The Tall Runner: Perseverance or Stupidity?
Yearning for a dose of running inspiration (or #runspo as social media likes to call it), I took to the high seas of the internet to fill my empty void with what realistically I thought would be some flashy new cross trainers. Shortly thereafter, I had eagerly dropped several books into my Amazon shopping cart and clicked order. One book in particular had stood out among the rest. Born to Run, a narrative by runner and journalist Christopher McDougall, promised a riveting exploration of “a hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world [had] never seen.” Inspiring stuff, right? But like most things in my overcrowded and over-scheduled life, this bout of #runspo deficiency quickly receded. As the weeks passed by, the book lay dormant on my nightstand table. Seeing it there day to day, sometimes covered with mail, sometimes the coaster to a glass of water, the book seemed to glare at me and all my flippant, impulsive behaviors. Grabbing a moment of reprieve from the daily grind, I swooped it up in the same handful as my sunglasses and headed for the roof.
Mr. McDougall’s story began not with a hidden tribe, superathletes, or this alleged foot race, but instead with a tall person problem. For those who are under 5’10” and/or have never experienced a “tall person problem,” let me outline a few of the classics: pants are too short, always ducking through doorways/ducking for hugs/ducking for low-hanging branches, never enough leg room in any seat, at any table, or on any mode of transportation, and of course the ever-popular conversation starter “WOW you’re tall!!” These, to name a few, are part of the daily life for us giants of the human race. Fun fact: the nickname not-so-generously given to me by my high school boyfriend’s bestie was the Iron Giant. You can’t win ‘em all I guess. Christopher McDougall identified as a tall person. More specifically, he identified as a tall RUNNER. You might be wondering why I have emphasized tall runner here. The topic, in a way, is expansive like a black hole. You don’t really see the point until you reach the horizon. So let’s dive in!
When I first began to take my running seriously, it never occurred to me that my body wasn’t designed for optimal running function. Granted, I had been told most of my life that I’d never be a gymnast or a figure skater. It was best to leave those sports to the petite humans. These people told me “you won’t” and “you can’t,” but they never told me why. Christopher McDougall captured my interest within the first few pages because he offered a perspective on running that I knew far too well. Aches, pains, sore muscles, misalignment, creaking joints, doctors who prescribe “cease and desists” instead of practical stretching and mobility exercises. I am a real life 6’1” female who is 40 lbs heavier than the majority of the elite runners and triathletes in today’s competition, and as much as I hate to admit it, that weight makes a difference.
Let’s do a little exercise to help understand the “weight” of the tall athlete situation (pun intended). Visualize two foam pool noodles, each secured beneath a single book. One foam noodle is pressed beneath an encyclopedia and the other beneath a children’s chapter book. Now picture that each book is lifted and dropped back onto the noodles over the course of multiple repetitions. The impact of each book falling and making contact with the noodle is representative of the wear and tear on the human body experienced during running. Now, I don’t need to explain to you that the foam noodle being pummeled by the encyclopedia will be the first to lose its shape and consistency. My body is like that foam noodle, constantly absorbing the impact of a greater weight while in motion. To fully understand the difference in “wear and tear” on a 5’3” 110 LB person versus a 6’1” 150 LB person (aka me), we must first discuss human biology and body mechanics (because the science behind the very profound “foam noodle analogy” may not be enough for most of us).
For the purpose of understanding this exercise, our bodies can be broken into three sections: lowest third (feet, legs, hips), middle third or the trunk (the anatomy below the neck and above the hips), and the top third being the head. In order to initiate enough force to propel the body forward into motion, we must first activate the main muscles groups used in running. To do that, we are talking about using the lower two thirds of our body (specifically the glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals). Any kind of debilitating impact (encyclopedia on a foam noodle) does not come from this initial activation. Short, tall, heavy, and light people all theoretically have similar capacities to strengthen and activate these primary running muscles groups. Instead, we must locate issues that arise from the secondary body mechanics that deal in shock absorption. The joints, otherwise known as the areas in the body where bones are connected by cartilage, collagen fibers, or fluid-filled space (synovial joints) are what allow our bodies to bend in the act of motion. The foam noodle analogy draws upon imagery that pertains specifically to the cartilage in our joints. Without joints, our bodies would be like stick-straight surfboards. No give, no bend, (no fun)! But because 99% of humans are born without their bones completely fused together, that is not really the issue here. Without cartilage in our joints, the act of bending is not impossible but extremely damaging to our bones.
