the year leading up to Boston registration who, without his efforts, could have registered with falsified BQ times. Would those runners have pushed the cutoff to BQ-2:08? It’s impossible to know.

This ambiguity opens the door to different interpretations, and the way runners perceive this dynamic is indicative of how they perceive running itself. You can believe Murphy helped Yang make the cutoff and that cheaters are an affront to everything the sport stands for. But you can also believe Yang will be running in Boston, not because of a business analyst in Cincinnati, but because of herself. She’s running in Boston because, at the IMT Des Moines Marathon, there were 49 turns, six loops, and 175 feet in elevation change. If she had run a single second slower—slowed up to avoid a crowd before pushing through, taken the long angle around a turn, an extra half-beat when grabbing a water at the water station—she wouldn’t be going to Boston, Marathon Investigation or not.

THE TWO BEST FIRST WORKOUTS FOR NEW RUNNERS

Suzanne is a runner (though she says not a “real runner”). She started running three years ago to get back in shape after the birth of her second child. Over a few months, she progressed from a walk/run around the block to running 2-4 days per week, covering 3-5 miles each run and up to 10 miles in her long runs.

Like most of us, Suzanne soon realized that running was so much more than just a way to get in shape. She treasures her morning runs with her training partners, talking through life’s ups and downs as the miles roll by.

She has run a few 5K and 10Ks and even two half-marathons but was intimidated by the local running group and their workouts. However, she wanted to get fitter and would like to actually push herself to a faster time in her races. In her words, she’s not “training for the Olympics” but knows she needs to do some “real runner” workouts to boost her fitness.

Here’s what I had her do and if she sounds a lot like you, this will help you also become a fitter, faster and more confident runner.

WORKOUT #1: SURGES

Once per week for eight weeks, she inserted a few “surges” within one of her mid-week runs. She’d run easy for 10-15 minutes then pick up the pace for 15 seconds. Then, she’d return to her easy pace for one minute before surging again. She started with 5 surges in Week #1 and added 2-3 each week. By Week #4, she was doing 10-15 surges and could even carry these surges to 45-60 seconds.

I instructed that these were not sprints and she should not get out of breath while doing them. The surges were simply a slight rise in effort and increase in pace so we could prepare the neuromuscular system for faster running.

As I’ve witnessed with dozens of other athletes who used surges as their first workout, she loved it. “It was exhilarating to get out of my normal stride and pick up the pace! It also made the run go by quicker. Since the surges started at just 15 seconds, I wasn’t scared of them and after a few weeks, I could definitely tell my surges were getting faster,” she says.

Like Suzanne, many newer runners run the same pace for all their runs. But to boost fitness, there must be variety in training and thus new challenges to the body and mind to keep it adapting. Surges provide a safe way to do this while keeping the injury risk very low.

And, so many other great things happened to Suzanne. First, her running form improved. When you run fast, form flaws are accentuated. So, she was aware of form issues and cleaned them up. Second, she learn her “redline.” She knew if she went too fast, she’d get out of breath quickly and her surge would slow, a big no-no for this workout. This began her education on different effort levels and how they relate to fatigue. Lastly, she noticed that the average pace on her other runs got faster. Her stride felt more relaxed and flowing and she started to notice that she had to hold herself back from running faster and faster.

WORKOUT #2: PROGRESSION RUNS

After 3-4 weeks, Suzanne started to feel good on the surge workouts and in her other runs. So, I had her start progression runs, the second workout that I prescribe as a transition from what I call “same pace” training to varied pace training. On her weekly long run (6-10 miles for her), I told her to finish the last 5 minutes a little faster. Again, not an all out sprint but to the point where she felt her breathing increase to where it was fast but under control. I told her she should feel exhilarated after the strong finish but not overly tired.

Each week, she was allowed to extend the faster portion by an additional 5 minutes if she felt like it. By Week #8, she was finishing her long runs with a fast 10-20 minutes depending on how she felt. Our mantra was “finish strong.”

As with the surge workouts, progression runs aren’t anything fancy or intimidating for new runners like Suzanne. But, the physical and mental benefits are great. She liked finishing strong. She learned the hard way when she pushed too hard too soon (something I told her would pay off in her future training and racing). And, she started to look forward to the final few miles of her long runs instead of feeling more and more tired and just wanting the run to end. The workouts made training fun and her fitness, as expected, took a jump upward yet she never had any aches and pains.

