Come a rain storm, put those running shoes on your feet

The dark and extremely gloomy days of Seattle are now settling in. For runners in this region who work normal day shifts, this signals the dark days of running that last up to five to six months, depending on what time of day one runs and how much free time one has. I find it more gloomy than Anchorage, where I lived and ran six years. I never minded running in the dark there, because the snow and clouds created very powerful ambient light that made running at night very pleasurable. But here, it is dark as a coal mine, and damp. People’s vitamin D levels are unhealthily low, and there seems to be widespread manifestations of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

First, let’s talk about why this is such a depressing time of year and can be such a bummer place to be.

The absence of natural sunlight impacts the body’s production of two key hormones that impact the body’s sleep-wake cycles, energy, and mood: melatonin and serotonin. Research indicates that melatonin is generated in greater quantities because of longer periods of darkness. Increasing the production of melatonin leads to sleepiness and lethargy. Serotonin, whose production rises with more exposure to sunlight, falls during these shorter days. Low amounts of serotonin are also associated with depression.

Another byproduct of the darkness is a decrease in the production of vitamin D, naturally created by the body. Though researchers have not fully determined whether low vitamin D contributes to symptoms of depression or whether depression itself contributes to lower vitamin D levels, higher levels of Vitamin D are associated with decreased risks of depression. But alas, anyone living in  Canada, and the northern tier of the Lower 48 here in North America all require vitamin D supplements too to make up for the absence of sunlight come fall. Vitamin D also is critical in many key functions: enhancing the absorption of minerals in the gastrointestinal tract and kidney and thus into the blood, and it may protect against tuberculosis, gum inflammation, MS, and some cancers—at least according to my handy nutrition textbook: Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. (I really love this tome – nicely written, well illustrated.) My response is to take vitamin supplements, but that is not enough.

So here I am in dark and rainy Seattle, deprived of naturally produced vitamin D, at higher risk of SAD. This is exacerbated by Seattle’s culture that seems to promote the absence of smiles and eye contact with strangers. What is a person to do?

Running is a perfect antidote to the blues that accompany the shorter days of autumn.

Easy, go running. While hitting my local running grounds (Greenlake), I heard some walkers recently comment, “This is when the real runners come out.” The observation was referring to the near absence of mobs of fair-weather walkers and runners whose numbers thin by nearly 80% the moment the rains fall and that stygian Seattle glooms settles around mid-October. Paradoxically, running is the perfect antidote to anything resembling SAD or depression or everyday stress. I have done this since I was 15, and I continue running rain or shine, but particularly when it rains.

One of the earliest blockbuster books on the health benefits of running, the Joy of Running, by Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, came out way back in1976. In it, Kostrubala was among the first of the self-improvement health gurus to promote using an aerobic activity, running, to help treat mental illnesses such as depression. More recently, in September 2011, the UK-based Telegraph published a typical story that is the grist for many running magazines, Running outdoors can improve mental health. The story touted how running outdoors “can both raise your spirits and give you a real buzz.” Of course there are all sorts of web sites that list evidence-based findings that point to the health benefits of running–stress relief, blood circulation to the brain, chemical releases, sharpened cognitive functions, getting outdoors, and more.

Running in the dark does not mean you can’t have fun.

There are also numerous, peer-reviewed scientific papers that highlight the mental health benefits of running, particularly in response to depression. I stumbled on one such paper doing a quick keyword search on the database PubMed, by D.I. Galper, et al., in the January 2006 edition of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, called “Inverse association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women.” That study looked at the associations between measures of physical activity and mental health in a large group of more than 5,400 men and women. Galper and his colleagues found that cardio-respiratory fitness and habitual physical activity were associated with lower depressive symptoms and greater emotional well-being.

Of course I and other dark and rainy weather runners did not need this study to confirm what our bodies are telling us every time we get out of our homes and get wet while splashing outdoors. I realize that not everyone has the time to get out after busy days. They may have classes, second jobs, kids, or all of the above. But even in the rain, in the blackness of a fall day, a run or even a walk is sure to improve one’s mental outlook, boost one’s mood, and stimulate the body’s chemistry. Here’s to the days and months ahead of soggy shoes, headlamps, and hopefully a few hellos from water-logged runners. You’re a fine crew.

