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1 – Before We Get Going

“Do you know we have endurance sports scientists here at the Charité? They work together with the NASA!” @ribetelena told me after I confided to her about my Ultramarathon idea. I shook my head in response. What would those scientists want with me? After all, I’m not going to the moon. I’m just going on a run. “They study the human body in extreme environments. One of them studies athletes who particpate in the Yukon Arctic Ultra.” (Just use Ecosia or Google or DuckDuckGo to search for “REI Yukon Arctic Ultra” for a summary of the study.)

A little later in the day, she sends me his email address. “Let me know what he says!”

“Your 1000km run is perfect for a Case Study!” Dr. Mathias Steinach exclaims when I meet him for lunch to explain my run idea to him. “It is? But… I’m a sample size of just ONE!” I reply, confused. My research isn’t rocket science like his is, but if I showed up with a sample size of one, my peers would chase me straight out the lab door. “Its perfect for a pilot study – and also, how often do you think I have someone wandering into my office to do something like this AND willing to collect data with me?!” – “…..not very often…?” I try. “Basically never,” he answers with a grin. “Let’s do this!”

And that’s how I got an endurance sports physiologist on my running team.

Know that feeling when your lungs are about to burst? When it feels like there’s not enough oxygen in the universe to save your lungs from exploding? If the answer is yes, the congratulations! You’ve reached your personal VO2Max. That’s the maximum amount of oxygen your body can metabolize (per kg/per min). This is your absolute physical endurance limit.

And before I leave for my run, Dr. Steinach made sure to get me there. He asks me to come to his lab before my run.

First, he takes a few blood samples, and then we begin to study my body in general. I’m curious to see how I score. The answer: mostly very average.
Weight: average (53.9kg)
Size: average (1.64m – 2cm taller than last time I measured)
Body Fat: slightly below average (16%)
Resting heart rate: ~55bpm.
I was half asleep when the resting heart rate was measured, so don’t hold me to the number.

“Alright, and now that you’ve rested, let’s get to the hard part of the day: the VO2 max measurement.”

“Alright, we’re going to use the Bruce protocol. This one has you running at increasing pace, and an increasing incline. When you say stop, it’s over. That’s your VO2 Max.” I nod nervously.

(If you want to read more about it, check out the Wikipedia article on the Bruce Protocol: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_protocol)

The first pace is admittedly a bit boring. “I could do this for days,” I think, feeling smug. Three minutes later, the next phase hits. I’m still walking, but by phase 3, I’m running at 5.5km/hr and at a 14%incline. “This is fine,” I think. Stage 4 and 5 breeze by. “The Bruce protocol normally ends at stage 7,” Dr. Steinach had told me. “But we get professional athletes in here, that we’ve had to add two more stages to our version of the protocol.” Alright. Okay. I’m going to make it to at least stage 6 (8.9km/hr at a 20% incline). Stage 6 feels like active dying. I keep changing my running style to try to contain energy, shifting from strong, energetic pump of the legs to a more one where I kick my legs out, staying closer to the ground and activating my calves.

It’s not helping. Stage 6 is Death.

“Come ON!” I latch onto the front bars, trying to steady my upper body. “Only 30 more seconds, and it’s off to stage 7!” I am barreling towards the center of the pain cave.

Time won’t pass quickly enough.

Then stage 7 hits.

And nearly sends me flying off the treadmill. 9.7km/hr at a 22% incline. But I hold on for 30 more seconds. Dr. Steinach’s hand has been hovering over the EMERGENCY STOP button for nearly a minute now. “STOP!” I squeak. The treadmill lurches to a halt.

“Very well done!” He looks over at his computer screen. “Single peak VO2 max was at 58ml. But the VO2 Max is measured over the average of a 30sec period so that’s….”
He gives me a thumbs-up: “Your VO2Max is 50, great job!” He takes the mask off my face. I don’t think I’ve ever been this sweaty in my life. “Is that good?” I ask. “For women, the VO2 Max is normally around 25-40ml. So yes, that’s good!” He winks at me. “Let’s see what your score will be when you come back.

Oh gods.

I have to do this all over again – AFTER the run.

If you’d like to see the actual video footage of me running on the Treadmill of Doom, check it out here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CD3FN1fjMB6/