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Marathoners Chase Round-Number Finishes

The sun beats down on your head. Sweat drips from the tip of your nose, and your legs and feet beg for a reprieve. As you cross the finish line at your latest marathon, you squeeze every last ounce of energy from your body because, damn it, you will crack three hours this time around.

And then you see your time: three hours, one minute, twelve seconds. You feel stupid for the thought, however fleeting, that it was all for naught.

Your love of round numbers—and their implied significance—isn’t unique. In fact, as Runner’s World reports, a new study by economists at UC–Berkeley and the University of Chicago crunched data from more than nine million marathon finishes since 1970 and found that chasing elusive round marks is the norm for athletes of all stripes.

Of course, completing a marathon with a slightly slower time doesn’t mean much in the long run. Puns aside, you still accomplished a physical feat many people couldn’t.

So, if the arbitrary goals we give ourselves while training don’t really matter to our health, why do we fixate on them? As the study’s authors explain, the phenomenon of “bunching”—spikes in finishes just before hour, half-hour, and even ten-minute milestones—“cannot be explained by explicit rewards (e.g., qualifying for the Boston Marathon), peer effects, or institutional features (e.g., pacesetters).” The answer, instead, lies in the psychology of goal setting. Although the physical benefits are negligible, the psychological ones are very real, and when we fail to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves, that failure stings.

As with any data involving more than nine million points, these scientists had a lot of information to parse, and the thing is worth a read—if you’ve got the time and the patience—but some key points should be highlighted anyway.

For one, in the final two miles of marathons, participants generally slowed down by 5 to 14 percent. That is, unless they were close to a round-number barrier, in which case, the study found, they often sped up. In other words, these arbitrary goals really can lead athletes to tap into the depths of their energy reserves.

But there’s a limit to this seemingly superhuman psychological strength. At faster marathon times, the ability to speed up in pursuit of breaking a round number declined: only 30 percent of runners trying to crack the three-hour mark could accelerate on their push to the finish, compared with more than 40 percent trying to finish in under five hours.

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Why the Mile Is Dead (and Worth Saving)

Rounding the bend to the final straightaway of the 1964 Compton Relays, Jim Ryun’s arms pumped. He felt no pain as he kicked the home straight. When Ryun crossed the finish line in eighth place, the 17-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, became the first high school boy to run a sub-four-minute mile.

“Coach Timmons and I wrote the goal down. We planned and prayed, and it turned out that I ran 3:59 that day,” Ryun said. “It was the beginning of a new future.”

For nearly a decade, the world record in the mile was stopped at four minutes. When Roger Bannister broke the barrier May 6, 1954, he accomplished the impossible. Ten years later, Ryun raised the benchmark for high school boys. Since then, progress has stopped. High school boys and girls rarely run the mile. The crowd’s favorite distance has faded into an obscurity through an act of Congress.

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Sixty years after Bannister’s record run, a grassroots organization is hoping to change all that—and rebuild American running from the mile on up. Bring Back the Mile, founded in 2012 by Ryan Lamppa (who also helped create Running USA), intends to lobby state high school athletic boards to bring the distance back to championship events. Their hope: the world’s most iconic distance will inject new enthusiasm into track and field and preserve the history of the sport.

“In the 70s the sub-four minute mile was a huge deal,” says former American record holder Steve Scott. “Back in those days, it was the one event everyone could relate to. The fans understood the mile, they understood the significance of it.” 

In 1979, Scott set out to run the first sub-four minute mile at the Drake Relays, a long-standing and top-tier track meet at Drake Stadium. Despite cold and windy weather, Scott was on pace to break the four minute barrier.

“The people in the stands were going crazy, they were clapping, stomping and making as much noise as they could,” Scott says. “It was the most unique moment for me, ever, because the whole stadium was there rooting just for me.”

"That’s how important the sub-four minute mile was to the people of Des Moines."

Track fans used to fill stadiums and were knowledgeable of the sport, but today even championship events have empty seats. The 2013 U.S. Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, sold 6,500 to 10,000 tickets each day in a stadium that seats more than 14,000.

So when and why did the mile die? You can start by blaming Congress. In 1975, it passed the Metric Conversion Act, which established a United States Metric Board to coordinate the conversion from the imperial system to the metric system. Even though the country never made the switch, most tracks were converted to the metric system in the late 1970s and 1980s when they were upgraded to all-weather polyurethane surfaces. The new metric tracks were the international standard, but many were built without a mile start line. High school competitions continued to cover four laps, but four laps on a metric track is 1,600 meters and nine meters short of a mile.

“By the mid-80s every state dropped the mile and two-mile, except Massachusetts, and went to four laps on the track—the 1600,” Lamppa says. “Because the so-called adults made a decision to do four laps on a track and say that's close enough.”

As interest in the mile has waned, recreational running is at an all-time high in America. According to Running USA, 2013 was a record year for marathon participation with 541,000 finishers, a 40 percent increase over the past decade. But many track and field events haven’t seen this boom, possibly because recreational runners cannot compete alongside the pros, an element that has been credited with boosting marathon participation.

“People understand the mile because they can relate to it,” says Morgan Uceny a three-time U.S. champion. “In a sport that needs as many spectators as possible it would be beneficial to have people understand more about the sport.”

If the mile is key to reviving track and field participation, BBTM will first need to bring back the iconic distance. This year, the organization is promoting road mile events around the country. The inaugural 2014 Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix offers significant prize money and encourages recreational runners to toe the start line with the pros—in an attempt to duplicate the success of marathon racing.

But the most important step to reviving the iconic distance is also the most difficult. In its fourth year, the organization hopes to eliminate 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races from high school competition. While the National Federation of State High School Associations, the leadership organization for high school sports, can make recommendations to the states, each is ultimately independent and free to make its own rules.

