Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympic moment: watching the women's marathon

The last time I remember being this transfixed with the Olympics, it was 1984, the summer of Mary Lou Retton. '88, '92, '96, '00 (where were these even held?), and '04? Did not watch, except for the Atlanta bombing news from the 1996 Olympics. Well, it's 24 years post-Mary Lou and here I am barely moved from my couch over the past 14 days. Maybe its just clever marketing from NBC, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I am in full blown Olympic fever.

Lolo Jones, Nastia Lukein, Michael Phelps (of course!), synchronized diving, beach volleyball... This has become all I think about. But, it was watching one event that I had what I consider to be my own "Olympic moment". Here's what happened when I watched the women's marathon, run last week.

Have ou ever watched a 26-mile run in real time? I did last week as I lay in bed, my 2-year sleeping beside me. I thought for sure NBC would show the beginning of the race and then cut to Dalhouser and the Professor, Michael Phelps, Dana Torres, or some other more TV-friendly events. Except NBC didn't. I watched the beginning in Tiannemen Square. Saw the women start off in a tightly packed group, looking more like some kind of Shriner act than a group of determined racers. Off they ran, each with her two legs going and going. I could see the muscles ripple, but the faces were so relaxed. I could tell that for them, this was like breathing. And then an American was down! Gone! Just like that, a foot injury or cramp spelling disaster. She sat on the side of the road and cried. I don't think they ever interviewed her.

The women ran on, passing the Forbidden Palace and other landmarks. The announcers gave an informative travelogue about Beijing as the women ran relentlessly, on and on. A pretty British women was out in front for the first several miles. I don't remember her name, but the announcers didn't think very much of her chances. Paula Ratcliffe, the much beloved runner from the UK was a few paces behind the leader. I was told by the announcers that she had been sidelined by a leg fracture and not to expect much of her either -- she hadn't done much training. Still another woman, this one from Kenya, was near the front of the pack and even in the early miles, you could tell this runner was really pushing herself. The announcers thought it was an aberration for her because her marathon times were typically much slower. This bore itself out as she slipped from the front of the pack as the race went on.

At mile 11, the race suddenly shifted. This is the traditional breakout point in the race, I learned from the announcers. It's the point when the wheat begins to shift away from the shaft. And that's when I first saw her. The Romanian contestant came around from the right side of the pack and you could tell she was pushing it. She ran past Paula and the Kenyan, ran past the pretty blond Brit who had been in front for miles. And she kept running and running. It was bursting in action. As she began to hustle, other runners tried to follow suit, but following their own rules for the road, they let her get ahead. Probably figuring that this runner would eventually fall back -- the "chase pack" as they are called, would catch up.

I was amazed to see this physical principal in action. Here's a women doing something already that most of us can't (run a steady and relatively fast pace for 11 miles) and then she kicks it into even higher gear. And keeps it there. It was truly amazing.

The announcer seemed to realize that this Romanian might actually be the true leader and not just someone showboating for some international facetime. They must have had google in the control booth because we were soon informed that she had actually won a few notable races, and always did pretty well wherever she competed. And then they announced her age. 38. Wow, just wow.

It was then that I began to root for her. I watched her feet and studied her face for signs of fatigue. She just kept running steady, looking over her shoulder from time to time to see if anyone was close to being on her heels. I looked at her muscular frame and just kept thinking, She's 38! She's 38! Come on 38!

The Bird's Nest appeared on the horizon. She grabbed a water bottle and took a swig, stride unbroken. She started running faster, stronger. The chase pack started to tighten its grip. The two Chinese runners trying to close the gap.

She ran into the Bird's Nest and kicked it -- really kicked it -- out of nowhere around the track. She was about one lap around when the two Chinese runners entereded the track. And then it was over, she was across the finish line and wrapped in the Romanian flag, taking her victory lap. Paual Ratcliffe was soon in the Bird's Nest, painful to watch because she was obviously in pain. Paula didn't medal.

What I loved about the Romanian was that she kept running, even after she won. She ran around and around the track, Romanian flag cluctched in her hands, fanning out with the wind behind her. Romania. I'm sure not many people in the stands knew much about her home country or were from her home country to root her on. It didn't matter. She kept running, the biggest smile on her face. 38 and an Olympic gold medal champion. This transcends political boundary.

Nothing else I watched that night matched the intensity of the women's marathon. And this was in the middle of Phelps and gymnastics mania. The next morning I woke up and I think the effect of watching a 2-hour and 30-minute race in real time had a virtual reality effect on me. I rose actually thinking I could run a marathon. I went to the track for my usual morning walk and tried to tap into that. Could I run one lap? Two? Three?

Have to admit that I got a blister on my foot during lap one and couldn't run, but that feeling has stayed with me. I want to run. I want to run a marathon. I've watched one from beginning to end and know how it's done. Now I just have to do it!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Low levels of arsenic exposure linked to Type 2 diabetes

Here's something new on the Type 2 diabetes front. An analysis of government data is the first to link low-level arsenic exposure, possibly from drinking water, with Type 2 diabetes. It's a smallish study -- 788 adults' medical tests found a nearly fourfold increase in the risk of diabetes in people with low arsenic concentrations in their urine compared to people with even lower levels. Arsenic studies have been done outside the U.S. and have found this same connection to diabetes. Researchers from Johns Hopkins (authors of this study) are calling for a larger population study to see if results still bear out.

FYI (and something I didn't know before reading this article): Arsenic can get into drinking water naturally when minerals dissolve. It is also an industrial pollutant from coal burning and copper smelting. Utilities use filtration systems to get it out of drinking water. As filtration systems and/or wear out, more arsenic may enter drinking water.

I drink bottled spring water or sometimes water purified through reverse osmosis. I have no idea how much arsenic these contain. Off to google!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Estrogen Helps Women Battle, Prevent Schizophrenia

Australian researchers have revealed that estrogen (estradiol) helps women fight schizophrenia, according to a recently published study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The Australian study included 102 women who were all of child-bearing age. All of the women also suffered from schizophrenia, known for delusions, hallucinations, etc.. Half the women were given an estrogen patch, while the other half received a placebo. After 28-days passed, the women who received the estrogen patch showed greater improvement in their symptoms. On top of that, it is believed that the estrogen patch can stop the development of the disease as well.

More about the study here...

What's interesting to me about this discovery is how one single hormone can have such a profound impact on such a serious illness. Whether it's estrogen alone -- or changes in other hormone levels brought about by an increase in circulating estrogen -- this study brings to the forefront how important hormonal health is to maintaining good mental health. Too often, depression and other mental illnesses are talked about in terms of "brain chemistry". This term seems to obfuscate the hormonal connection -- making people think that somehow their brains are being run by a different set of principles from the rest of the body. Not true! Balanced hormone levels provide the foundation for good health -- mind, body, and soul.

I'm also wondering about the broader implications for this study. What if instead of applying an estrogen patch, women in the study had their diets changed to include soy, yam, and other estrogen containing foods? Would this work as well?