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Boston Marathon 2009: Fighting back the tide

May 11, 2009|By MARK CUCUZELLA / Special to The Herald-Mail

More than 26,000 runners from around the world challenged the rolling hills through Boston in the 113th Boston Marathon on April 21.

The Boston Marathon has become the temple for runners, as it is the oldest marathon and the only one for which you must qualify. Thousands of volunteers and more than a million loud supporters get up to celebrate the thrill of movement.

Those of us who wear a military jersey feel a home team advantage, for the marathon is run on Patriots Day. I wear the jersey of the U.S. Air Force.

As a physician fitness advisor for the USAF who compels others to challenge themselves every day, it is imperative that I do the same.

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As people age and have more added responsibility in our work and home lives, we constantly fight the tide of declining fitness and the so-called "normal" aging process. The real truth is we must work every day to fight this tide. If we do, we can redefine normal aging.

The largest age group in the Boston Marathon was my age group -- 40- to 49-year-olds. This is good news and bad news. Good news in that older folks are picking up their fitness activity and staying at it. The bad news is that fewer younger folks are.

Modern physicians can be marvels at the treatment and diagnosis of acute illness. Where we fail is in the treatment of combating normal aging. Technology, laboratory and wonder drugs have little use here. We must teach the patient to get the most out of what he or she has and join them in a continuous struggle with a dogged enemy.

Runner, physician and author George Sheehan understood that each of us is in some way an athlete. He wrote, "Man is a whole, a unity of mind-body-spirit. And the whole is greater then the sum of its parts. Holistic medicine has been accepted by those who believe that two plus two can equal five. Those individuals who are trying to get the most out of themselves are ... the athletes.

"Most people live nowhere near their physical limits. They settle for accelerated aging, an early and precipitous fall. They give aging a bad name. Too many people entering their forties are performing at physiological levels more appropriate to somebody sixty years old."

The original holistic approach teaches the physician to view every patient as an athlete. Nowhere is this more urgent than in our care of the aging patient. Rest promotes rust and deterioration. Normal is not optimal.

Human performance declines about 5 percent per decade after the 30th birthday. It does not take extreme amounts of time or effort for people to stay on the slow 5 percent slope -- four hours a week will achieve it.

But most of our 40-year-old patients are behind this curve. They are performing physiologically at the level of a 60-year-old, and most 60-year-olds like someone in their 80s. I teach my patients not to be happy with this precipitous fall. Normal should be viewed as the best one can be at any age.

How did the Boston Marathon go for me? I'm still on the 5-percent slope. I'm 42 now and ran the 26-mile race in 2 hours, 37 minutes and 4 seconds for 118th place overall, and 11th place among 40- to 49-year-olds. Not as fast as some sub-2:30s I ran in the 1990s, but I was content with the day.

I practice getting fast by running slow. This race is more evidence of this principle as all my training is done at a pace much slower that race day. I race the marathon at 6 minutes a mile, but I train at 7s and 8s. You stay fresh and injury free this way, and leave something in reserve for race day.

Running now is my relaxation with a busy job, young children and limits on time. You, too, can reach your goals with the low-stress approach, so go out and play.

Mark Cucuzzella of Shepherdstown, W.Va., is a physician at Harpers Ferry Family Medicine and an elite distance runner. Last fall, he placed 11th at the annual JFK 50 Mile in Washington County.

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