There really isn’t a resistance to the movement, but lack of action from state track and field directors. (Oregon, Vermont, and New York girls run the Olympic standard 1,500 and 3,000 meters.) Massachusetts and the New Balance Nationals run the mile, while the rest of the states seem to shrug their shoulders. Maybe all they need is a little push from Bring Back the Mile.

When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier 60 years ago and Jim Ryun followed 10 years later, the world celebrated. The 1,600 meters? No one would have noticed.

“High school boys still dream about breaking four minutes for the mile, because it means something,” says Lamppa. “Breaking four minutes for the 1600 means virtually nothing.”

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The Runner's Ticking Time Bomb?

Long-distance racers have a history of dying. Pheidippides, the first marathoner of us all, croaked at the finish line. Recently, two runners, both under the age of 40, collapsed near the finish line of a half marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though the race’s organizers said that the men’s deaths appeared to be from natural causes, the frequency of racing-death headlines is not so natural.

Studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology say that about one in 200,000 runners will experience sudden cardiac arrest, and one in 50,000 will experience a heart attack from coronary artery disease during a marathon. According to the Heart Foundation, 250,000 Americans suffer sudden cardiac death annually. Many of these incidents can be linked to preexisting conditions. It has been calculated that one in 500 U.S. high school athletes has a usually trivial and identifiable cardiac “abnormality,” such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, a thickening of the muscle wall around the heart.

The American Heart Association has linked HCM to a third of the 1,866 recorded athlete deaths over the past three decades. Of that number, many are runners like Micah True, star of the national bestseller Born to Run, as well as athletes such as University of Southern Indiana basketball player Jeron Lewis and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams. But these are rare and high-profile cases. Still, if the probability of experiencing cardiac arrest during physical activity is seemingly so low, and if knowledge about the problem is at an all-time high, then why are athletes dying so frequently?

Maybe because you don’t know you are dying. “The symptoms of a heart attack are the same as the side effects of exercise,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian who appears regularly on Good Morning America. “Your heart is racing, you are sweating, your chest hurts, and it’s hard to breathe.”

In a report on Fox News, Gordon Tomaselli, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, explained an athlete’s ability to run right through all the warning signs. “In order to have symptoms, it’s a supply-demand situation. You only get chest pains when the demand on the heart outstrips its ability to supply blood and nutrients to other organs,” he says. “So you can be totally asymptomatic, and your first symptom is sudden death.”

While the symptoms may be hard to pick up on, underlying conditions are not—as long as you look for them. ECG tests are the best method for pinpointing any preexisting heart problems, and while the idea of making tests mandatory for race participants has been tossed around, event directors and runners alike know that wouldn’t be practical. Beyond testing, knowing what your body is saying, and when to stop during the miles logged, is even more important. “Moderation is the key to everything,” says Taub-Dix. “Running and exercise are great for your health, but there is such a thing as too much of anything.” 

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Does Your Gear Really Matter?

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Why Fighting for the Treadmill With a View Is Worth It

From the bio-mechanical to the metaphysical, the inherent benefits of exercising outside come as no surprise to the outdoor-lover.

Indeed most of us can agree that we just feel plain better in the dirt than we do in the gym. But to back up our instincts, science also suggests a variety of benefits, from improved gait on a trail versus a treadmill to more calories burned per time spent on a bike outdoors versus indoors.

But then, of course, comes the inevitability that afflicts even the most avid outdoorsman. Blame winter, a business trip, or just plain inconvenience, there are always those times when going outside just isn’t feasible.

Even when we’re trapped inside, new research from the University of Coventry’s Department of Applied Sciences and Health suggests that perhaps by simply by changing our environment indoors, we can glean some of the benefits of outdoor exercise.

The study measured something that’s well established in exercise, known as the hypotension effect, or a drop in blood pressure that occurs from 15 minutes to up to 48 hours after exercise. Health practitioners agree lower blood pressure leads to less risk of developing cardiovascular and other health problems.

Researchers set out to determine if a simulated green space environment—in this case, a video game-like experience shown to children while they cycled on a stationary bike—would result in a further beneficial drop in blood pressure compared to exercising without images of green space. The children who were shown images of nature while exercising did indeed show a significant drop in their blood pressure.  

Dr. Michael Duncan, Associate Head of Applied Science and Health and lead researcher on the study, explained why the researchers chose to study the effects of simulated nature on children. Similar studies have been done in adults at rest and have established that looking at images of green space result a similarly beneficial hypotension effect.

“Partly because the weather is so rubbish in the UK, some children don’t get access to quality green space often enough,” Duncan said. “So we wanted to see if we could simulate the same [beneficial] effects of real nature in an indoor environment, and if it would augment with exercise.”

Beyond British schoolchildren, Duncan’s results have practical applications for those of us stuck on a treadmill. The reason green exercise, whether real or simulated, has this added bonus is simple: As humans, nature soothes us.

“What’s happening when you look at that image [of a tree, an ocean, or a mountain],” Duncan explains, “is that the nervous system takes its foot off the accelerator so to speak and puts its foot on the break—that actually physiologically brings everything down to a lower level.”

While Duncan expected the result of similar experiment conducted in the actual outdoors would be “the same or stronger,” he did not say that all simulated images of nature would be equally effective. For example, watching the Tour de France while riding a stationary bike might include too many distractions and stimulations that would counteract the calming effect unlike, say, a more hypnotic and repetitive option like a surf film.

“The theoretical basis is that, like actually being outdoors, simulated green space is a distraction technique that’s calming,” Duncan said. “The idea is [the exerciser] becomes more immersed into what’s going on.”

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