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NOVA Marathon Challenge

As I was watching the NOVA Marathon Challenge last night, which followed twelve regular people on “Team NOVA” training to run the 26 mile Boston Marathon, I came to a shocking realization. I too was once on Team Nova.

Sixth grade. Louisville, Kentucky. Westport Middle School. Each grade was separated into three or four teams of students who had the same teachers. It was a way of dividing up the student body to make them more manageable. Our teams were astronomically themed: 6-1 Nebula, 6-2 Nova, 6-3 Pulsar, and 6-4 Fine Arts and Humanities a.k.a. Snobby Little Bitches who were too good to be named Quasar or Red Dwarf. As you can see I was chubby even back then and had a propensity for correcting our yearbook staff’s typos with a ballpoint pen. I was on 6-2 Nova, but they never made me run a marathon to graduate, thank goodness. I didn’t even have to take PE. Otherwise I might have been a sixth grade drop-out.

They expected at least half of PBS’s Team NOVA to drop out over the nine month training period due to injuries, but amazingly only one women had to quit. And that was only because her legs were literally shattering with stress factures due to her diabetes and the repetitive stress of running. My favorite team member was probably Betsey, who started out 70 pounds overweight with, as the narrator so tactfully put it, a body that was almost half fat. She almost had a heart attack right there on PBS during the preliminary health testing, but after being OK’d to train went from being the slowest female runner to being the fastest. She lost 40-something pounds, ran the marathon with a urinary tract infection, and according to her profile just came back from mountaineering in France. I would totally hang with Betsey, at a coffee shop or off the side of a glacier, whichever she prefers.

Other interesting points they covered:

  • A good way to measure someone’s cardiovascular health and aptitude for endurance sports is by determining their VO2 max, “the volume of oxygen a person can consume in one minute as he or she exercises at maximum exertion.” To measure this value however, they have to hook you up to a device that resembles what astronauts pee in, only they stick it on your face.

  • Some people really are natural athletes. Jonathan’s VO2 max was as high as many elite athletes’ even though he hadn’t been exercising that much. He’s also the president’s cousin, which means that not only are the Bush’s wealthy and privileged, they also have good fitness genes. Bastards.
  • You can be thin and overfat. You can be overweight and in good cardiovascular health. As most of the contestants got in better shape, developed more lean body mass and scored a higher VO2 max, their weight was hardly affected. Your size is not the ultimate determiner of your fitness. So next time someone tells you fat is unhealthy as if it’s a de facto statement, tell them to watch NOVA more often. However, don’t do it while eating Cheetos while you’re sitting on your ass actually watching NOVA.
  • As is implied by the last fact, marathons are not a great way to lose weight. (They didn’t cover this in the show, but the word on the street is that high intensity interval training is the best way to burn fat, not low-intensity aerobic exercise. Pass it on!)
  • While one might assume that the farther you run, the fitter you get, it’s not true. After Team NOVA had trained for six months and gotten up to 10 mile runs, they’d experienced about 90% of the fitness benefits they were going to achieve. After that it was more about strengthening ligaments and soft tissues for endurance running. Marathon running is more about achieving a goal and building mental toughness than just being fit.
  • Human beings can actually outlast dogs and horses in long runs in hot weather because we can sweat and cool off, whereas horses overheat. This allowed us to chase down animals as a meat source back in the caveman days. Personally, I’m glad that these days I can just go to the deli for my lunch meat instead of chasing down a dog over the African savannah.

I wish the special had been longer. I still had questions about what they were eating and wanted more details of their training schedules. They also could only cover a few team members in depth and basically ignored others. Since they expected half of them to drop out, maybe they just ran out of time. When they showed footage of the race they kept following some guy with orange hair and I kept wondering, “Am I supposed to know who this is?” I guess his story did not have enough personal trauma and drama to be covered in between CGI animations of the circulatory system. It must suck to spend 9 months training for a marathon on PBS and then only be referred to as the orange-haired guy in some blogger’s review.

When I saw everyone cross the finish line despite urinary tract infections and knee pain and pieces of glass in their feet (seriously, no joke), I almost cried. And my feet are shard free. Then I watched an episode of Frontline afterwards which was about the life of an undertaker and featured a dying baby. That really did make me bawl my eyes out because there is nothing funny about dead babies.

