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March 6, 2021

Gotta’ Run: Latest news on runners’ hearts, Marchinko update

Last Saturday, mid-morning, I started getting texts from other runners. For a few weeks, many locals with lots of miles and marathons were keeping up with Bob Marchinko on his quest for not just another marathon. Long-time coach and educator, Bob fell off a roof and broke his neck last June. Words like paralysis were used, but with the grace of God, Bob was able to return to running. A strong effort at a half marathon got him thinking about the possibility of chasing the N.C. age 49 marathon record.

Bob said, “I chose Oak Island, since it was close. The weather was rough, and I did have some stomach issues, which caused me to run the whole race without taking water or GU (energy tabs). I was fortunate to be able to manage both things. I will just say God is good and I am blessed! Back in August, when I started my rehab, I had no plans on racing, I just wanted to feel normal again, so the races have just been icing on the cake.”

Bob’s time of 2:31:3, a 5:47/mile average, did get the N.C. age group record and he won the race. He expressed thanks to all his friends and family for the ongoing encouragement on his inspirational journey.

For various reasons, I was especially impressed that Bob’s average heart rate during the race was 177 beats per minute. Maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting age from 220. In Bob’s case, his maximum heart rate, or the level at which experts say he shouldn’t exceed for long-term exercise, would be 171. For two hours and 31 minutes, Bob’s heart worked very hard.

Runners’ hearts during exercise do work very hard. But just like any other muscle, training that heart to do more provides exceptional cardiovascular benefits. Running’s impact on the heart has long been studied. In 1985, one study concluded that “Regular runners have slow resting pulse rates and a high maximal oxygen consumption.” Echocardiographic studies have also shown that distance runners have “larger, thicker left ventricles and their hearts are more efficient than those of sedentary people, pumping a larger volume per beat.” This phenomenon is called “Athlete’s Heart,” and is a result of intense cardiovascular workouts. No matter the number of miles we log each week, it all adds up to a lower resting heart rate, lower bad cholesterol in your blood and lower blood pressure.

Regardless of all these good things, there are frequent studies that analyze how much running is enough to get these benefits and there are always some that say that too much running isn’t good.

When a young and healthy runner does die while running, it’s almost always due to a genetic heart abnormality called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the walls of the heart become thickened for no known reason. This condition affects 1 in 500 people. Though deaths like these often steal headlines, the risk of such an occurrence is quite low. In fact, my very first column for the Salisbury Post was about the death of three runners in the same Detroit Marathon that I had recently competed in.

Even if you’re born without a heart condition, there’s a chance you may develop one as you age. Heart disease is a broad term that describes a range of conditions that affect the heart, including clogged arteries that can cause heart attacks and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in America. But regardless, if heart disease does develop, nearly everyone affected will be encouraged to continue to exercise in some manner.

For my generation, one of the most famous runners in history was Jim Fixx, the author of the best book on running I ever read, The Complete Book of Running. Fixx began running in an effort to beat family history that was loaded with serious heart disease and his own heavy smoking habit. It did take Fixx’s life eventually, but not until he had lived nine more years than his dad and brother.

This past week, I wore a medical heart monitor for 48 hours. More on that later.

The Will Run for Food 5K benefitting Rowan Helping Ministries is Saturday. www.salisburyrowanrunners.org .

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