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Running Science: Human Guinea Pigs At The Western States 100

The Western States 100 provides the perfect opportunity to research the affects of ultrarunning on the body, reports Allison Pattillo.

The Western States Research Program sets the standard for ultrarunning research.

Running ultra-distance races can provide a window into one’s psyche and fortitude. But mental clarity and personal accomplishment come at the price of pushing bodies into the realm of the physical unknown. Even for those who have previously covered 50, 100 or more miles, every race is unique. Temperature, hydration, fueling, fatigue and hour-after-hour of running take a toll, and ultrarunners are largely their own test subjects when it comes to determining what their bodies can handle.

Dr. Martin Hoffman, Western States Endurance Run (WSER) Research Director and a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of California-Davis, saw the research potential when he first went to WSER.

“I made a proposal to the Western States Board to establish a research program in 2005,” Hoffman says. “It became an actual program in 2006 and WSER research now accounts for more than 50 percent of all research published regarding the health effects of running ultra distances.”

The Western States Research Program operates to provide high quality, publishable research, suggest areas of study and also has funding opportunities, with $70,000 of research being funded to date. This year’s Western States 100 from Squaw Valley, Calif., to Auburn, Calif., gets under way in the early morning hours of June 28. Seven research projects will be conducted on willing athletes during this year’s event.

Runners (a.k.a. roughly 350 incredibly fit potential test subjects) are briefed on the studies before the race and decide whether or not they want to participate. Some programs are rather simple, requiring nothing more than completing pre- and post-race questionnaires, while others entail on-course data collection and monitoring. According to Hoffman, most racers are interested and willing to participate. But he also stresses that research programs should not impact the race.

“The race has a research program, it isn’t a research program with a race,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman, who has four WSER finishes under his belt, spends race week overseeing the research projects. This year also marks the first time for the Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports conference organized by Hoffman.

“Our ultra-endurance research work has evolved to the point where it was quite easy to put together two full days of talks,” Hoffman says of the conference, which has more than 100 attendees from three countries.

Hoffman’s hope with the WSER studies is that they will provide information to help to save lives. He feels the most important discovery so far has been what researchers have learned about exercise-associated hyponatremia (low blood sodium). A runner at WSER in 2013 had a hyponatremic seizure, but research from previous years provided the medical team with the knowledge needed to identify the cause and provide treatment.

Research topics for this year’s race include psychological predictors of performance; incidence and severity of gastrointestinal distress during a 100-mile event relative to hydration, core temperature and endotoxemia; the impact of training longevity, gender and age on the 12-lead ECG (heart health) of ultra-endurance athletes; heart health and cardiac effects of completing a 100-miler; heart electrical activity during an ultra-endurance event; cause of vision loss during an ultramarathon; and the frequency and causes of GI symptoms.

Be sure to watch the 2014 Western States 100 LIVE STREAM on UltraSportsLive.TV on June 28, beginning at 5 AM PST.