If you missed the marathon challenge, you can watch it online because PBS is cool like that.

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35 Comments

Marla • November 1, 2007 at 8:52 am

I saw most of the program, it was really interesting. Most of the fitness experts I read – as opposed to health professionals – have been stating very strongly that low-intensity high-duration exercise is nearly useless for weight loss. They recommend high-intensity; they recommend intervals (such as sprinting instead of jogging/running). Yet doctors are all up with the walking…

If you look for anecdotal evidence, some people will say “Yep I lost 40 pounds when I started running” and others will say “I’ve been running xx miles a day and haven’t lost a pound.”

I think running is something to do if you love it–BECAUSE you love it. Not every darned activity we do has to promote weight loss: some people benefit from the mental and emotional challenges and rewards of running. Me, I’m not one of them! But I can still be impressed and admiring.

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dietgirl • November 1, 2007 at 8:53 am

that sounds like a brilliant show! and much to chew on re fat vs fit. there is something so touching about marathons, it’s so epic and that dreaded J word… journeyyyy! i bawl my eyes out watching the london marathon and there was a documentary on the bbc recently about a guy with cerebal palsy who did the NY marathon to raise money for school for kids in cambodia… TEARS AHOY!

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Mary • November 1, 2007 at 9:11 am

I enjoyed this program, but I agree that there could have been a bit more depth on some of the runners.

I’ve just started with this running-stuff, so I watched the runners to see how they ran. Usually if you see someone running on TV, they’re eating up the ground with huge strides. It was encouraging to see Betsey and some of the others shuffling along on their training runs — slow, but they still got there.

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Paige • November 1, 2007 at 9:14 am

Shhh….I’m watching it while at work, now.

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Janice Bridge • November 1, 2007 at 9:17 am

I missed the show – but had it TIVOed so will be able to see it next week when i am back home. However I have some general comments about exercise. . . .

(1) Running, although an excellent cardio-vascular experience is extremely hard on joints – knees, hips, ankles – so for those of us in the boomer era, it is best begun with a trainer or doctor observing progress

(2) The VERY BEST exercise – bar none – is the one that you will DO and do regularly. Anything else is fruitless. So if you will walk then walk; you can think about jogging later.

(3) You can do increased intensity intervals with ANY exercise routine – walking, jogging, dancing, stair climbing, swimming, aquaaerobics, etc – try it. . .it really improves your performance and you will notice the difference within a very few days. . .keep it up and you will be amazed

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Jenny • November 1, 2007 at 9:27 am

Ooh, off to research this high intensity training thing you speak of….. thanks.

Most everything on PBS makes me cry.

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diana the scale junkie • November 1, 2007 at 10:05 am

I’ve been doing lot of reading about HIIT lately and have been doing a walk/jog combo in my walks for over a month. I’m losing inches but my weight isn’t dropping…at least not yet. I think I have some tweaking to do and I’m going to start by pulling the balance ball up to the computer and watching PBS all day.

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Nina • November 1, 2007 at 10:25 am

Hehe, you were a cute little girl. My middle school picture is similar, and I did the same thing; band instead of gym! Although I gotta tell ya, lugging around a baritone saxophone can be pretty physically challenging for a chubby little girl…

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Amber • November 1, 2007 at 10:42 am

Just in case you are interested in a training guide for a marathon that ‘most’ anyone can do … I highly recommend The Non Runner’s Marathon guide.

I literally went from a real life couch potato to running a full marathon in 5 months and only 15 weeks of that was training for the marathon. The first few weeks were getting to the point that I could walk and then run 30 minutes at a time. If I can do it, anyone can.

Love your blog … can’t wait to read the book!!!

PQ – That’s a Seal Press book, my awesome publisher! So I will definitely check it out.

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TOWR • November 1, 2007 at 11:08 am

I watched some of that depressing undertaker show too.

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Marianne • November 1, 2007 at 11:09 am

So next time someone tells you fat is unhealthy as if it’s a de facto statement, tell them to watch NOVA more often.

Thank you for saying that – one of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is supporting the fat acceptance movement while trying to lose weight.

Also – I will definitely be checking this out, it sounds really cool!

PQ – Well, there are several things about the fat acceptance movement that I dislike, but I do believe you can be fat and fit. You can be fat and unfit too. It depends.

