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TV Show Review #1: Nova's Marathon Challenge

Posted Oct 18 2008 4:08pm



Last night I watched Nova's "Marathon Challenge", which was on my backlog of Tivo'd shows to watch, but hadn't yet had the time, that is, until yesterday evening.

The basic idea behind this episode was about testing the idea of whether of not the "ordinary human being" (which was unfortunately equated with being mostly "sedentary"!) could become a marathoner.

Can just anyone do it? That was the primary question.

So with the help of knowledge staff from Tufts University, ( my alma mater!), who were well-versed in areas such as exercise physiology, marathon-training & nutrition, and the advice & emotional support of stellar, world-class marathoner, Uta Pippig, "Team Nova" set out to see if "the average person" could transform themselves into marathoners in just 9 months.

At the outset, all of the participants were run though at battery of tests ( VO2 max, medical screenings to make sure they were healthy enough to participate, etc.). Then, they went through 9+ months of training, which took them from 1-2 mile runs to 19-20 mile runs, which they did in preparation for the Boston Marathon. They had 1 group run on the weekends & then ran independently during the week. Here's their training calendar, if you'd like to get a better sense of their running schedule.

The people who'd joined the program had been selected from a pool of several thousand applicants. They were from all walks of life. Some were running to prove they could do it despite the odds (i.e., their age, health problems, etc.), while others were running for personal reasons (one participant, Sama, had recently lost her mother in a tragic accident, & was utilizing running as a way to work through her grief). If you'd like to read more about the individual profiles of the program's participants, you can do so here. (I found their backstories to be as interesting & inspirational as the journeys they took to become marathoners!)

In the beginning, there were 12 partipants, & by the end, almost all had made it through the training program & had completed the Boston marathon, save one person, Melissa White, who had been sidelined due to multiple stress fractures. (She did show up on race day to cheer on the other members of the team.) Replacing her on the team was former NFL-linebacker (turned TV/radio sports commentator), Steve DeOssie.

It was encouraging to see almost all of the participants stick it out & run the marathon.

There's one thing about Team Nova's program that did raise my eyebrows quite a bit -- their 9-month schedule.

It's generally recommended, for those who are starting out with a minimal level of fitness, to take between 1.5-2+ years of training to safely, gradually, & adequately prepare themselves to run a marathon. Even though they were guided by experts, I thought that their 9-month training schedule was ill-advised.

And not surprisingly, many of the participants experienced the effects of what a compressed running schedule like this can do to a person's body. There were people with hip problems, shin splints, knee problems, stress fractures, strain to the Achilles tendon, etc. Actually, I was surprised that there weren't more serious injuries considering the starting fitness levels of the participants & their very tight training schedule.

Nonetheless, I have to say that I wasn't surprised by the runners' transformations, which were mostly improvements in athleticism versus weight-loss related improvements. As the show's narrator aptly pointed out, losing weight & running a marathon are two separate goals, & marathoners-in-training don't necessarily lose a lot of weight, since they need to adequately nourish themselves for long runs which are typically anywhere from 1-3+ hours long.

The only rare exception to the above, in terms of major marathon-training-related weight loss, was Betsy, who had the most to lose, being over 70 pounds overweight at the start. She had the most dramatic transformation of all the novice runners, in terms of physical appearance, health, & athletic performance. She also became the fastest female runner of the group, which I thought was fantastic!

The show also talked about how exercise in combination with a healthy, balanced diet that emphasizes reduced portion sizes, is the most effective combination for losing weight.

(I can tell you that, based on my own prior experience as a long-distance runner, the reasons mentioned above are exactly why I plan to first lose the remaining 8.6 pounds before I start seriously training for the marathon. I'm conquering one goal at a time. Right now, I'm focused on working up to 10 miles, & in combination with proper diet & weight-training, I hope to shed the remaining pounds over the next few months. Then, after the remaining weight is shed, my runs will start taking on a more athletic performance-related focus.)

All in all, it was a very interesting show, & I recommend it to those of you who enjoy watching shows about running, especially the athletic transformations of runners-in-training. Also, those of you who are exploring the idea of running a marathon for the very first time might gain some useful insights by watching this show. Even experienced runners will probably enjoy watching the process of novice runners-in-training. After all, to quote Betsy herself, "we all have to start somewhere."

Here are some interesting, related links:

-->Check out these 10 tips for novice runners from Nova's "Marathon Challenge."

-->Glean wisdom from the advice of Team Nova's Dr. Miriam Nelson in the "Ask The Expert" section of Nova's "Marathon Challenge" website, for answers to common running & marathon questions.

-->For some useful mental training strategies from Uta Pippig, check out the related Nova link, The Mind of A Marathoner.

-->For more information about Uta's company, "The Magic Step", which offers training classes, check out her website.

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