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Dispatches : Running

Nike Fires Majority of FuelBand Team

Nike is making waves in the running community this week.

First, the company signed a lucrative $500 million sponsorship deal with USA Track & Field. Now it's going to scale back from the wearable tech market—at least on the hardware end.

Nike will fire most of the engineers who worked on the FuelBand tracker, CNET reports. The company will keep developing software, but it’s cancelled other hardware projects—including the updated FuelBand that was set to debut as early as this fall.  

According to CNET, the company told the 70-person engineering team about the layoffs Thursday. That Digital Sport hardware group built the FuelBand as well as the Nike+ sportwatch and other sport-specific projects. About 55 of those employees were fired, CNET reports, but it isn’t known how many of those people will stay at Nike under different divisions. No one was fired from Nike Digital Tech, the department that makes Web software.

You will still be able to buy the second-generation FuelBand SE—for now. The company plans to “sell and support the Nike+ FuelBand SE for the foreseeable future,” Nike spokesman Brian Strong told CNET.

Given the close ties between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Nike (where Cook sits on the board of directors) many speculate that Nike is leaving the hardware business to partner with Apple and other companies on their wearable tech projects. Just last year, Apple reportedly hired one of Nike's top directors from the FuelBand project to help spearhead development of its own wearable tech. 

"Apple is in the hardware business. Nike is in the sneaker business. I don't think Apple sees Nike as competitive. It's likely that an Apple hardware offering would be supportive of the Nike software," Jim Duffy, a Nike analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, told CNET. "Nike would be content to let Apple sell devices, as long as they would be supportive of the apps."

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Why Babies Are the Next Big Performance-Enhancing Drug

This month, Liza Howard ran the Umstead 100-mile race in North Carolina in just over 15 hours, setting a new course record for women.

She did it just six months after giving birth. And she stopped three times during the race to breast pump.

“It was my best race performance,” Howard said. “I was surprised.”

While most new mothers are simply struggling to keep their eyes open all day, Howard and a select group of athletes come back stronger than ever. Numerous anecdotes exist on recent moms turning in top race performances. Ten months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon. Seven months after having her son, Kara Goucher ran a personal best at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Some mother-athletes say they feel fitter than ever after giving birth. Goucher said her legs felt stronger post-pregnancy because she’d become accustomed to running with extra weight. She also found her breathing was more controlled, and wonders if that could be a result of increased blood volume during pregnancy.f

“I just felt really good aerobically,” Goucher said.

Howard speculates that the forced distance running break she took during pregnancy actually helped her post-partum. Due to her training and racing volume, she often feels small twinges or muscle aches in normal years, but this time around she felt rested.

“I was not over-trained,” Howard said.

But despite anecdotal evidence from women such as Howard and Goucher, no real research has been conducted that can point to any physical advantages for female athletes after pregnancy. James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, has studied the exercise responses of women during pregnancy.

“You won’t find any studies because there aren’t any,” Pivarnik said. “Only a lot of very amazing anecdotes.”

For those select women who do set athletic records quickly after giving birth, Pivarnik can only speculate about whether pregnancy could have provided some physical edge. He’s studied blood volume before and after pregnancy and doesn’t believe the increase would last long enough after giving birth to give female athletes much of an edge. But the extra strain of carrying a baby during pregnancy might lead to strength gains after birth.  

“There’s also the feeling of ‘If I can deliver a baby, I can do anything,’ or other psychological reasons,” Pivarnik said.

And while Goucher, Radcliffe, Howard, and other elites make headlines with post-partum race performances, Pivarnik said that they are decidedly rare. Far more women struggle to bounce back athletically, Pivarnik said, but those individuals don’t make the news.

For Howard, her recent success at Umstead 100 came as a total surprise. She thought she’d aim for a time of around 18 to 20 hours, but ended up finishing in 15 hours and seven minutes. Howard’s 100-mile triumph comes after a moderately active pregnancy. She kept running short distances up until she was six months pregnant, and then switched to hiking on a treadmill due to lower back pain.