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Emily • November 1, 2007 at 12:17 pm

I’m glad I’m not the only one who got teary at the end.

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Erin • November 1, 2007 at 12:31 pm

This blog really made me want to go out and run around. I wish I may I wish I might… run for a 10 mile stretch someday.

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christine • November 1, 2007 at 12:37 pm

simply amazing. i am on week 2 of the couch to 5k program and this is truly inspirational. what Betsy did was just mind blowing!

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Zandile • November 1, 2007 at 12:46 pm

I watched it last night too! I was only going to watch it until bedtime but I couldn’t turn it off and when it was over I was all teary eyed and inspired and wanted to put on my trainers and hit the road so it took me a while to wind down to bed. I had been toying with this fantasy of someday doing a marathon, but I also really thought that doing a marathon would make me look like (or at least more like) a marathoner. Since I do bootcamp too I was pleased to see Betsey’s success with it. I think I’ll work towards a 10K, then maybe a Half, then reevaluate. I love the idea of achieving it mentally, but not sure I want to risk injury when I can meet my fitness goals on something less than 26 miles. But how amazing would it be to cross that finish line?

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Jancd • November 1, 2007 at 1:51 pm

I am publicly (with you site) declaring my adventure to lose weight beginning date as November 1, 2007. South-Beach seems my best bet today. I will keep you posted.

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Elizabeth • November 1, 2007 at 1:51 pm

Oh, I totally cried. It was awesome! It made me want to run a marathon for the first time. Then it persuaded me not to when it reminded me that I wouldn’t lose any weight doing it.

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disha • November 1, 2007 at 2:14 pm

I almost cried too! Specially when the older woman finished! and thanks for telling me about the upcoming episode or I would have missed it. The information was nothing new put in an interesting form!

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KateG • November 1, 2007 at 2:35 pm

Hey, you stole my 6th grade glasses! But thanks for the review of the Nova program – I will have to watch it online. Like you said, there are defintely things about the fat acceptance movement that I don’t like, but I agree that you can be technically overweight, yet fit and healthy overall. And I’ve known tons of thin people who could not run a mile even if they were being chased, or who had high cholesterol or high blood pressure (neither of which I had even when I was at my heaviest; though I surely could not have run a mile so I wasn’t exactly fit). I just think it is further evidence that everyone should do what works for them personally, and not stress about every last pound.

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MB • November 1, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see the NOVA special last night but hope to check it out online tonight.

My doctor recently commented that I was very healthy considering how much extra weight I’m carrying around. Was that a compliment? I’m not sure.

They featured a guy on GMA this morning who is running 63 marathons in 63 days to raise money for a charity for kids. It was pretty amazing to see that a body is capable of handling that kind of pounding for an extended period. It was amazing. He has already run 59 marathons with 4 more to go. WOW.

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deirdre • November 1, 2007 at 4:34 pm

I’ve never posted before, but love your blog and find it very inspiring. I’m a marathoner (six down) but out on maternity leave, and I found the NOVA episode to be great! I too got teary-eyed at the end… darn that Betsey! Can’t wait to start pounding the pavement again! And then I watched the Frontline special about undertaking… so sad. Pregnant women should not watch it. Anyway, just want to say you can totally do a marathon and you’re going to love the half! I was on the heavy side a few years back, lost a few lbs. with Weight Watchers and then began to train for marathons (I was always into sports but found that losing weight made them oh so much easier). You are truly an amazing person and Ive enjoyed your blog so much… congratulations on the book, the running, and all else! Run Pasta Queen, run!

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Lora • November 1, 2007 at 4:59 pm

I’ll have to check out the special on another day. Of course, with Comcast On-Demand they might have it available.

Sorry, I wound up watching Ghost Hunters on the Sci-Fi channel. They had a live broadcast (6 hours) at this Waverly Hills Hospital in Lousville, KY. I’m sure you’ve heard all the ghost stories when you were a kid!

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PunxyLola • November 1, 2007 at 5:03 pm

You are such a good writer! I laughed, I cried, I vowed to abstain from Cheetos. Thanks for putting up links to such interesting sites: I never knew you could watch PBS documentaries online before reading your blog.

And the Tanita scale is rife with awesomnimity: I lovelovelove it!

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Mymsie • November 1, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Go Team Nova!

