Monday, March 14, 2011

Running on the Moon

The following is the full text of an article I wrote on the Alter G Treadmill for the Charlotte Running Club newsletter.

Spring in Charlotte. It's 65 degrees on a Sunday morning. The sweat on the brow of your running partners has not even had the chance to dry following their two hour leisurely run through the trails. No doubt they talked about everything from who's dating who to the controversy over teacher unions. You, on the other hand, were not there. You were looking for alternate ways to pass the time so routinely filled by the long run. An hour long pool run is planned for later today. You'll follow it with 45 minutes on the bike. If you're lucky, someone will stop by and chat with you for five minutes before moving on to the next machine. Worst case scenario, you count the lights on the cieling one more time -- just in case they added one -- or watch golf on TV. This is the lonliness of the injured long distance runner.

As competitve or recreational harriers, we all have or someday will, live this reality. Whether, it's days, weeks or months, nothing about it is fun. It's an exercise in mental tenacity. Running is our outlet right? How do we get our endorphin fix?

I have been on the injured reserve on and off for the better part of four months. First, with a stress fracture in my ankle and a little later with an acute strain of one of the muscles in my back. If there is an exercise to be done that increases my heart rate or fitness level and does not involve pounding on the aformentioned body parts, I have done it. So, when Queens University Cross Country/Track and Field Coach and American Distance Project Coach Scott Simmons emailed the Charlotte Running Club to tell us a public use anti-gravity treadmill was now available at the Charlotte Running Company, I could hardly wait to get in touch with him.

Through a partnership with Scott Dvorak, owner of the Charlotte Running Company Dilworth location, Simmons brought the $30,000 machine to Charlotte. According to Dvorak, his store is now the only running store in the United States to offer the relatively new technology to its customers.

What is it? Why is it so expensive? Simmons explains it as the opposite of the workout equipment you would find at the International Space Station. While treadmills for astronauts add gravity to allow those in space to maintain bone density, the anti-gravity treadmill, known properly as the Alter G, does the opposite. A runner can reduce their body weight by up to 80%. For example, a 100 pound runner can simulate the impact of a 20 pound runner. This is achieved by using a pressure controlled chamber from the waist down that gently lifts the runner. Currently, Alter-Gs are found at the training compounds of some of the best distance programs in the country. U.S. Olympian Kara Goucher and Marathon World Record holder Paula Radcliffe famously used the treadmills to stay in shape during their pregnancies. Thanks to fundraising, there is also an Alter G on the campus of Queens University.

But Simmons stresses that this endeavor is separate from his work at Queens. He hopes it will be a selling point for competitive runners to choose Charlotte as their training ground. Simmons, who has coached four U.S. Olympic Trials qualifiers and Fernando Cabada to the American 25K record, aknowleges that Charlotte is not as attractive as distance hot spots like Flagstaff, Boulder and Eugene and he says the Alter G is one step toward enhancing the Queen City's profile.

For Dvorak, the investment is worth the potential pay off. "Honestly, when Scott Simmons came to me and asked me if I was interested in partnering my immediate reaction was 'why not?,' Dvorak says, "It's something that's innovative, and it definitely has a coolness factor." Both Dvork and Simmons want to shake the perception that this machine is simply a tool for elites. "I think it could potentially be for anyone," Dvorak, himself an Olympic trails qualifier in the 5K, says. "If someone has invested a lot of time and effort in training for a marathon, and they get a small injury or strain, the Alter-G could potentially allow them to train through the injury without too much loss of fitness."

Petra Simmons, Scott's wife and an Olympic hopeful agrees. "You get aches and pains when you run at a certain level and it doesn't have to be fast or slow," she says. "It's just whatever you can handle." Mrs. Simmons, who is also a runner and staff member at the American Distance project says the Alter G is not just for injured runners. She uses it as a preventative tool. Training to qualify for the Half Marathon World Championships, Simmons says she does a lot of her tempo runs and faster long runs on the Alter G to minimize the pounding on her body. "I don't take too much weight off, maybe 10 pounds, and I am doing things I was doing ten years ago," says Simmons, 37.

Intrigued by what I had seen and heard, I slipped into the special shorts you have to wear before zipping into the pressurized chamber. They're tight and a bit constricting especially for men, which I can see getting a bit irritating on longer runs. However, I am somewhere between a small and a medium and the small size may have been a bit too snug on me. The machine calibrated my weight and once it had locked in, I was free to begin running. I started by reducing my 150 pound weight by about 20 percent. Since my injury is muscular, I thought the more weight off, the better. By a quarter mile into my run, I had reduced myself to about 30 pounds. At first, you feel like you are going to fall, but you quickly become used to the unnatural feeling of weightlessness. A little more than 2 miles, and I was done. Two miles at just below 7:00 pace left me sweaty and feeling like I had actually just done something.

My only reservation was that I sensed my gait had been altered. Petra Simmons confirmed my suspicion. She recommends watching your form, or having someone watch your form for you when you first run on the Alter G. She warns that runners have a tendency to change it up if they are not paying attention.

With $30,000 spent on the equipment, Simmons hopes to make the investment back and then raise money for his American Distance Project, a non-profit. Runners will be charged $70 for an individual session (1 hour) and $175 for a monthly pass (1 hour a day). Sessions can be booked online and are available currently during store hours (M-F 10am-7pm, Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun 1pm-5pm). Runners can use the shorts provided by the store, but are encouraged to buy their own for $75.

Realistically, it is a lot of money for the casual runner to spend, and Dvorak doesn't think it will mean big sales for merchandise in his store. But, that's not the point. "I don't expect it to be a huge draw to the store, but it could certainly help create some buzz," Dvorak says. "I have tried it briefly, and I'm intrigued. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."

The Charlotte Running Club plans to have an informational night and session with the Alter G. Stay tuned for details!

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