What a Relief!

When running towards an aid station in the final miles of a marathon, most runners are looking for similar things: fluids, energy gels, some uplifting words from the volunteers, and perhaps a little Vaseline for problem areas.

At this month’s Twin Cities Marathon, Jerry Johncock was looking for a urinary catheter.

According to the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tibune, Johncock is an 81-year-old who has finished more than 100 marathons since taking up running at age 50. He also suffers periodically from blood clots that block his urinary tract. During the marathon he recognized the painful condition happening again and stopped to ask for assistance at the mile 22 aid station. He had hydrated well, but his bladder was struggling, and he couldn’t relieve himself. The medical staff at the race told him they didn’t have the necessary equipment to assist him, and recommended that he drop out of the race and go to a hospital for treatment.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, a spectator in the crowd stepped up to say that he had a catheter in his car that the runner could borrow. The anonymous stranger retrieved it, the first aid worker helped insert it, and … problem solved! Johncock later called the Good Samaritan’s act “a gift from the Lord” in his time of need.

With his bladder freshly drained, Johncock was completely relieved and ready to roll. He ran strong to the finish, and even with the delay was the winner in his men’s 80-84 age group (there were only two runners in the category, but still). At the Twin Cities Marathon, that honor carries a cash prize of $225.

Strangely, since nearly no good deed goes unpunished, when race officials heard of the incident they suspended the official race results pending an investigation and consultation with USA Track and Field, the national governing body of road racing. They were trying to determine whether Johncock should be disqualified for violating race rules when he received the assistance.

According to USATF rules, a competitor who receives assistance from any other person aside from official medical staff may be disqualified. There was also a question of whether Johncock re-entered the course at the exact same location where he stepped off the road while using the catheter.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed – although it took four full days to get there – as Johncock’s time was allowed to stand. He collected his money and was declared the official age group winner. When the race director called him with the news, Johncock had no hard feelings – in fact, he said that he plans to return to the race next year.

If that happens, he said he’ll take one additional precaution: "I'll strap a catheter around my waist."

People say that marathon runners have to be tough, and they have to be willing to overcome whatever adversity they face on race day - and the two of us have faced enough difficult extremes in marathon racing to appreciate just how challenging those rough moments can be. But in all our years of watching and participating in marathons, the toughness and determination shown by this octogenarian may be one of the most impressive displays we’ve ever heard of.

We know this story reads like satire, but it’s absolutely true. It’s also a nice lesson on the positive attributes that years of marathon running can instill in someone. Our congrats go out to Mr Johncock for finishing his race, and we wish him many more in his future - although we hope they won’t be quite as eventful.

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Running in Hard Times

The economy is finally improving! Or maybe it isn’t. It depends on who you talk to, and what indicators you consider. One thing is certain, however: at some point – whether in a few months or a few years – our economy is going to recover, and people will begin to feel a bit more financially secure.

When that time comes, it will be almost universally welcomed – by everyone, that is, except for runners.

There’s a curious running-related corollary to the ebbs and flows of our national economy: namely, hard times tend to produce more and faster runners. It’s a pattern that goes back more than 30 years, to the recession of the mid-1970s – which also happened to see the biggest running boom in modern history. The historical phenomenon is so notable that the Wall Street Journal has dedicated two separate articles this year to the relationship between the economy and the running community.

When disposable income becomes scarce, gym memberships and personal trainers are often the first casualties of personal rebudgeting. By comparison, running looks like a tremendous value: the price of entry is a t-shirt, shorts, and pair of shoes. The club facility is any road, park, or trail you choose. The hours of operation are whatever works with your schedule.

Running is also proven to be a great stress reducer, triggering the release of brain neurotransmitters that make us feel more content. For many people who are struggling financially, running is a great healthy outlet to vent their fears and frustrations - or perhaps just a place to escape them for a little while.

That last point may be especially appealing to people who have been laid off during the current economic meltdown. When full-time workers involuntarily find themselves with nothing but down time, many of them pursue fitness goals that were deferred while climbing the corporate ladder.

Despite their sometimes big-ticket entry fees, nearly every major marathon in America has seen increased numbers of participants in 2009, or filled to capacity in record time. Usually when races grow in size, it’s on the back end of the pack – but over the past year, the quality of the fields has improved significantly as unemployed (or underemployed) runners have more time to spend developing their fitness and speed in preparation for these events.

For example, the gold standard for marathon runners is running a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. In one study cited by the Wall Street Journal, there was an overall 39% increase in Boston qualifying times at races across the country during 2009 compared to 2008.

There’s even a potential “trickle-UP” effect from the increasing ranks of marathoners, making everybody better by consequence. For the amateurs, laid-off marathon runners help to raise the level of competition within age groups. Among elite athletes, Olympic-caliber collegiate runners may be more inclined to pursue their athletic goals instead of hunting for work in a dismal market. So when the economy tanks, it’s potentially great news for the entire community of runners.

Of course, we’d never recommend quitting a job or blowing your retirement savings as a strategy to help you (or us) run faster – but in stormy times, any glimmer of positive reassurance may serve as a temporary port of shelter. When the economy finally recovers, we’ll be as happy as anyone else – but we’ll also be hoping that some of those newfound converts to our sport can figure out a way to stick around and enjoy running’s benefits in good times as well as bad.

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