After the October birth, however, Howard didn’t waste any time strapping her running shoes back on. Her doctor instructed her to do absolutely no power walking for four weeks. So instead, Howard joined a 100-mile relay race and jogged her 25-mile leg. Her husband met her with the baby at the halfway point so she could stop and nurse.

“It was a slow jog, but it was jogging,” Howard said. “I felt no pressure or expectations. It was awesome.”

By January, Howard felt ready to race the Bandera 100K. She was so tired from being up all night with her baby, she took a 15 minute nap mid-race at an aid station. Even with the snooze break, Howard claimed second place for women.

During Umstead, Howard stopped and used her breast pump for 10 minutes three separate times during the race. Though the breaks could be seen as a disadvantage, Howard figures it wasn’t a bad thing for a run that long, as it forced her to stop running and sit down for a bit. 

Howard isn’t sure if the benefits of pregnancy outweigh the challenges of giving birth and coming back to athletic form. She’s still heavier than she was before the baby, and she often struggles with getting enough sleep.

But she feels more durable now than she did before giving birth. In addition, since she’s usually caring for a baby and her six-year-old, racing seems more like a break than it ever did before.

“When you have little kids, alone time is precious,” Howard said. “The fact that my race was pleasurable and enjoyable made such a difference.”

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Why a Downhill Runner Will Always Win Boston

As accomplished and legendary a U.S. marathoner as has ever competed, Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon gold medalist in 1972) never won Boston. In fact, he never even cracked the top three. On the other hand, the equally legendary Bill Rodgers won the Boston and New York City marathons four times but finished a disappointing 40th in the 1976 Montreal Olympic marathon. And since 2002, either a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won Boston—with Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai setting the course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. 

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t.

“Bill Rodgers was made to run Boston because he’s a downhill runner,” says Shorter, 66. “And what Mutai has shown is that he, biomechanically, moves in a way that allows him to run downhill really well.”

Biomechanically, downhilling involves greater ground reaction forces and therefore induces more stress on the tissues of the leg; it also requires less metabolic energy. Meaning, “the energy required to support any speed is substantially reduced when running downhill,” says Peter Weyand, associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness. Basically, figuring out a downhill pace that feels best for you is the best way to avoid wear and tear, and hence, fatigue.

Physiologically, the bigger you are, the harder you hit the ground. “Since the force at any running speed and incline is set by the body’s weight, gaining or losing weight will increase or decrease the forces on the ground and therefore also experienced by the tissues of the feet, joints and legs,” explains Weyand. “So, if all other factors are equal, being lighter would tend to lessen the pounding a runner sustains at any downhill running speed.”

One of the Boston’s biggest challenges is that its downhill sections come late in the race (the net drop from its start in Hopkinton to the finish is 400 feet), when the legs are more susceptible to stress-induced damage from all the prior miles. Weyand therefore hypothesizes that “the better downhill runners are more willing or able to absorb the pounding—or both.”

More willing and able because they train that way. “My training is very up and down all the time,” says Mutai, who feels it helps to have strong upper legs but whose training probably isn’t all that different from his Kenyan and Ethiopian peers. “So running on hills is normal for me.”

As it was for Rodgers, whose high school coach told him to lean forward and use his momentum when going downhill. “It’s also a time many runners assume is a recovery period—after an uphill—so strategically it can be a decisive move many runners do not want to follow,” says Rodgers, 66, who has always viewed racing as psychological as much as physical. “Breaking way is the name of the game if you’re competing, and in road racing, hills play a crucial role.”

Still, it’s not all psychological. As Weyand says, “The physics cannot be fooled—the ground forces involved are set by a runner’s body weight and speed. The faster one runs, the great the ground forces. The steeper the downhill, the greater the forces are at any speed.” 

Which is why Boston is so physically taxing. “Boston left my legs more sore than any other marathon course,” says Rodgers, who doesn’t see any particular body type as being better suited to hills than any other.

