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Obesity -- Not Running -- Is the Real Health Hazard

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Legend is, the first marathoner was a man named Pheidippides, who in Ancient Greece was dispatched the distance from Marathon to Athens on foot announce victory.

"Rejoice, we conquer," were the last words he uttered, legend has it, before dying.

I crossed the finish line of my 20th marathon a few weeks ago and while my fellow runners who ran the Ottawa Marathon saw the event as a celebration of life, others see danger and death.

The Mayo Clinic's latest research made a bit of a splash in the headlines when it warned that "chronic training" or competing in endurance events -- including marathons, Iron Man races and cycling rides -- can cause injury to the heart. This scarring and changes to the heart and arteries are the culprit.

The running world recently mourned the death of Micah True, who was profiled in the book Born To Run that chronicled his barefoot running and long-distance races held in the copper canyons in Mexico. Micah was an ultra runner who died from heart complications during a daily run in March. The Mayo Clinic points to True as a possible victim of endurance running.

The latest running boom may have brought with it it GPS watches, chia seeds, ultra-marathons and Spartan contests, but the sport of running has remained essentially the same, putting one foot in front of the other. While running is made up of simple movements, it may be hard to understand why endurance athletes decide to "go long," even as the medical professionals tell you it can be bad for you.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the health spectrum, obesity rates in both the United States and Canada show that modern society has another type of crisis: In 2009 24.1 per cent of Canadians adults were obese, 34.4 per cent in the United States.

Those who invoke Micah True will no doubt remind themselves of the death of Jim Fixx in 1984 as the original reason why running was bad for you. Fixx, who wrote The Complete Book of Running, helped make fitness, jogging and exercise popular with the masses. When he died of a heart attack while out on the daily run, Fixx proved that running was bad for you.

The Mayo report does acknowledge to all the good exercise does for health, noting it is highly effective for treating "many common chronic diseases and improves cardiovascular heath an longevity."

"However, as with any pharmacologic agent, a safe upper dose limit potentially exists, beyond which the adverse effects of physical exercise, such as musculoskeletal trauma and cardiovascular stress, may outweigh its benefits," lead author of the report, James O'Keefe, writes.

Marathoners have a saying: "Respect the distance." We mean it in that 42.2 kilometres or 26.2 miles is no task to take lightly. Most marathoners, and certainly repeat marathoners like myself, treat the marathon seriously, paying proper preparation that's needed to tackle a rigorous endurance event. Marathons are not bucket-list events, nor are those of us who repeat the distance akin to the famed "weekend warriors" who sit sedentary for five days then go all out on Sunday mornings.

When you see a marathoner at the end of race, you must know that they've trained for up to four months of long distance training, and often years of running before that. We don't go cold into the distance.

The marathon is still an exclusive event. Simply said, not everyone does it. At the Ottawa Marathon, some 40,000 plus runners participated, most of them in the 5K, 10K and half marathon and 4,300 in the marathon. Last year in the United States, the number of marathon finishers jumped 46 per cent from 2000, some 518,000 people. If we were to believe that 78 million American adults are obese, there's one group of people that should be more worried than another.

To put all this research into perspective, another recent study by John Hopkins researchers says .75 per 100,000 runners have died at marathons, making it a relatively low-risk event.

A week after my last marathon, I signed up for my next race. To simply ask marathoners to give up training and races for short antiseptic exercises reveal the problem with how medical practitioners see fitness today, as if you can prescribe a run as you would a list of drugs or bottle up a fitness regimen that you can down in one gulp. Find me at fault, but I find my health out there in one- to three-hour tours, where I can disconnect from modern sedentary living and reconnect with natural movement.

Just this past weekend, South Africans watched with rapt attention as competitors finished the legendary Comardes ultramarathon, a race of 89 kilometres. At the 12-hour mark the gun goes off and every second after that marks the difference between finishers and those who have failed. Why do they run?

"Live to run, run to live."