Balancing Work and Training for a Marathon

I knew things weren’t going well when I rounded a bend on Ocean Parkway, a highway that slices through the eastern neighborhoods of Brooklyn on its way to Coney Island. On that morning in May, Ocean Parkway was packed with thousands of runners, all car traffic shut down for the Brooklyn Half Marathon.

Guess what else was shutting down? Me. I’d reached mile eight and things just weren’t feeling great. My energy was fine, and this would be my third half-marathon (not to mention a full marathon several years ago) so I was far from unfamiliar with the pace, but my legs were sending me a message: “We’re not going any further.” After trying unsuccessfully to slow down and see if that felt any better, I staggered off the course shortly before the nine-mile mark. Even if I tried to walk, I wasn’t going to make it in one piece.

It’s tough admitting to yourself that you can’t do something. It’s tougher when you realize you can’t do something because you screwed it up with poor planning. Every other time I’d trained for a half marathon, I’d gotten in at least one training run that was ten or eleven miles long. This time, I’d capped them at eight. I don’t think it was a coincidence that eight miles in was when my legs started to fail.

I think it’s extremely important not just to be physically active through the means of your choosing, but to have a professional life where this is valued, too. And I’m lucky there. My company’s CEO is a marathoner and about a quarter of our New York office plays in a rugby league. Physical activity is something the whole company values. Yet you can work for the cushiest of Silicon Valley giants with their persistent work-life-balance drumbeat and still find that you’re having issues staying in shape.

And I was having issues — my time management had been incredibly poor. I’ve been traveling a lot for work, and working longer and more hours than in my previous gig as a freelance consultant, but that doesn’t have to be an excuse for getting out of shape or failing to tackle long-distance racing goals. Here’s what I’ve taken to heart.

1. Work out at the time that’s best for you — and schedule it at the start of each week. I used to work at Google, where the company’s shared calendars were sacred -- “Find some available time for that meeting, my cal is up to date” -- and one of the things that I was initially shocked and impressed by was the fact that employees would carve out 90-minute blocks of time and mark them on their calendar as “Gym.” Unless it was an emergency, you did not mess with scheduling during this time.

There are some bosses out there who will say, “Work out before work,” or “work out after work,” and ban lunch-break or midafternoon workouts even for employees who are willing to show up earlier or stay later to accommodate them. I don’t think many of them realize the extent to which they may be killing employee productivity; getting in a workout is an incredible energy boost that can turn around the 2PM doldrums entirely. The fact of the matter is, some people work out more effectively at different times of the day, and I’d wager that certain exercises are more effective and enjoyable at different times as well. With a few exceptions (e.g. where there are extremely clear time constraints to the workday involved). Being a boss who says you support healthy, fit employees and then tells everyone that 5:30 AM to 8 AM is their only window for workouts is counterproductive, if not hypocritical.

2. When you’re traveling, figure out your workout game plan before you leave. When I’m going to a sprawling, conference-meets-massive-party event like SXSW or Cannes Lions, I realize that working out is going to be tough because attendance (especially if you run events like I do) dictates staying out extremely late even if you’re not throwing back the whiskey. So when one of these is involved, I typically accept that I won’t be able to fit in hour-long runs and try to do some basic core work in my hotel room when I get a minute. I also tend to note that perhaps it’s not worth enrolling in a half-marathon that’s a week after one of these exhausting work events. And that’s OK. There are plenty of other races on the calendar.

For more standard business trips, I either call ahead to find out about the equipment in the hotel gym, or I do a quick online search for running paths near the hotel in question. No matter how basic the research is, doing some planning makes me way more likely to work out.

3. Be open about fitness with your co-workers and bosses. You might think it amounts to humbebragging if you mention at the office that you’re training for a marathon, especially if you work in an office where there are few other amateur athletes, but think of it as a kind of self-preservation tactic. If it’s down to the decision between you and one other employee to take on a big weekend project, it may help if your co-workers have been aware for weeks that you’re training for a marathon and that you have to get in your 18-mile training run this weekend.

Talking about workout goals and other adventures in physical fitness at the office also might help you stick to your goals better — if 10 people in your office know you’re training for it, after all, that might be what pushes you over the edge when you’re about to hit a wall. In my case, it didn’t this time, but we all have bad days. I’m hoping next time it may help me with momentum.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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