READY FOR “REAL RUNNER” TRAINING

After two months, she knew what it felt like to run fast, recover and run fast again. She developed better running form. She also developed more stamina and finishing strong became a habit. Her body was stronger and her stride smoother. But most importantly, she now had the confidence that she could go to the group workout and in her words, “not make a fool of myself.”

I, too, felt great knowing she built up her faster running slowly and safely. I also knew that once she started attending group workouts, she’d be hooked and I couldn’t wait to hear about all the successes to come.

Read more about progression runs and how these three progression runs can boost your fitness while having fun.

SUZANNE’S TRAINING PROGRAM

training plan image

 

“I have achieved my goals for 5K, 10K, and now a Half Marathon – thanks McMillan Running!”
-James W, RunClub member

Tired of winging it and want a proven plan with coaches at your side and a community to share your running with? Learn more about RunClub.

How to Know If You’re Ready to Start Training for a Marathon

There’s nothing like an ambitious goal to focus your training, and running a marathon definitely fits the bill. Plenty of mere mortals have completed the 26.2 mile race, but it takes time, planning, and of course an appropriate level of fitness. Here’s how to know if a marathon is a realistic goal for you.

If You Can Run Three to Five Miles, You’re Fit Enough to Start

Believe it or not, marathons aren’t just for super athletes. A slew of politicians and actors have run marathons. Sean Combs’s goal in 2003 was reportedly to beat Oprah’s 1994 time. Meanwhile, a course at the University of Northern Iowa teaches novices to run a marathon with just a semester of serious training. The people who teach that class published their program as the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, and it’s a great guide for anyone who is starting from scratch.

Most beginner marathon programs start with the assumption that you can run two to three miles a few times a week, and that you can handle a five-miler as your first long run. If that’s not where you are, you need to back up and establish a fitness “base” to build on.

A Couch to 5K program is perfect for that starting stage. If you’re new to exercise, do that. While you could jump straight to marathon training after that, most coaches would recommend that you make sure you can maintain that level of fitness for at least a few months first.

If you’re already an athlete, though, an accelerated plan isn’t so farfetched. You have strong muscles and lungs, but running puts some strain on your bones and tendons that other sports don’t. So you don’t need to build fitness; you just have to get used to running. Then you can jump into a training plan.

Training Takes at Least Four Months

gbztasbfhx8f1nyiwwzr

Marathon training plans are structured programs that gradually work you up to the challenges of tackling a 26.2 mile race, over the course of four months or so. Even people who have done marathons before will use a structured program for each race season. Nobody stays in marathon shape year-round.

You can find a series of well-respected marathon programs for free at HalHigdon.com. They’re pretty typical of plans you’ll find elsewhere, including the ones built in to training apps like Runkeeper and Nike+ Run Club.

On any program, expect to go running at least four times a week. A typical program has at least three shorter runs, and one long run. When you get close to race day, your runs will get up to 20 miles or more, but you won’t be doing a 20-miler for every run that week—nobody has that kind of time, and it would wreck your body. Instead, you’ll be doing maybe five-milers on the weekdays, and one grueling 20-miler on the weekend. Usually there is also a midweek day where you do either a medium length run, or some other challenge like a day of speedwork or hill running.

That’s a serious time commitment. At a 10 minute per mile pace, the first week of Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 plan adds up to 2.5 hours of running: not too bad. But the peak week, when you do that 20-miler, totals almost seven hours. Fully half of that is a single long run that will eat up your entire Saturday morning.

If this sounds like too much, stick to shorter races. You can train for a half-marathon with far less of a time commitment, or just stick to 5Ks, where you never have to run more than three to five miles unless you really want to.

But if you’re up for the challenge and you’ve cleared your calendar, then there’s no reason not to proceed. It’s time to pick a marathon.

Choose Your Race Before You Start Training

nccp6mkf7gh8il5lghtk

You want your training program to end on race day, so it’s best to sync up your marathon choice with your training schedule. Most cities only have one marathon, so you can take the date or leave it. If you want more options, you may have to travel.

When to sign up depends on which marathon you choose. If you want to run the New York City marathon, for example, you have to apply in January even though the race isn’t until November. The organizers hold a lottery, and you only have a slim chance of getting in: just 23 percent of applicants were accepted in 2016. On the other hand, if you have your eye on the Pittsburgh marathon, all you have to do is fill out a form and pay the fee. In 2016, it didn’t even sell out until three weeks before race day.

