Sunday, April 17, 2011

Human records

I don't know if anyone watched the London Marathon today. The BBC kindly made it available on the web on demand so you could watch the whole thing at your leisure. The stellar field this year led to a resurgence of interest about whether a sub-2 hour marathon will ever be run. Personally I think people underestimate the significance of the 4 minutes improvement it will take. However watching Emmanuel Mutai storm the second half of the course today led me to believe that maybe I'll see it in my lifetime. He ran the last 12km at a 2:02 pace (and promptly threw up the moment he crossed the line). To run a sub-2 hour marathon would require over 26 consecutive 4:35 miles. That's under 69 seconds for each quarter mile - approximately a lap of a track. Try it. For 69 seconds. Now imagine two hours of it. Humans are, or can be, extraordinarily good distance runners. Why?

Anyway, when we talk about human physiology, which we will shortly, it is always interesting to consider the human superlatives, Haile Gebrselassie or Usain Bolt.

But what is equally interesting is the revolution that is taking place further back in the pack. Virtually unreported in the media was the new world record by Canadian Ed Whitlock in the Rotterdam marathon last week. Whitlock ran 3:25:43. A very nice but utterly unremarkable time you might think. But Ed Whitlock is 80. He beat the old 80-84 world record by almost 15 minutes and Whitlock is not unique. The gains made at older age groups are really amazing. This, of course, is actually much more relevant to most of us - gains made in medical understanding affect both our longevity and also the quality of our life.

For an equally inspiring female example check out this New York Times article on the amazing 91 year old Olga Kotelko: The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian.

When the efforts of medical science converge to simply prolong existence, you envision Updike’s golfer Farrell, poking his way “down the sloping dogleg of decrepitude.” But scientists like Taivassalo and Hepple have a different goal, and exercise — elixir not so much of extended life as extended youthfulness — may be the key to reaching it. James Fries, an emeritus professor at Stanford School of Medicine, coined the working buzz phrase: “compression of morbidity.” You simply erase chronic illness and infirmity from the first, say, 95 percent of your life. “So you’re healthy, healthy, healthy, and then at some point you kick the bucket,” Tarnopolsky says. “It’s like the Neil Young song: better to burn out than to rust.” You get a normal life span, but in Olga years. Who wouldn’t take it? 

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