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The Olympics: a grand tale of hope, scandals, Nazi propaganda, and corporatization

The massive corporate, sport, and media spectacle that is the Olympics is underway. The Games’ charter, in idealistic language, calls for “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Who doesn’t want that.

Crowds cheer the start of the London Summer Olympics.

I’m a fan of the spirit of international cooperation and competition that are the “ideals” of the Games, but not the dark underbelly that is associated with them and has always been associated with them.

First, the positives. They bring out our best. They can lift you up. I simply loved watching Usain Bolt grab gold in the 100m and 200m sprints in Beijing in 2008, and also the fact that he became an instant positive icon to hundreds of millions of people around the world. (Since then he has become a self-styled global brand.) Or better, I continually marvel at the crop of Kenya’s world-class middle- and long-distance runners, such as Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, who won the marathon in Beijing with style with a blistering 2:06:32 time and then tragically died in mysterious circumstances in 2011.  Kenyans grabbed 14 medals in all in 2008, compared to Jamaica’s 11 – both amazing outcomes for countries that are relatively poor by all measures, and thus less capable of funding national sports programs. To me, these are the Games’ positives.

Kenya’s phenomenal male and female runners, who shine in the Games every four years, especially stand out for me, because most of them are running to escape poverty and build a better life for themselves and their families. A profile of them on the NPR pegged the success of the Kenyan athletes to their training regime at high altitudes in the Rift Valley, discipline, and also the country’s limited economic opportunities, with many of the best runners hoping to win big-money marathons like Chicago’s or Berlin’s.

Of course the dark side of the Olympics is the corporate control of every facet of the Games. As The Nation notes, the Olympics, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch, a certifiable Spanish fascist, “was transformed from Cold War spectacle into a neoliberal Trojan Horse: an invading corporate sledgehammer of privatization and payoffs.”  The Games have a recent history of corruption (at both the Sydney and Salt Lake City Games). According to the Daily Mail, taxpayers are subsidizing what many critics of the Games say is a giant corporate schmooze event. Taxpayers are underwriting the games by an 8-1 margin compared to private investors. A year before the games began, the Daily Mail noted that “corporate fat cats” got more than half of top games tickets for showpiece events, which are handed out to corporate sponsors, Olympic bigwigs, and their various VIP guests. Only 32,000 out of 80,000 seats in the Olympic stadium – about four in ten – were available to the public for the marquis events.

Transparency International has pointed out the multiple ways corrupt practices taint the Games, through ticket allocations, corporate hospitality, media contracts, match fixing (not proven), construction allocation, old-fashioned cronyism from corrupt states who bring large entourages, and corporate sponsorship itself.  According to Transparency International’s Robert Barrington, “of the 53 official corporate sponsors in London … several have also been subject to investigation under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or equivalent laws.”

The Olympics in my lifetime have always been mired in problems and issues of the day, and they have reflected conflicts boiling on the international stage and larger cultural and racial currents. Memorable controversies in my lifetime have been the massacre of hundreds of civilians by Mexican government forces just prior to the start of the Mexico City Games in 1968, the brutal killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games by Palestinian gunmen who also were killed in a botched rescue,  the boycott by 62 nations of the 1980 Moscow games following the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and retaliatory boycott by 14 nations in response of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and the terrorist bombing that killed two persons at the 1996 Atlanta Games by a right wing U.S. extremist, murderer, and abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. There are other scandals I could mention, but will not.

Sculptor Karl Abiker’s “Discus Throwers,” Nazi statues embodying the Third Reich’s racial ideology that was showcased at the 1936 summer Olympics, stand guard outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

Perhaps the most abysmal moments in Olympics history were the summer and winter Olympics games in Nazi Germany in 1936. While many claim Nazi ideology of racial superiority was destroyed by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track, the Games largely were a massively successful propaganda operation, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, by the Nazi state as it was marching toward implementing policies that later resulted in genocide against Jews and Gypsies and a war that claimed tens of millions of lives. It is worth watching the documentary of those games by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. The opening ceremonies show national squads like France’s marching into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium with their arms raised with a “sieg heil” salute to future mass murderer and then-dictator Adolf Hitler (go to 4:47 of the clip on this video — it is truly chilling).

South African Tsuana tribesmen Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani (right) both ran the 1904 marathon barefooted.