This means if you want to run New York, you need to find out whether you got in, and then start thinking about when and how to train. If you don’t get in, you can start looking at other marathons that might be your second or third choice.

On the other hand, with an easier to enter race like Pittsburgh, you can begin your training with the race day in mind, and then not actually pay the registration fee until you are confident that training is going well. The delayed approach would mean missing early bird pricing, but it may be worthwhile if you aren’t feeling confident. Marathon registration refunds can be difficult or impossible to get.

Expect a Physical and Emotional Rollercoaster

csly7sk8gstvykileixb

The marathon itself is the experience of a lifetime, but the training will feel like a grueling part-time job. You have to show up even when you don’t want to. It takes a ton of time. You will come home sore.

In the process, you will learn to take care of your body. You’ll have to eat well to fuel recovery, and you’ll find yourself sleeping more. If you run with training partners, you’ll get to know them pretty well. If you don’t, you’ll spend a lot of time with your own thoughts.

You’ll give up your Saturday mornings. You’ll miss sleeping in, but you’ll also feel great when you show up to brunch with a fifteen-miler already in the bank. There will be a day when you run farther than you ever have before, and every step beyond that point is a new lifetime accomplishment.

Over the weeks and months, your runs will get longer and longer. About three weeks before the race, you’ll do your last really long run—almost never 26 miles, but more likely 18 or 20 or 22. That’s because long runs are hell on your body, and you need time to recover.

Those last three weeks are called the taper, when you run less and less because you’re letting your body heal and repair so it will be in the best possible shape for race day. Your body will feel great, but your brain may enter a state that runners call “taper crazy.” Did you train enough? What will you do with your newfound free time? Have you overthought your race day outfit yet?

After all that, you will show up for the marathon, you will run the marathon—assuming you didn’t get injured during your training—and you will finish exhilarated and exhausted. That’s when you’ll know it was all worth it.

Illustration by Sam Woolley. Photos via Pexels.

Running May Be Good for Your Knees

Getty Images

Many people worry that running ruins knees. But a new study finds that the activity may in fact benefit the joint, changing the biochemical environment inside the knee in ways that could help keep it working smoothly.

In my many decades as a runner, I have frequently been told by fellow runners and nonrunners alike that I am putting my knees at risk. The widespread argument generally follows the lines that running will slowly wear away the cartilage that cushions the bones in the joint and cause arthritis.

But there is little evidence to support the idea, and a growing body of research that suggests the reverse. Epidemiological studies of long-term runners show that they generally are less likely to develop osteoarthritis in the knees than people of the same age who do not run.

Some scientists have speculated that running may protect knees because it also often is associated with relatively low body mass. Carrying less weight is known to reduce the risk for knee arthritis.

But other researchers have wondered whether running might have a more direct impact on knee joints, perhaps by altering the working of various cells inside the knee.

To find out, researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, recruited 15 male and female runners under the age of 30 with no history of knee injury or arthritis. The scientists wished to study people with healthy knees in order to better isolate running’s effects on otherwise normal joints.

These volunteers visited a clinic where they had blood drawn from an arm. The researchers also siphoned off a small amount of synovial fluid, a lubricating fluid that reduces friction inside joints, from their right knee. Healthy knees contain only a soupçon of the stuff; arthritic and otherwise unhealthy knees tend to contain much more.

The volunteers next were delivered, in wheelchairs, to the university’s nearby biomechanics lab. There, they either sat quietly for 30 minutes or ran on a treadmill for the same 30 minutes at their preferred running pace.

After either running or sitting, they again were wheeled to the clinic and the blood and synovial fluid draws were repeated.

Each volunteer completed both a sitting and running session on separate days.

Then the researchers looked for a variety of substances in the young people’s blood and synovial fluid.

In particular, they focused on molecules that are associated with inflammation. Low-grade inflammation in the knee has been shown to contribute to the development and progression of arthritis.

So the researchers looked for changes in the levels of several types of cells that are known to either increase or blunt the amount of inflammation occurring in the knee.

They also looked at changes in the levels of another substance unpoetically known as cartilage oligomeric matrix protein, or COMP. This substance tends to accumulate in diseased knees and is often used as a marker of incipient or worsening arthritis. People with arthritis can have about five times as much COMP in their synovial fluid as do people with healthy knees.

Unfortunately, because it had turned out to be technically difficult to safely extract much synovial fluid from these healthy knees, the scientists wound up with complete numbers from only six of the runners.

