11-11-2007 - In long run, 'Just Do It' solid advice for all

In long run, 'Just Do It' solid advice for all of us
Rick Morrissey of Chicago Tribune
In the wake of the news

November 7, 2007

When running guru Jim Fixx died at 52 while jogging, the knowing nods started.

The knowing nods said, "See, human beings weren't meant to run long distances." Never mind that Fixx's family had a long history of heart disease, or that his father had his first heart attack at 35 before dying of another at 43. Never mind that running helped Fixx lose weight and quit a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And never mind that it's hardly a leap to say running extended his life.

Fixx passed away in 1984, but the knowing nods concerning marathon running haven't disappeared. They came around last month after a runner died during the Chicago Marathon, a sweltering affair that eventually was truncated because of dangerously high temperatures.

And those knowing nods were bobbing away Saturday when elite runner Ryan Shay dropped dead a little more than five miles into the U.S. men's marathon Olympic trials in New York. The nods said, "See, even the best runners can die taking part in such a risky endeavor."

Humans weren't meant to run 26.2 miles at a crack in the same way humans weren't meant to explore the heavens. We know mankind should get out of the space-exploration business because astronauts have died in the line of duty. Humans weren't supposed to navigate oceans, either, because if they were, we wouldn't still be pulling up wooden ships from the sea. And humans obviously shouldn't be attempting to climb Mt. Everest because people die trying every year.

Maybe we shouldn't strive or dream or set goals at all. But we do. We do because that's how we're wired. Something inside us tells us to go for more. To strain and struggle and bleed for something great. To build ever taller buildings. To push the envelope. To take it to the limit and beyond.

Nike's "Just Do It" slogan didn't come out of thin air. It grew out of something deep inside the human psyche. All great achievements start with questions. What if? Why not me? Says who?

You'll never know if you don't try. And never knowing comes with its own unique torture.

When people die in the pursuit of something bigger than themselves, others nod their knowing nods from the comfort and safety of their lighted, temperature-controlled homes. And by the way, what was Ben Franklin doing with a kite in an electrical storm anyway? Fool could have been killed.

This is not to say that long-distance running is risk-free. It isn't. If it were easy, it wouldn't be a challenge. Injuries are common in the sport. And people occasionally die.

But most of the few people who do die during marathons don't die because of the act of running. An underlying, often undiagnosed health problem almost always is involved, usually having to do with the heart.

An autopsy showed that the man who died in the Chicago Marathon, Michigan police officer Chad Schieber, had a heart condition.

Shay had an enlarged heart, according to his father.

Marathon running might have triggered those health issues, but it was not the cause of death. It would be like saying basketball caused the 1990 death of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers instead of cardiomyopathy, the heart-muscle disorder he had.

Distance running obviously can be a grueling sport. It's why there was so much outrage from runners who said there wasn't enough water on the Chicago course this year. Most of the marathon-training guides recommend that runners drink liquids at least every other mile. When a competitor signs a waiver form, it's with the understanding that there will be sufficient water on the course. Running without water is playing with fire.

Too many people believe distance running is inherently dangerous when the opposite is true: running is inherently good for you. Exercise helps extend lives. It's up to runners to find out if they have health issues that might lead to dangerous situations.

We've been taught to bury the old saying of "no pain, no gain," because to ignore pain is to ask for injury. But like any cliché, there is truth in the saying. Most goals worth achieving take effort and sacrifice and, sometimes, pain. Training for marathons can become obsessive. It can be lonely and selfish.

But if mankind stopped doing everything that involved pain or danger or single-mindedness, where would we be? Probably very cold, having not had the guts to attempt to harness fire.

"Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood," said Daniel Burnham, the architect who planned the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Fourteen firefighters and three civilians died in a blaze during the event, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. It proved that humans weren't meant to have a world's fair. And while we're at it, what was Columbus thinking with all that dangerous seafaring?

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