In the city near where I grew up, St. Louis, the Olympics were hosted in conjunction with and likely in the same spirit as the World’s Fair in 1904 (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the fair, and know it well). This was a time of imperial expansion, the prevalence of racial eugenics in scientific and political thinking, and entrenched racism and segregation in the United States. The fair was the single largest gathering  of human beings from other cultures ever put on display like a zoo. More than 5,000 persons from different cultures and countries were displayed, the largest group being Filipinos, whose country was taken over by the United States a few years earlier during the Spanish American War. Some of those humans on display, two tribesmen from South Africa, who were part of the “Boer Exhibit,” actually competed in the Olympics marathon and did surprisingly well, placing in ninth and 12th place. They were also the first Africans to compete in the notoriously racially segregated Games at the time.

The 1904 Olympics marathon is notable for many reasons, including a famous scandal and my odd connection to it. I used to live in University City, Mo. (next to St. Louis), and run on a road that was part of the marathon route and see an official marathon mile marker every time I ran, about three times a week. It connected me to the Games in a personal way. That marathon had 32 racers; only 18 finished. The race began at 3 p.m., in 90 fahrenheit (in Midwest humidity!). The winner, Thomas Hicks, doped and nearly died (on strychnine). A false winner , John Lorz, cheated by being driven most of the race. Still another runner nearly died inhaling road dust kicked up by automobiles on dirt roads that were used for the race.

Mile Marker along the route of the 1904 Olympics marathon, a route I partially ran three times a week while in high school — my personal connection to the Games.

While the scandals and problems that were there nearly at the beginning of the Games remain to this day, I still would like to think of the Games as something to inspire. In many ways, I credit that Olympics’ mile marker sign for motivating many of my early morning runs in the dark in high school. I have not stopped running since.

Running, an evolutionary high humans share with our canine companions

NPR science reporter Christopher Joyce this month profiled the research of University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen and his hypothesis that humans are, basically, adapted to run. Well, they are not so much as adapted, but literally “wired to run.”

Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, and Cedar Bourgeois blast off at the start of the July 4, 2010, Mt. Marathon mountain race in Seward, Ak.

Raichlen’s lab’s research focusses on: evolutionary biomechanics, linking physical activity to physiology and neurobiology in humans and other critters, and studying energetics and activity levels in human hunter-gatherers and other critters. Raichlen’s team is trying to link these elements to paint a picture of how aerobic activity levels impacted our evolution.

The story quotes Raichlen, who says: “Wired to run, meaning that our brains are probably, have been sort of rewired from an evolutionary sense to encourage these running and high aerobic-activity behaviors.” The theory by some anthropologists assumes that early humans learned to run long distances in order to chase down and exhaust prey, like antelopes. The evolutionary payoff for this difficult activity would be survival in the form of all kinds of goodies – nutritious and healthy food, particularly protein, not to mention clothing and bones for tools.

However, Raichlen believes there was another reward: the so-called “runner’s high.” This high is the release of naturally produced body chemicals cannabinoids, similar to the chemicals in marijuana.

This treadmill-running-pooch photo is found on the Neuman K-9 Academy, Inc. web site at: http://www.mndogtraining.com/article_treadmill.html

I find this term misused and applied to different sensations, which some say is “euphoria,” but I mainly link to the relaxed feeling that follows runs. As a lifelong runner, I can personally testify to what I believe to be the “runner’s high,” and the sensation running provides to my mental mood, overall body feeling, and attitude. And the absence of running, in my case and in those of my many running friends, definitely induces withdrawal symptoms, irritability, and poor moods and worse performance in other activities.

Raichlen and his researchers designed a test to determine if other distance-running mammals also produced those drugs. He did that by putting ferrets and dogs on treadmills and taking samples of their blood. Turns out that dogs, who are also are built for distance, produced the drug and the ferrets did not (ferrets are not built for distance).

The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in December 2011, which of course is locked behind a firewall that the general public cannot access without paying a hefty fee, a frustrating feature of the marketplace of publicly-funded science and the monopolies that control the publication of peer-reviewed journals (but I digress).

Doing the traditional “show off your stuff” run at the Alaska Kennel Club Show, February 2008.

I also find it, again, interesting how dogs and humans share this trait and seem amazingly co-adapted to share this wonderful activity of running. I personally have never been able to tell if humans or canines enjoy running more than the other. I just know that humans and dogs usually have that same wonderful expression of contentment when they finish their outings. It is the look of bliss, and if Raichlen is right, it is an evolutionary advantage.