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In this issue, we have a feature that we think is quite important, because we’re reporting a justified concern about the overconsumption of caffeine before and during long-distance runs, like half-marathons and marathons. It’s been known for a long time that caffeine can help with exercise in moderate amounts. It’s also well studied that caffeine can have an adverse effect when taken in large quantities, exercise or no.
But the point at which caffeine could cause an otherwise healthy, typically young or middle-aged runner with no history of heart disease to have a cardiac event, or even die from a heart attack, has come into clearer focus in recent years. The science is out there, but education of runners and race organizations hasn’t yet caught up, especially in terms of the marketing of sports gels and foods, and distribution of free products at events. We believe this should and will change, and we hope to be part of the catalyst.
Jen A. Miller is a long-time long-distance runner and a regular contributor to The Magazine, and she examines this subject in “Good to the Last Drop” at great length. Let us be clear: Jen has found zero indication of any effort by the manufacturers of products that contain caffeine to encourage runners to ingest unhealthy total doses. Rather, it’s a confluence of several different exercise and “food” trends that are running counter to an increased body of clinically derived medical knowledge.
Jen found an intersection in which the runners, the exercise-food makers, those who put together long-distance road events, and doctors who study sports medicine and the heart haven’t yet had all the lines drawn between them. That’s what she tries to do in this article.
Fundamentally, runners (and other amateur and professional athletes) are not yet adequately educated about what medical science has determined is a maximum quantity of caffeine to ingest for continuous, strenuous activities. That needs to change.
If you want to join a conversation on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere and share your experiences, use #lastdrop as the hashtag.
Jen has been pursuing this story for a while, and she explains why:
I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011 when two men died. The full marathoner dropped right behind my now ex-boyfriend. Shortly after that, I found the guidelines published in 2010 by the International Marathon Medical Directors Association (MMDA), and started pitching this story. No publication bit, saying there was not enough evidence to make a clear enough link. Two years and several studies later, the picture is becoming much sharper.
I pushed hard for this story, and am writing it now because I’m tired of hearing about dead runners, and what people are consuming scares me — and that was before we did the survey. [See article for details on the survey.] I see it every time I line up for a long race: runners have packs and packs of these gels strapped to their waists. These aren’t all middle-aged guys dying; it’s young people: men and women in their 20s. The half-marathoner who died in Philadelphia was a college student at Penn.
There are all these dust motes in the air about why caffeine might cause finish-line heart-attack deaths, but a study that tracks the habits of large numbers of runners and looks at short-term and long-term health outcomes has not been conducted. I’m writing this story — and putting all these pieces together — so someone will do it, and reduce the risk that people might die as a result of not understanding the proper limits of caffeine.
Every time I know a big race is happening, I brace myself to get the call that someone has died. It’s pointless and can be easily avoided once the runners and manufacturers start treating caffeine like the drug it is.
Before I ran my last marathon, my dad said “If you die, I’m the one who has to bury you.” He’s not wrong to worry about that if I was using this drug the wrong way.
My thanks to Venkat Balasubramani, a Seattle attorney specializing in Internet issues who you can find on Twitter @Vbalasubramani, for his sane counsel in preparing this article.
Cover photo by Lora Shinn from her article.
Also in this issue
Rusty Foster examines the emergence of ontology in his own household in “Existence Is Tricky.” Scratch the surface of any question, and you may tumble down the rabbit hole forever. Rusty notes that after writing and revising the draft of this article, he carried out internal factchecking in his household about the anecdote with his daughter, Ellie, that opens the essay:
There is intra-family dispute about who actually had this conversation with Ellie. My wife insists it was her, I remember clearly that it was me. I definitely wrote the rule, because it was in my handwriting, but my wife says I wrote it when she told me about the question.
Ellie only remembers us telling her the story, so she has two distinct and incompatible memories of the event — one where she asks me, and one where she asks her mother. In an ontological twist, it appears to be impossible to determine what actually happened at this point.
Also in this issue, we tell you more about The Magazine: The Book, our in-progress effort to crowdfund a book drawn from the most evocative stories of our first year of publication. Back the project to get a copy of the ebook edition or the hardcover print version. Both will be quite wonderful.
Kyle Chayka went out to the desert outside Phoenix to visit a utopia. The architecture of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti is a true example of “If You Build It,” they will come. Over decades, thousands of people contributed to the effort to build a new way of living. Construction continues after his death this last April at 93.
What are the ethics of wiring a bug to do your bidding? The RoboRoach is a lesson in bug neurology, an ethical conundrum, a technological advance, and a gift appropriate for a science-oriented child, all in one reviled cockroach. David Erik Nelson tries to pick apart these complications in “Bug Testing,” while he also explains the technological advances that made a roach-sized controller possible.
The video-game industry’s history hasn’t yet been put in amber. While there are academic collections related to gaming and a handful of small museums, a Seattle man with an enormous personal collection of vintage gear, software, and more dreams of a real institution in “Kill Screen.” Lora Shinn shows us his current museum, about to lose its temporary space for many months, and lets us see where he wants to climb.
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Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, and contributes reguarly to the Economist, Boing Boing, TidBITS, and Macworld. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.