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Walter M. Bortz II, M.D.

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Dare to Be 100: 100 Miles in One Day

Posted: 07/08/2013 2:49 pm

At the top of my personal fascinations is the ongoing search for evidence of the human potential. I seek to know what our limits are and what stretches and contracts them. A perpetual review is how long we might live. But more important are the elements that affect this potential.

Prominent in this regard is the annual running event here in California. It is called the Western States 100 Mile Run. It begins under the chair lift at Squaw Valley and ends up on the high school track in Auburn, Calif., 100 miles distant. Virtually the entire race is run on the old Indian Washoe Trail. The first 4.5 miles are almost vertical, rising 2,500 feet. Through the course of the hundred miles there is a cumulative 14,000-foot altitude gain and a 22,000-foot loss. Rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions are part of the scenery.

At the 5 a.m. start of the run, the temperature is chilly, but as the sun appears it rises to 100-plus degrees in the canyons. There is a river crossing at mile 76 -- only 22 miles further is the end. The night-time portion is psychedelic as runners' flashlights flicker in unlikely places along the other canyon walls. Dawn partially reestablishes reality.

The race was first run in 1973. This year was the 40th anniversary. Our physician son Walter is a terrific runner and has done it twice. Extraordinarily, my runty wife has similarly done it twice, once in 24:20. I am greatly in awe of both.

I have done important research on the runner guinea pigs. I measured their endorphin levels, which were the highest that Stanford ever recorded, and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1981. I also measured the size of 12 of the elite runners' coronary arteries with an arteriogram. They were like garden hoses. Who needs Lipitor when your artery is an inch across? (Circulation, 1993).

Being a geriatrician presents another opportunity. For 35 years we have presented the awards to the oldest male and female finishers. It is a chance to celebrate this brilliant statement of the human potential. This year, two 64 year olds took home our prizes. Of the 340 starters, 270 finish. The winner takes 15 plus hours to complete the run. That is a 9-minute per mile pace for the entire grueling challenge. I can more easily imagine there are McDonald's stands on the moon than accept this fact.

There is a 30-hour cut off. This year two runners barely missed the cut off. Great drama. There has never been a fatality in the race, although several horses have died in the effort. This year one of the runners announced that he was already training to be the oldest finisher ever, which will be next year when he is 73.

We will be there to cheer.

One hundred miles in one day, the human potential written BIG!

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