Endurance running, long-distance cycling, and a sustainable society

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, by Ed Ayes (New York: The Experiment, 2012).

AyresLong distance cycling and ultramarathon running are body-intensive sports and therefore have much in common. Because of this basic similarity, cyclists will find much useful information and insight in The Longest Race, a book by Ed Ayres who has been running competitively for fifty-five years.

Although written a decade after the fact, this book recounts the 2001 running of the JFK Ultramarathon: Boonsboro, Maryland, portions of the Appalachian Trail and the C and O Canal Towpath, to Williamsport, Maryland.

Ayres had just turned 60, and he ran the course in 7:55, smashing the record for his age group.

He divides the book into fifteen chapters, each one keyed to a portion of the course. He describes the terrain from a runner’s perspective, paying special attention to how the course feels and how the body responds. More important to ultra athletes is the way that Ayres interprets the runners’ mind: what they think about during those long hours and how those thoughts affect bodily performance.

Along the way, Ayres provides a large body of informed opinion about the body’s use of oxygen, how to eat and drink in order to keep going hour after hour, and several other topics useful to ultra athletes, whether they be cyclists or runners.

A deeper plot runs through the book. Ayres believes that running is a key to understanding what makes human beings unique among the creatures of the world. Our bodies are made to run, not walk. In ancient times, all over the world, and in some places even yet, hominids like ourselves could outrun the animals and birds they used for food.

We can run because of distinctive features of the human body: bare skin, shoulders that can move independently from the head, the ability to keep the head steady while everything about the body is moving, and the size of the brain, to name some of them.

Ayres is persuaded by studies of ancient societies which indicate that in pre-agricultural times, people in hunter-gatherer societies lived  healthy lives and had significant portions of their time free for leisure activities. He deplores the way we live today in such pressured, hurried ways, separated from the source of our food.

It’s an easy step to a third plot that is interspersed throughout this book. Ayres is increasingly distressed over the way that our civilization is going: our pace is too fast, our use of resources profligate, our self-centered individualism a self-defeating way to live. The impact of his thirteen years as editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute shows through.

The JFK Ultramarathon was inspired by President Kennedy who feared that the nation’s armed services were losing their physical fitness. He called upon Marines to recover the ability to walk 50 miles in a day as they could do in Theodore Roosevelt’s time. The 50-mile run was one of the events that Kennedy’s challenge generated.

Ayres believes that it’s not just the armed services, but all of us who need to regain the secrets of fitness, balance, steady pace, and the modest use of resources that runners exemplify.

One of his lessons makes ever-greater sense as I find my physical capacities dwindling because of the natural effects of growing old. If you want to go as fast as you can, don’t rush. “It’s a genuine paradox,” he continues, “and on a basic, athletic level coaches explain it as pacing.”

Go too fast and you use up your body’s fuel supplies too quickly and metabolic wastes pile up in your tissues. Of course, you can go too slowly and finish with energy left over.

“Experienced athletes know not only to seek the physiological sweet spot but to seek the somewhat more elusive condition in which all systems are working in complete physical and emotional harmony—where everything feels right” (p. 82).

On my best long rides—half-centuries and longer—I sometimes slip into that zone. I want to learn how to do it more consistently. To do so, I need to learn more about how athletes breath, how their bodies use the energy sources their food provides, and most of all how to find the zone when everything works exactly right.

As this year moves from winter to spring, Ed Ayres will be my teacher.

3 Responses to Endurance running, long-distance cycling, and a sustainable society

  1. Gene Hill says:

    Fantastic, Keith! I’m going to get this book! Well, on the day that Lance Armstrong visits with Oprah (I don’t get her station), I’ve been thinking about you and other cyclists – and I’ve been thinking about my own feelings on the matter. Now that he has admitted that he lied, I feel like I can forgive him (even though I am neither famous or know him). I hope he is sincerely sorry, can accept any forgiveness offered, and move forward with his life. Apparently he did ask forgiveness for his mistakes, or he said that he was sorry for his mistakes. I think I can put on the yellow wrist band again (I had taken it off about a month ago). HAPPY NEW YEAR! 🙂

    • Gene, I remember your distress a few weeks ago when the news broke, and I’m glad that Lance has begun the process of restoration. I haven’t seen the broadcast but will look for good reviews of his statement, his demeanor, and the follow up. It would be good if continued reform of professional cycling (and other sports) would be one of the results of Armstrong’s public acknowledgment of what he did.

  2. Joe Culpepper says:

    Thanks Keith! I certainly know the importance of pacing from many tours, especially the TransAm. But it is helpful to be reminded that even for a day ride of 30 – 50 mi. pacing is important & “If you want to go as fast as you can, don’t rush!” I like that way of stating it.I find that when I go all out & really press myself to the max, I end up being more depleted & slower toward the end of the ride & don’t feel as good either! However, when I’ve ridden with some folk who go slower, it feels like dawdleing & is frustrating. So finding the sweet spot of the right pace, always with a challenge in it, is what I hope for. Interesting thoughts about the body being made for running. I know the body is made to be physically active, it functions & feels better with good rigorous exercise like biking & running, but never thought of it being designed specifically for running. Of course running is harder on the joints, hence my preference for cycling!

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