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Lactate Burn

Valentine Heart.  Work in progress by Lee Gass in orange honeycomb calcite.  Photo by Lee Gass.


 Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Olympics.

We got our first TV 58 years ago at Christmas, when I was 10 years old.  There was only one station, and I remember nothing at all of it before the 1952 winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, which was my introduction to competitive athletics.  I was totally absorbed, and surprised to discover that superb performances in individual events like skiing could bring me to tears. That realization influenced many aspects of my later life, including that biographies became my favourite reading material. 

When Stein Eriksen won the giant slalom in perfect 1950s style, instantly becoming my hero and athletic role model, I experienced a profound emotional response that remained with me for years.  Gradually, as I felt it again and again in different situations, I came to understand the strength of that response as relating more to high-level individual performance in anything than to athletics, per se.  But the Olympics definitely programmed me to respect world-class standards and reach for them.

In 1952, Nordic ski jumpers still dominated that event with their classic, arms-stretched-forward form, although some other teams were experimenting with the new arms-back position that still prevails, but with little success. The real ski-jumping hero, at least to my mind, was a man who did almost everything wrong.  (Less than 10 years later, I myself would closely follow his example until I gave up ski jumping a few days after I began it.)  His run down the approach started wrong and ended worse.  He jumped only after his skis had passed the lip, so he got little air time and little distance, and landed wrong, tumbling and sliding to an ignominious stop amid the shards of his broken equipment.  Immediately, he jumped to his feet and took a series of deep bows to the crowd and the TV cameras, and I laughed so hard that I cried again.

In college, I was good enough to train with the ski team, but not good enough to compete in any event.  As I hinted above, I was an awful ski jumper.  I had neither the strength nor the endurance to compete in cross-country, and though downhill was my favourite alpine event, I never once completed a downhill course with a clock on me.  Curiously, I always made it through the scariest, most dangerous portions of downhill courses, then fell just before the finish line.  Here is how I learned why I always fell.

The reason they kept me on the team at all had nothing to do with my skiing ability.  There were no video cameras back then and I was a pretty good substitute. I could watch a teammate come down a slalom course, for example, then replay the entire run for him:  “You came through the first gate perfectly, but were a bit low coming through the second.  Because of that, you lost time before the third gate and even more making that turn,….”  Serving as a human video camera was not hero’s work, but it kept me on the team for a while.

Several years later, one of my former teammates asked me to watch him come down a slalom course.  I finished my playback with “But why did you make that loud ‘Pahhh!’ sound every time you turned?”  “Oh, that.” he said, “That’s so I’ll remember to breathe.” 

All of a sudden I knew why I had always fallen near the bottom of downhill courses. The hairiest, scariest parts of courses, parts my teammates called interesting and talked about with pride and enthusiasm, were hell for me.  I got so scared I held my breath!  By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain I was out of breath, out of oxygen, and my legs burned so bad from lactic acid that they could no longer support me.  So I fell.

Lactate burn to the max.  The rest of this article is about lactate burn.  You know the feeling.  Your legs sting like fire to climb long flights of stairs or to do too many situps, too fast.

Nancy Martin had a brilliant idea when she was a student in a course I co-taught at UBC. She was a long-distance runner, and she wanted to understand something about running that she had wondered about for a long time.  On the average, runners run slower in longer races than they do in shorter ones.  Every kid knows that, of course, but Nancy wanted to understand it on a deeper level; how much slower did they run, and why?  She looked for a mathematical relationship between running speed and distance, hypothesizing that real, world-class runners’ speeds and distances would be described by a mathematical function called a power law. 

Using world record times for men and women at the various distances, Nancy’s analysis revealed three different power laws, one each for short, middle, and long distance races.  Three things are remarkable about this result. 

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