Before posting the final article in the series on the longevity of the long-distance runner, I will insert an account of my own recent experiences. For the past year I had been planning a ‘heptathlon’ of activities for the week following my 70th birthday, in March this year. It was a whimsical idea that had grown out of discussion on one of the social threads on the Fetcheveryone web-site for runners. I did not intend to take it too seriously, but nonetheless, I did consider it a good opportunity to develop some new skills and broaden my range of cross-training activities, as part of an overall long-term goal to keep fit and active for as many years as possible.
I planned seven activities intended to test strength, power, balance, technical skill and endurance, with one activity each day, spread over the week. I set myself performance targets for the various events. These were not intended to be extraordinary individual achievements for each event, but rather an overall test of my ability to achieve a modest level in a wide range of activities.
However my plans were seriously disrupted by a bicycle accident last July that left me with torn lateral ligaments in my left knee. For several months I could not run at all. The physio estimated recovery would take about a year and advised very gradual increase in activities. During the final months of 2015 progress was very slow. Nonetheless, I did establish that provided I ran slowly with a very short stride length to minimise impact forces, my knee could cope. By the end of the year I built up to a level where I could run 10 Km slowly with few complaints from my knee.
At the end of December, I reviewed my heptathlon plan. I decided it was feasible to attempt the heptathlon, but there was little prospect of achieving my former performance targets. I therefore set some less demanding ‘B standard’ targets for the various activities. The only activity that I had to change completely was the planned 100 metre sprint. There was a serious risk that any attempt to sprint would jeopardise the recovery of the torn ligaments. Therefore I replaced the planned sprint with a sprint on the elliptical cross-trainer.
My partially healed ligaments coped fairly well as I built up the volume of training for the various activities in January and February. Surprisingly, cycling was the activity that caused the most pain in my knee, and I was forced to limit the amount of cycling. Provided I continued to run with a very short stride length, running produced only occasional transient stabs of pain. When I had set my B standard targets at the end of 2015, I had selected 20 Km as the target for the planned off-road run, as it appeared that this would be as much as I could reasonably expect my knee to cope with by March. In fact, by early February I was able to run 20Km without upsetting my knee, and by the end of February, I had done one long run of 39 Km.
I had also made good progress with most of the other events, and it appeared possible that I might be able to achieve the A standard targets that I had originally set before the accident, in at least some of the activities. Unfortunately, in early March my knee became a little more troublesome, making it necessary to cut back the volume of training to ensure that I would at least able to get the start of my planned heptathlon at the end of the month. In particular I was unable to do any more longish training runs, and it appeared likely that lack of endurance would be an issue during the heptathlon.
A further scheduling issue created an additional problem. I was scheduled to attend a two day academic conference in York in late March. When the conference dates were confirmed, it turned out to coincide with the first two days of my planned heptathlon. Despite the anticipated lack of endurance, distance running is nonetheless my primary activity. For the final heptathlon event, I had planned a 50K off-road ultra-marathon and this had to be on Easter Monday, so I could not defer the start.
Fortunately, the least demanding of the events, a test of balance that involved maintaining the Tree Pose, standing on one leg with arms extended above my head for 2 minutes on each leg, could be performed with minimal time commitment and at any location. I had originally planned that this non-demanding activity would be in the middle of the heptathlon to provide a recovery day, but I simply had to sacrifice the planned recovery day by doing this activity on the first day. The second activity was a test of strength: the target was 5x100Kg barbell squats and 100 consecutive push-ups. Fortunately, I was able to do the push-ups in my hotel room before the second day of the conference and the barbell squats after returning home to Nottingham in the evening.
Once the first two days were behind me, the subsequent 5 days went very well, though there was an unexpected challenge on the final day. Storm Katie swept across England on Easter Monday bringing high winds, heavy rain, sleet and snow, and causing quite a lot of damage. For most of the first 20 Km of the 50 Km ultra I was struggling against a storm-force head-wind. A few hours later, when running on the opposite direction, the fury of the storm had subsided, depriving me of the benefit of a strong tail-wind. On numerous occasions throughout the run, I was sloshing through ankle deep water and mud. I was very grateful that my friend Helen and her husband James joined me for a substantial part of the second half of the run.
By the end I was utterly exhausted, more exhausted than I have ever been before, but very happy that I had completed the heptathlon. I achieved six A standard and one B standard performance. The performance targets and my actual achievements are shown in the table.
I had included two of the activities, the high jump and the swim, mainly because I wanted to learn the required techniques. As a youngster at school my friends and I sometimes did high-jumping during the lunch hour, using high jump uprights and bar in a corner of the school sports field. We did not have a mat, so it was only feasible to do the scissors. I did not have any special talent for jumping and my best performance in those days was only 3 feet 6 inches (106.7 cm).
About 10 years later, Dick Fosbury amazed the world by winning gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with his specular Flop technique. The name ‘Flop’ is an appropriate description of the combined sideways and backwards somersault over the bar. The thing that impressed me as a young physicist nearing the completion of my PhD was the fact that because the head and shoulders are already descending as the hips cross the bar, the centre of gravity is below the height of the bar at all times throughout the jump. This appeared to be a magic trick. However, by that stage of my life, I was a distance runner, so it did not occur to me to experiment with the technique myself at that time.
However, as I planned my 70th birthday heptathlon I recalled my previous fascination with the Flop and decided that I would learn the technique, with the aim of jumping higher that I had managed as a school boy about 57 years ago. After the accident, the injury to my left knee forced me to change the take-off from my preferred left foot to the right. In addition, I had to restrict the run-up to a fairly slow approach of no more than 6 short steps to avoid stress on the left knee. I was nonetheless delighted to clear 112 cm, a life-time personal best for the high jump by more than 5 cm.
Somewhat similarly in the case of swimming, despite learning to do the dog-paddle at age 6, in the subsequent 64 years I had only swum occasionally, usually for the purpose of enjoying being in the water, but I had not focused on technique. I had no reason to learn how to coordinate breathing with my stroke, nor how to keep my legs from sinking. Preparing for the heptathlon provided an opportunity to learn how to do the front crawl properly.
In fact swimming was the only activity in which I failed to reach my A standard, but I was nonetheless very pleased with the progress that I made with the technique. I can now coordinate breathing-out while my head is under water and breathing in while the recovery of the arm on the breathing side passes close to my head, and I can keep my feet near the surface using a flutter kick from the hips. At this stage, I feel I have mastered the rudiments of the technique. The main thing I need to do in future is to make the action more automatic, allowing me to relax a little more, and swim comfortably for longer distances.
Overall, despite being a rather whimsical idea at first, the heptathlon has proven to be a very satisfying challenge. Now, my most important goal is recovering my running speed, at least to the level near that I could achieve a year ago. However, until my knee ligaments are strong, my stride length and pace will be severely limited. I will have to be patient. At least I have an interesting range of cross-training activities to help me sustain overall fitness without undue stress on my legs.