I was chatting with a woman who worked in stage management at UCLA a few years back, and she explained to me that due to a spot of bad luck in the genetic lottery and a handful of overuse injuries, she had virtually no cartilage left in her knees. The damage was so severe that even her walking stride was stilted and uncomfortable. Another woman I know from my CrossFit gym is unable to do the run intervals in class because of painful, stiff knees. When I inquired as to why, she actually slapped my hand on her knee and bent it a few times. You could hear and feel the grinding. The interesting thing is that neither of these women were dedicated runners. As humans, our bodies naturally lose cartilage through the expected “wear and tear” of a lifetime of being in motion. Other things can contribute as well, such as diet, maintaining healthy exercise to avoid atrophy, and deficiencies in the body. But the entire purpose of this article is to highlight that SOME bodies can and do experience an expedited aging on tissues used in the act of running.
Setting genetics aside (because full disclosure: I am not a doctor), I must speak from my experience as a tall person and runner. To my knowledge, I was born with normal amounts of cartilage and joints that are capable of functioning without interference. Yet, as a tall runner, I often experience the impact of running in a greater concentration. The New York Times published an interesting article in 2007 titled “Bigger Is Better, Except When It’s Not,” making a case that tall people make better swimmers than runners. Simple rules of physics state that a heavier object requires more force to move. Backtracking slightly to the previous stats of 5’3”/110 lbs and 6’1”/150 lbs, the smaller runner with less bone/tissue mass will need to exert less energy to propel her body forward. Me, on the other hand, well, I have a great deal more work to do to transport myself across the finish line. On top of all of this, as a triathlete and an active member of the CrossFit community, I have a considerable amount of muscle tissue in places that distance runners do not. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I happen to know a talented and FAST 6’3” male distance runner who consistently races 5k/10k and half marathon events and places extremely well. From what I’ve gleaned through conversations with him, he has minimal injuries and logs at least 60 training miles a week when competing. So what it really boils down to is this invisible line that separates good runners from elite runners.
In pursuit of this line, I went back and found the heights of the last 10 male winners of the Boston Marathon. The tallest person was Robert Mwafrika Kipkoech Cheruiyot of Kenya, ringing in at...6’3” and 150 lbs! Robert won Boston in 2006 with a time of 2:07:14 (breaking the course record and holding that record until 2010). An article published in Runner’s World Magazine in 2014 called “Great Marathoners Over Six Feet Tall Are Rare” similarly exoticizes the select few tall athletes currently competing at the elite level. Professional marathoner Luke Pushkedra holds a PR of 2:10:24 and his certified membership card for the tall-people-club as a 6’4” competitor. The article goes on to explain that tall runners (like Luke and Robert) are more susceptible to injury because the body does not necessarily grow in proportion as height increases. With a left leg that is a quarter of an inch shorter, pants that must be at least a 36” inseam, and flippers for feet, I can attest to the validity of these statements.
So how on earth have these individuals hacked their way to success with the odds literally stacked against them? My answer to this question is simple and concise: the human body is an amazing vehicle. Paired with a victor’s mindset, modern medical advances, recovery techniques, and good old fashioned hard work, any runner tall or small can reap maximum rewards from running. Is it more difficult for tall runners to cross that invisible line between good and elite? Probably. But as any tall person like Christopher McDougall or myself can tell you, the breadth of the tall person problems is obnoxious but manageable. And for all of us that just want to PR at the local 5K or shave a few minutes off the run in a triathlon, we are capable of greatness too. Train hard, recover harder. Just ask the tall runners how it’s done.
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