I didn’t know that HIIT burns more fat than LIAE – good to know.

P.S. I tagged you for a fun meme.

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AKS • November 1, 2007 at 5:29 pm

You had the same eyes back then too! Cute picture.

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Database Diva • November 1, 2007 at 6:38 pm

I didn’t see the program, and now I’m a little afraid that it won’t be as entertaining as your review! Thanks for the link, I’ll probably watch it later. I’ve also added your book to my Amazon wish list.

I completely agree with the post about the best exercise being the one you will do. There are many benefits from exercise beside weight loss, and just about any form of exercise is better than no exercise.

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Kyle • November 1, 2007 at 9:38 pm

WOAH! PBS is seriously the coolest! None of the big networks make their online shows available to people in other countries. But thanks to the awesomeness of PBS I’ll actually be able to watch this one. I’m excited to see the woman running with a UTI. Because when I had a UTI I bawled like a baby just walking from my car into the supermarket to buy 16 gallons of cranberry juice(works like a charm, btw). So I can’t even fathom running a marathon with a UTI, holy crap!!!

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K • November 2, 2007 at 5:43 am

It’s absolutely true about fitness not having much to do with levels of bodyfat (or appearance). Back when I was fairly new to all this, (I’d been doing light cardio and weight machines for a couple of months) I booked an in-depth fitness assessment at my gym, and the results were surprising.

I had 42% bodyfat, but my cardiovascular fitness was above average and my resting heart rate was in the “professional athlete” range (a big joke to anyone who knows me). That’s not to say I was incredibly fit, because my muscles still started to complain after about half an hour of cardio, but I was starting with an advantage.

That does sound like a really inspiring programme, although I do not want to hear any details about the bits of glass. Don’t you go treading on any!

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Lisa • November 2, 2007 at 12:31 pm

As a yoga teacher, I feel I must point out that like shrinks, diets, and Dairy Queen blizzards, yoga classes/teachers come in many flavors. Different ones will appeal to different people.

You may not have enjoyed your office yoga, but try a different class! Yoga’s physical and emotional benefits complement running & weight loss. Yoga helped me survive the stress of graduate school AND the rigors of triathlon training.

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s • November 2, 2007 at 1:35 pm

awww, you were such a sweet-looking kid!!

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Julia • November 2, 2007 at 7:52 pm

On your suggestion I went and saw the NOVA special.

The only thing that put me off was including Uta Pippig in the program. She was caught red handed for doping in the 90′s – and consequently barred from running.

Totally disappointing since she was a great athlete. Drugged, but great.

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RG • November 3, 2007 at 11:36 am

Thanks for posting about this show. I’m ambivalent about marathons. And marathons for charity. Like the comment that most of the fitness gains happened to being able to run 10 miles, I’m not sure what the point is. There are real journeys one can go on; learning a skill or a language or helping a child.

I’m also leery of the fat acceptance movement. VO2 max is not the only marker of fitness. It comes down to what you want out of fitness – heart capacity is a big one, but also bone mass, functional capacity, longevity risk are other measurements.

Finally, I think the biggest myth of all is that exercise can make you lose weight. Food intake is far and away the most important component of weight loss. Here’s one explanation of it:

http://skwigg.tripod.com/blog/index.blog/1760110/weight-loss-from-exercise-only/

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Leslie • November 5, 2007 at 12:11 pm

I’m so, so happy you had the link to watch it online. My hubby and I couldn’t find it (weird).

So proud of you signing up for your FIRST (not last) half-marathon. I’ve run two fulls and six halves this year 50 lbs. overweight, and I can attest it’s not about losing the weight but the amazing experiences training and at the race!

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Cheryl • November 7, 2007 at 8:43 pm

there is nothing funny about dead babies.

Those of us who are fans of dead baby jokes would disagree….

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Nathan • November 8, 2007 at 1:47 am

Marathons are not a great way to lose weight? wtf?

How can you possibly train for a marathon and not burn a massive # of calories every week?

PQ – I think it’s more about the quality of exercise. When you do something like high intensity interval training, your metabolic rate increases for a period after your exercise. That doesn’t happen with marathon training (as far as I know). I think runners also typically eat more to compensate for the exercise they’re doing, so you don’t get much of an added benefit for running a lot of miles because you’re going to have to eat more and more to avoid hitting “the wall.”

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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