But the data were interesting and consistent. In almost every case, the runners’ knees showed substantially lower levels of two types of cells that can contribute to inflammation within the synovial fluid, compared to their baseline levels.

The runners also showed a shift in their COMP levels. After the run, they displayed more of the substance in their blood and less in their synovial fluid. In effect, running seemed to have squeezed the molecules out of the knee and into the blood.

Meanwhile, sitting had slightly increased levels of COMP inside people’s knees, and also raised the concentration of one of the inflammatory molecules.

These findings suggest that a single half-hour session of running changes the interior of the knee, reducing inflammation and lessening levels of a marker of arthritis, says Robert Hyldahl, a professor of exercise science at B.Y.U. and lead author of the study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

But sitting for 30 minutes also changed the knee, he points out, which he and his colleagues had not expected. Sitting seemed to make the knee biochemically more vulnerable to later disease.

Dr. Hyldahl noted that this was a very small and short-term study. He and his colleagues would like to repeat it with much larger numbers, “once we figure out how to get more synovial fluid” safely from healthy knees, he says.

They also hope to study longer running distances and different paces, to see how those variables affect changes within the knee, and to recruit older and injured runners, whose knees might have begun to respond fundamentally differently to the activity than the joints of healthy people in their 20s.

But even with these limitations, the findings suggest that moderate amounts of running are “not likely to harm healthy knees and probably offer protection” against joint damage, Dr. Hyldahl says.

I ran my first half marathon after training for just one month. Here’s why you shouldn’t

The idea of running a half-marathon had been swimming around in my head ever since I completed my first 10-km run in January 2015. I clocked 76 minutes to run 10 km – nowhere near an impressive timing considering the guy who won that race had finished in an absurd 33 minutes or so. But it was an achievement for me, nonetheless, considering I had never run more than five kilometres in my life before that.

A half marathon was still a long way off at that point. I knew that I had to first finish a 10-km run in 60 minutes or less to even think about running 21.097 km. Later that year, in December 2015, I participated in a couple more 10-km runs in Mumbai, but did not manage to better my timing. It wasn’t surprising since I had not trained for them for more than a month prior to the race. Even for a 10-km run, you need to train for at least two months to be able to do decently well. But in spite of my below-average performance, I decided to make it a New Year’s resolution to participate in a half marathon in the next running season, which meant I had about a year to prepare for it.

The preparation (or lack of)

2016 was a busy year for me, both professionally and personally – I was getting married in December. I took some time out to run whenever possible and had some weeks where I exercised at least thrice, but those were few and far between. In August, I came across a post on Facebook where an NGO was offering some charity bibs for the Mumbai Half Marathon on January 15, 2017. What I had to do was pay a flat sum of Rs 17,000 upfront to the charity and then raise that money myself by promoting it. I was never going to qualify for the Mumbai Marathon myself, with my 76-minute 10ks. So, this was the only way I could do it. It was a risk, considering I had six months to train for it, which is not a lot, and there was no guarantee I would raise the complete sum of my donation. But I decided to bite the bullet, telling myself that it would be a good challenge and motivation to run. Plus, I was doing it for a good cause.

I found myself a beginners’ half-marathon training plan online, which was for 20 weeks – perfect for me. I was really motivated and told all my friends and family about it, and they gladly helped me kickstart my fundraising. However, my 20-week training schedule went for a toss after just a fortnight. In mid-October, I went to Thailand with my friends for my bachelor trip. On a quiet beach in Phuket, I vowed to myself that I would restart my training in full vigour once I return home. Six months were now down to three, but better late than never, I thought. As Diwali came and went, I managed to raise nearly half of the Rs 17,000. I also bought myself a book called Run Your Butt Off!, which taught me to set myself weekly running targets. I was back on track…sort of.

Back to square one

However, by the middle of November, I was back to square one again as wedding preparations kicked in. By the end of the month, I was off for a three-week wedding-cum-honeymoon break. When I was back in mid-December, I had just about a month left for the marathon. It was too late to do anything, but I still restarted my running. In the last two weeks before the race, I ran for five kilometres and clocked 10,000 steps almost every weekday, with some help from a daily step-goal challenge between friends. If this was a 5-km run, I would ace it. If it was a 10-km run, I would probably do the same as I had done three times earlier. But this was 21 km and I was nowhere near prepared.

