Last Friday, January 16th, a dozen runners set off on a 3,080-mile marathon that will take them approximately 4.5 months to complete. No one will be surprised to learn that the starting point for this extreme endeavor is California. The end point is Maryland.

What is surprising is the age range of the 9 men and 3 women participants, which ranges from 29-74 years old. Also interesting to note is the fact that two people are running barefoot, two in sandals and two are wearing kilts. One of the kilt-wearers, Rob Young, is in especially good shape for the 18-week marathon as he has spent the last 8 months running more than one marathon a day. (A marathon is 26.2 miles or 42 km).

Accompanying the runners are a group of scientists who will be using this living laboratory of ultra-endurance athletes to discover, among many other things, whether running marathons is actually good for you – or not. Running in the marathon and also directing the multi-disciplinary research project is Bryce Carlson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University (in West Lafayette, Indiana).

This Race Across USA will be calling attention to – and raising money for – the issue of childhood obesity, which has doubled in young children over the last three decades and quadrupled among teens according to the CDC. Results of the studies conducted on the marathoners will be used to demonstrate to more sedentary folks that even just breaking a sweat for 10-15 minutes – a few times a week – ‘through exercise that leaves you talking in broken sentences’ can maximize your heart health.

The multiple research teams from across the country will also be looking at how various functions of the body and mind respond to the challenges the runners will face, how the runners adapt to these responses, the role nutrition plays in fueling their running and recovery, and whether the runners’ use of technology helps reduce their levels of stress.

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