“There are so many grades and hills, but I saw them as key opportunities,” says Mutai, who won’t be running Boston this year. “Think of them in a positive light. As a chance to shift gears, and a time to run away from your competition.” 

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The Fastest—and Slowest—Marathons

With spring marathon season commencing, Running USA has again taken the pulse of 26.2-mile races in its annual report. 2013 clocked 1,100 marathons and 541,000 finishers across the country. To determine the fastest and slowest races, Running USA evaluated the median times from races with more than a thousand finishers. Here are the results. 

The Fastest Races

1. Boston Marathon

  • Median Time: 3:31:17
  • Where: Hopkinton to Boston, Massachusetts
  • When: Third Monday in April (Patriots' Day)

Boston is the pinnacle of road races. The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) sets rigorous qualifying times that—although designed to limit the size of the field—ensures the marathon is consistently the fastest. “The end result is attracting the best and fastest runners in the business. Our race is now known for being about the pursuit of athletic excellence, something we are very, very proud of,” says Race Director Dave McGillivray. The course may have a net downhill, but the 0.4-mile climb up Heartbreak Hill near mile 20 strikes fear into legions of the swift footed. Doing well in Boston requires more than fitness. “To run fast on this course, one needs to know the course well and train properly for this course, not just for the 26.2-mile distance,” advises McGillivray.

2. Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon

  • Median Time: 3:49:56
  • Where: Allentown to Easton, Pennsylvania
  • When: September 

Designed by a runner for runners, the Via Marathon hugs the Lehigh River, and at mile 7 enters the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, known for its natural scenery and historical significance. Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer at Runner’s World, didn’t just make this marathon a beautiful one: with a net elevation drop of 240 feet, he also made it fast. The shady course with a small field is a popular qualifying race for Boston. Fitting, because as the home of Runner’s World magazine and its parent company, Rodale, the Lehigh Valley is a bastion for the sport.

3. Mountains2Beach

  • Median Time: 3:52:51
  • Where: Ojai to Ventura, California
  • When: May

The sum of Mountains2Beach is in its name: The race begins in the hills at Ojai and follows more than 10 miles of downhill ending steps away from the surf at Ventura Promenade. Founded in 2011, the race has a net downhill of 700 feet. Although some races have a greater descent, the gradual drop to sea level at Mountains2Beach is gentle on joints and muscles, which especially pays off in the final miles. Race Director Ben DeWitt observes, “We did think about speed when we designed the course, but we had no idea how effective it would be … We essentially just took a runner’s eye to the course design and thought to ourselves, ‘What would I like to run?’” Although this course is scenic, it’s also solitary. Spectators won’t be course side to cheer but will meet you at the finish.

4. Baystate Marathon

  • Median Time: 3:54:22
  • Where: Lowell, Massachusetts
  • When: October

Founded in 1989 expressly as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon, the Baystate Marathon excels at its goal. Since 2010, 25 percent of the field has consistently run qualifying times for the neighboring race. With a focus on well-managed splits rather than PRs (though those occur frequently, too), “our wining times are often pedestrian compared to many other marathons, however our median time is consistently in the top 10 to 20 in the country,” says Glenn Stewart, race director. The urban course is relatively flat, with enough variation not to over-tire muscles; the double-loop design aids pacing. The club-run, all-volunteer event has a comfortable feel that may also ease runners into qualifying times. Or maybe it’s just the promise of post-race homemade chicken soup and PB&Js that power competitors to the finish. 

5. Santa Rosa Marathon

  • Median Time: 3:57:48
  • Where: Santa Rosa, California
  • When: August

Founded in 2009, Santa Rosa is one of the last qualifying races staged before Boston registration opens. “I believe that pushes people,” says Race Director Orhan Sarabi. The gun sounds at 6 a.m., which lends to cool temps along this net-downhill course. Runners pace through downtown Santa Rosa then follow a path that overlooks a creek, dairy farms, cornfields, and vineyards. The course also traipses through DeLoach Vineyards’ property and through its barrel room. With a field of fewer than 2,000 runners, it’s an intimate race. Regardless of time, those who cross the line receive a bottle of wine to their finish. 

