Living To Run: An Athlete’s Endless Craving

A good morning for Michael Spinner begins with a banana for breakfast and an 8-mile run along Manhattan’s West Side Highway. He arrives at work by 10 a.m., radiating with the remaining adrenaline from his workout, greeting every gym member and employee with an upbeat “Hey, how’s it goin’?”

Lately, however, the endorphin-inspired smile has been missing as he offers lackluster hellos to colleagues at New York Sports Clubs. Nursing a new groin muscle injury, he’s had to give up his morning run, and he fails to hide his agitation with the reality that his body will not always allow him to do what he loves most in life.

Since discovering his passion for long-distance running less than 10 years ago, Spinner has competed in 76 half-marathons, 24 marathons and one 60-kilometer ultra-marathon. He pushes his body, catering to an insatiable running appetite, at a hefty physical price: three severe cases of tendinitis, multiple stress fractures, and arthritis in every toe, to name a few. As an experienced exercise physiologist, personal trainer and fitness professional, Spinner, 27, understands the human body’s functions down to the molecular level. Nonetheless, he pushes past the pain to set the bar just a little bit higher, to achieve his endorphin high, to fuel his addiction.

Spinner’s hypercompetitive nature is belied by his relaxed blue eyes and spiked golden-brown hair. Clad in black sweatpants, a fitness club polo shirt and neon Nike cross-training sneakers, he has an unassuming presence at the gym where he works. Mario Guerrero, an exercise physiology student and personal trainer, is Spinner’s colleague as well as his friend. “We always talk about running,” he says, “mainly about ways that I can improve my running and ways that he can avoid or treat injuries caused by his training regimen.”

Guerrero notices and voices the both the positive and negative aspects of Spinner’s running habit. “The best part is that he is very passionate about it and is able to back his methods up,” Guerro says. “But the worst part is that, like every other trainer at one point in his life, he has gotten injured due to lack of recovery and understanding that sometimes working harder is not smarter.” 

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Courtesy of Michael SpinnerGrowing up in Williston Park on Long Island, N.Y., Spinner was quite the athletic and competitive kid. He was determined to beat his younger sister Stacey in every game they ever played together, and he took pride in schooling his father in one-on-one driveway basketball once he shed his baby fat and hit his teenage growth spurt. He sported a jersey year round during his high school days. Football, basketball, baseball and tennis channeled his unbridled drive to win.

When he moved on to the University of Arizona in Tucson, running filled the void that high-school team sports left behind. When he wasn’t studying exercise physiology, he was sweating it out on the track turf to stay in shape and avoid the “freshman 15.” His beginnings were far from marathon mileage. “Oh my God, I started out with one mile, not fast at all, never timed or anything,” said Spinner. But with each week, he lengthened his running workouts by a few minutes, inching towards his first marathon during his junior year.

He only had two goals: finish the race, and run the entire time. Spinner completed the 2006 Tucson Marathon, his first stab at 26.2 miles, with a commendable 8-minute-per-mile pace. The addiction took root as he weaved through his familiar college town streets. “Crossing that finish line was one of the most rewarding things. I went home and immediately looked online for my next one,” said Spinner.

Spinner ran five marathons during his senior year, five marathons in the year following graduation, and his ultra-marathon in 2010. After three intense months of self-programmed training, he joined hundreds of likeminded running fanatics in New York city five days before Thanksgiving in the Knickerbocker 60K. “The race itself was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Spinner. “It took me five hours and 45 minutes. I crawled to the finish line literally on my knees, where I stood up to walk over it. I was in excruciating pain, I had tears in my eyes, but I had never felt more accomplished.”

Bedridden from the pain and unable to go to work the following day, he continued to dream about his future running aspirations. “My ultimate goal is to do the Western States 100-Mile Race. It’s like the Super Bowl of ultra-running.”

