Running Man

Anthropology professor runs across the US to raise health awareness

Bryce Carlson
Courtesy of Run Across USA

When Bryce Carlson 11PhD took on the extraordinary challenge of running a marathon a day, over the course of 140 days, as part of Race Across USA, he had bigger goals in mind than fitness.

The Purdue University assistant professor of anthropology prepared for months in advance—not only to train, but also to organize colleagues from a range of institutions in seven targeted research projects. Compiling information from runners along the journey, the researchers are studying a range of topics related to extreme exercise and health.

Carlson’s research at Purdue focuses on how, evolutionarily, humans have used food as a means of relationship with the environment. “With this project, I was looking at how the runners used food to buffer the stress of running and to facilitate biological adaptation to such extreme physical challenges,” he explains. 

Personally, Carlson viewed the race as a way to challenge himself mentally and physically while supporting the race’s larger mission of inspiring a healthier generation.

Although he trained for fifteen months leading up to the race—running from fifty to a hundred miles per week—he says the cumulative experience of a lifetime of running was a more important factor for him.

“It is not important to be in the best shape of your life at the starting line. It is knowing how to adapt on the fly,” he says.

And while he consumed mostly quality sources of nutrients, carbohydrates, and protein, Carlson also developed a new appreciation for something he’d previously considered a dietary evil—fast food.

“Being a professional who studies humans’ relationship with food, it was easy to blame fast food for our nutritional ills,” Carlson says. “But for us as runners, [fast food] was a godsend at various parts of the journey. Many days we were exhausted; we wanted and needed food right away, and there was a McDonald’s.”

The experience also changed Carlson’s broader views.

“One of the enduring lessons I learned is that so much of our experience in life is about our perspective. One day you might wake up and look at the road ahead as vast and beautiful and have a really positive experience. The next day, you could look across the same space and see it as desolate and lonely and boring. The view was the same, but the way you perceived it was totally different. From that point forward, I made an effort to go into each day with a positive attitude, and every day became so much more enjoyable.”

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