The Slowest Races

1. Bataan Memorial Death March

  • Median Time: 8:13:54
  • Where: White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
  • When: March 

Begun to memorialize the American prisoners of war who died in the World War II Bataan Death March, the Memorial March has come to honor those who sacrificed their lives not only in that conflict but also in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Although the field includes competitive runners who tally three-hour finishes, it also includes walkers—some carrying 35-pound backpacks, as the soldiers did—who slog through a challenging route that includes a sand pit and a 5,000-foot incline. Add unpredictable weather that can reach the mid-70s in the afternoon, and occasional 60-mile-per-hour winds that blow sand from the exposed missile range, and this course becomes formidable. However, the race ignites a strong sense of patriotism and pride in its finishers, who, after the tape, may have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit with 90-year-old POWs. 

2. Honolulu Marathon

  • Median Time: 6:07:32
  • Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
  • When: December

With no participant limit or cut-off times, Honolulu attracts both speed demons and walkers who want to take in spirit and scenery of the islands. Although it is flat overall, the course includes uphill climbs around Diamond Head. Course records are competitive (Jimmy Muindi, of Kenya, ran 2:11:12 in 2004, and Lyubov Denisova, of Russia, clocked a 2:27:19 in 2006), but some runners may feel slowed down by humidity and heat, which can climb into the low 80s by 10 a.m. Thankfully, there are misting stations along the course. Honolulu Marathon President Jim Barahal recommends enjoying the post-race party festivities at Kapiolani Park, the largest and old public park in Hawaii set at the end of Waikiki.

3. Walt Disney World Marathon

  • Median Time: 5:35:39
  • Where: Walt Disney World Resort, Florida
  • When: January

The Walt Disney World Marathon winds through all four theme parks (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios), plus ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and the Walt Disney World Speedway. Disney characters are stationed along the course—and are often photo-op temptations for runners willing to forgo PRs for a selfie with Russell from Up. The fun, flat course is an attractive one for beginners. The only climbs on the route are up freeway ramps, where army men from Toy Story order runners to press on. Competitors on a runners’ high can attempt the Goofy Double: the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday.

4. Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio

  • Median Time: 5:10:30
  • Where: San Antonio, Texas
  • When: December

The Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio Marathon’s flat, urban course takes several turns through downtown and isn’t known for being a fast route. Sometimes, however, a marathon is about more than speed. City of San Antonio leaders adopted the event to change its image as one of the nation’s most obese cities. First-time marathoners and half-marathoners make up more than 30 percent of the competitors—the most of any race in the Rock 'n' Roll series. With time limits exceeding seven hours, the course also attracts walkers. “For so many runners it’s not about how fast you can finish; it’s a pinnacle achievement in their lives. … Anything that encourages people to get up, commit to a training regimen and finish a marathon, regardless of time, should be lauded, not lamented,” says Dan Cruz, spokesman for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon series.

5. ASICS LA Marathon

  • Median Time: 5:03:39
  • Where: Los Angeles to Santa Monica, California
  • When: March

On a net-downhill path, the ASICS LA Marathon begins at Dodger Stadium and ends at Palisades Park, passing Disney Hall, the Capitol Records Building, and famous neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, Chinatown, and West Hollywood. The scenic course attracts a large field: with more than 19,000 runners, it’s the 11th largest in the world. The competitors are only part of the picture. “The iconic ‘Stadium to Sea’ course is lined with hundreds of thousands of energetic spectators that create an exhilarating atmosphere for every inch of the 26.2 miles,” says Tracey Russell, CEO of the ASICS LA Marathon. “With 91 charities, several live music acts, sponsor hosted on-course entertainment, ‘Cheer Alley’ and a breathtaking ocean view at the finish, runners feel the L.A. ‘vibe’ with a star treatment unlike any other.”

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