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By the time he reached ultra-marathon mileage, Spinner had already established a pattern of risk taking with his long-distance running. For three weeks in the summer of 2008, Spinner joined elite African marathoners—winners of top races like Boston and New York City—in living the “Kenyan lifestyle” and running constantly as a means of transportation. He awoke at sunrise on his first morning in Nairobi to go for an “easy” 10-kilometer group jog, running along the rural dirt roads on the outskirts of the city. He trotted in the middle of the pack of a dozen men led by the instructors at a 7-minute-per-mile pace in the 90-degree June heat. Spinner stopped abruptly, creating a domino effect behind him, as he noticed a group of wild elephants less than 20 feet away from their path. “The leaders’ response was, ‘Don’t worry about it. Keep going, follow us, and they will leave you alone,’” said Spinner. “They were so close I could touch them, which scared me to death. But it was like that every morning, and it ended up being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

However, the experience came with its consequences. His fussy eating habits and extensive training led to his loss of almost 15 pounds in those three weeks, and he almost passed out during the group’s 18-mile run. But these challenges felt manageable in comparison to his hospitalization for severe dehydration a year earlier. “It was really scary because I didn’t know what it was. I thought my kidneys were failing on me,” said Spinner. “My percent of bodyweight lost from dehydration was 5 percent; 7 percent is death.”

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Courtesy of Michael SpinnerSpinner’s genetic predisposition for his running addiction could likely be attributed to his grandfather, a New York native who ran the New York City Marathon five times. However, his grandfather disapproves of Spinner following in his footsteps. “He hates that I do it,” said Spinner. “We get along great, but I don’t talk to him at all about it because he doesn’t want to hear it. He is 87 now, and he’s had two hip replacements and one knee replacement. He is debilitated because of all of the running and jogging he did.”

Approaching his running regimen like one of his jobs, Spinner takes the sport quite seriously. He stretches daily, invests in massage therapy, and takes care of his body by maintaining a healthy diet. However, he has suffered from a plethora of overuse injuries, problems that cannot be fixed without simply running less. “They were all during my high mileage ultra-marathon training when I was running 100-mile weeks, so no wonder,” said Spinner. “It just caught up with me. The body is not really meant to do that.”

Upon hearing about the extent of Spinner’s running fixation, fitness expert and program director of Westchester-based Integrated Medical Fitness Rui Mateus said, “He will no doubt encounter multiple, repetitive trauma injuries—runners always do—that will inevitably lead to many different kinds of joint or connective-tissue issues, which will ultimately lead to either rheumatoid or osteo-arthritis. He will realize too late that it was not worth it.”

Needless to say, Spinner’s intense training regimen does not quite align with the functional fitness practices he preaches to his personal training clients. However, this contradiction does not surprise Jonathan Katz, Ph.D., an experienced sports psychologist and managing partner of High Performance Associates. “Just because somebody is knowledgeable in a certain area doesn’t mean they have an ability to manage that effectively in their own life,” said Dr. Katz. “These things are not driven by intellect and rationality. They are emotion and psychology-based.”

Spinner resembles an irritated caged animal when injuries prevent him from lacing up and pounding the pavement. The thought of not being able to run in the future terrifies him. “I would be miserable. I would go into a depression—you would probably have to hospitalize me,” said Spinner. “Just thinking about not being able to run in April when the weather is nice makes me miserable.”

While running consumes a significant amount of Spinner’s time and energy, he manages to make time for other aspects of life he enjoys. A self-proclaimed nerd, he enjoys reading anything relating to exercise physiology and hopes to begin working on his doctorate in the near future. He is also a sports fanatic; a portable white radio constantly tunes into CBS’s WFAN on his office desk at the gym, offering background noise of all the latest sports scores and news updates.

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In 2011 Spinner completed his fastest marathon in New York City with a time of two hours and 51 minutes. He celebrated his triumph by setting yet another goal: run New York City again as his 25th marathon milestone and shave two minutes off his record. He spent the following year training and exuded nothing but confidence as the early November race day approached. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy robbed him of the opportunity when officials cancelled the marathon due the widespread destruction caused by the storm.

Spinner continues to wait impatiently for his 25th marathon finish, especially during weeks like this one where the importance of rehabilitating another injury trumps achieving his morning runner’s high. Regardless, his passion will supersede any training challenge he faces, and he will be ready to run New York come Nov. 3. “I’m the most calm on race day,” said Spinner, “because I know I’ve already put in the hard work and I can just let lose because it’s finally here. It’s like, ‘Let’s go.’”

Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop

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