With a grant of $500,000 from the Japanese government, the Sub2 consortium plans to begin sequencing the genomes of all the champions whose DNA Pitsiladis has collected.
“The ideal scenario is that most of them, or all of them, would have a number of gene variants that are very rare in the population,” Pitsiladis said, adding: “We know genes are important. We just don’t know which ones they are.”
He wants to begin developing individualized training regimens, based not simply on how a runner felt on a particular day but on the response of his biomarkers.
What genes switched on and off when he reached the level of exercise intensity known as lactate threshold? What genes signaled the production of red blood cells or flashed like a red light at a railroad crossing, signaling dehydration or muscle damage?
“We could say, ‘When training is going well, the biomarkers are in this zone, so let’s let him loose,’” Pitsiladis said. “Or when they deviate from that, damage could occur, so let’s hold him back or not take him to a race. No one is doing that.”
There is relatively meager funding for sports science, especially compared with biomedical research. Pitsiladis has sometimes spent his own money on his projects. At one point, his genetics research was sponsored by an Indian restaurant in Glasgow.
The personal cost was high, too. He was consumed by his work. His marriage crumbled. He divorced. He blamed himself.
“Imagine your wife if you’re remortgaging the house to pay for your work,” Pitsiladis said. “I think she’ll throw you out.”
But his former wife, Mariny Kapsali, and his two teenage children recently moved back in with him and are supportive of his Sub2 Project.
“I worry that Yannis set the bar too high,” said Kapsali, 48, a pharmacological researcher. “But no doesn’t mean no to him. If there is a problem, he won’t stop until he solves it.”
Scouting a Location
The Dead Sea held intriguing potential as a place to train and race. Highway 90 on the Israeli side is mostly flat. So are earthen dikes that cross the sea. The coolest times of day in January and February are near what Pitsiladis figured would be an ideal racing temperature — about 46 to 48 degrees — so runners would not be wasting energy to cool their bodies.
“It’s a bit warmer than we want,” Pitsiladis said, “but the added oxygen benefit from being below sea level might give us an advantage.”
Average healthy men, along with well-trained runners and cyclists, had improved their performances when given oxygen-enriched air in a laboratory. But no one had done field studies on the world’s fastest marathon runners, Pitsiladis said.
He speculated that the top Kenyans and Ethiopians, who dominate marathon running, might benefit doubly at the Dead Sea. They have greater oxygen-carrying capacity from living and training at altitude, and they would have more oxygen to breathe below sea level. They could stress muscles in a way that would not be possible at higher altitudes and would presumably be able to run faster while perceiving less exertion.
The runners also might be able to correct a condition observed in some highly trained athletes known as exercise-induced arterial hypoxemia. Top marathoners have such vast cardiac output — they are able to circulate their blood seven or eight times a minute through the lungs, Pitsiladis said — that while running at top speeds at or near sea level, some have experienced a decrease in oxygen saturation in their red blood cells.
“Not all elite athletes get that,” Pitsiladis said, “but some do. Typically it’s the better ones.”
He compared the hypoxemia to a bus traveling so fast that passengers did not have time to climb aboard and fill all the seats.
“This place may really help correct that,” he said, “because there is more oxygen coming in.”