As D-day arrived, my goal was to just finish the race. I had just over three hours to do it. As I left home at an unearthly hour to make it in time for the 5.40 am start, I considered leaving my cell phone behind, lest I got tempted to book an Uber after five kilometres to take me home. In the taxi to the race venue, my best friend, who had run at least a dozen half marathons and had a personal best timing of somewhere around one hour and 45 minutes, sensed my nervousness and told me to take it easy. “I’m sure you’ll complete it,” he said. “I’ve seen people who were lesser prepared than you who have completed it.” That gave me some confidence.

I had already walked more than three kilometres that morning to reach my section of the crowd behind the starting line. There were at least 15,000 participants and I was right at the back along with other first-timers and corporate-sponsored runners. I saw the official pacers with 2h30, 2h40, 2h50 and 3h flags attached to their backs. If I could do 10 km in 76 minutes, or 1h16, I should be able to do 21 km in 2h40, theoretically. Even if I had to factor in fatigue, I thought I would definitely beat that old man who was the 3h pacer.

Waiting for the start
Waiting for the start

The first half

I decided not to follow any of the pacers as I had been advised to run at my own pace and not get influenced by others around me. As the race began, I jogged along at my own leisurely pace, watching the more enthusiastic and prepared runners brush past me. I had a four-hour-long playlist on my phone for company. Let’s do this!

As I ran past the one-km marker, my legs had already begun to ache, but I pushed on. I had set myself a target of running non-stop for at least 20 minutes to start the race before taking a breather. I pushed myself and managed 25 minutes, by when I had knocked off three kilometres. After that, I set myself a target to run for eight minutes and walk for two, and repeat. I managed it twice, before my legs forced me to revise it to six+two. By the time I finished six kilometres, 50 minutes had passed.

The first 10 km of the Mumbai half marathon are all on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the Worli sea-face. I expected a lot of sea breeze to slap my face and keep the sweat away, but I got no such assistance. I was anyway disappointed that the pleasant winter chill that had set in Mumbai over the last two weeks had suddenly disappeared, conveniently, the night before the race. So, when I crossed the starting line again, which marked the end of the first 10 km of the race, I was hot and exhausted. This was also when the 3h pacer – that old man who I was so sure I would beat – merrily passed me by, even exchanging a few high-fives with some of the full-marathoners who were running in the opposite direction on the other side of the road divider. I almost called an Uber.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BPX9Vy1gdPC/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=7

The second half

The last half of the race saw me walk most of the way, as each part of my lower body slowly gave in one-by-one. By the 11-km mark, my calves had given in and didn’t allow me to run more than 500 metres. By the time I reached the Haji Ali junction, around 13 km in, my quadriceps had given in, further reducing my running distance to 200 metres. By the time I reached Girgaum Chowpatti, the 16 km mark, my toes started cramping up if I ran even 50 metres. By the time I reached Marine Drive, for the last three kilometres of the race, my hamstrings had given in and I was near crawling.

But I did not stop. Not once. Along the way, I saw many co-participants stop by the side of the road to stretch their legs and arms. I knew that if I did that, I would want to do it more and more. The only place where I stopped momentarily was on Peddar Road, an uphill stretch of about two kilometres, where some race volunteers were giving runners ice packs to apply on their legs. That was bliss.

As I reached the milestone that said I had only the last 200 metres to go, I pushed my body into finishing with a run. It was the most painful 200 metres I had ever run, with every muscle in my legs almost non-existent, but I managed to do it without a break and without collapsing. I had done it. Almost three-and-a-half hours in, but I had done it. Twenty-one kilometres running, jogging, walking, almost crawling, but without stopping. I had kept my New Year’s resolution, even if it was only just.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BPZ37owh0Uz/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=7

Do not try this at home

However, even though this was an achievement for me, I would not recommend the way I did it to anyone. The fact is: I was severely under-prepared. I took nearly three-and-a-half hours to finish. The winner took just over an hour. That’s not to say I was targeting to win, but it’s still a difference of two-and-a-half hours. The last 10 km of my half marathon were not fun. I saw ambulances rush past me at least five times. Later, I saw pictures on social media of people being stretchered off after fainting. It could so easily have been me.

My advice: Do not enrol for a half marathon until you can clock 10 km in 60 minutes or less. That’s my New Year’s resolution for this year. And even if you do enrol, please do not leave yourself with just one month to prepare for it. Give it at least six months, proper, if not more. Otherwise, you will not enjoy the experience, which is the whole point behind taking up running in the first place.

%d bloggers like this: