Health Sciences Director Follows Ultra Endurance Athlete for Research

By Colby Gallagher

Published on January 28, 2020

To highlight the importance of field research in exercise physiology, Patrick Davitt, PhD, CSCS, FACS, director of USciences Health Science Program and assistant professor of kinesiology, vlogged his case study of an ultra-endurance athlete during the Leadville Race Series Trail 100 mile race.

Dr. Davitt flew to Colorado ahead of the event to meet with Donald Byfield, a runner originally from the Bahamas, who would be attempting to complete the 100-mile race in the cutoff time of 30 hours all while being studied for research.

“Being out in the field, there’s just nothing like it, you just get so excited when you’re collecting data on subjects,” said Dr. Davitt. “Most of what a lot of researchers do, especially in the health and fitness world, is collect data within the laboratory.”

Leadville Though that data is helpful, he said it’s also extremely controlled, not accounting for changes in temperature, humidity, time of day, weather conditions, elevation, and other unforeseen factors.

The Leadville 100 race was broken up into eight segments with aid stations in between where Dr. Davitt tested Byfield’s blood sugar, took urine samples (for hydration), collected body weight and made notes about his mental state and exertion levels. Byfield readily agreed to be the test subject and said the race itself was more of a psychological test and overcoming the obstacle of self-doubt.

“I definitely think the research will help, whether it’s a company or college, to gather more of that information which will help people out,” said Byfield.

Many of the videos filmed by Dr. Davitt were done before the actual race, underscoring his common lesson to students that preparation is key.

Ahead of the big day, Byfield met with his team to fully understand what was required of him at each station and to set a pace so he would complete the 100 miles in the allotted time. Runners who reach the finish before the cutoff receive a coveted belt buckle.

Race PreparationDuring the first few stations, Byfield checked in with Dr. Davitt and his team without issues, but that changed before mile 50.

“Physically my body’s starting to fight back,” said Byfield around 36.7 miles in. “Mentally I’m here.”

Shortly after that, Byfield took off on the most difficult portion of the race where he was required to run about 13 miles up over the highest elevation climb of the race at Hope Pass, pick up a headlamp around mile 50 and run 13 miles back over Hope Pass to the next station crew members are allowed at Twin Lakes. That’s when the case study took a turn.

“It’s now six and a half hours later, we had a pacer at the 50-mile spot who took the shuttle back because it was indicated that our runner never made it to the 50 mile,” said Davitt. “He did check in at the 44 mile, we had his live tracking, but then it stopped tracking him at that point so we’re trying to see if anyone knows where he’s at. We’re just waiting, I hope he’s alright.”

Hours later and past sunset, Dr. Davitt and the team still hadn’t heard from Byfield, making them even more concerned. When they finally made contact with him, the team learned Byfield and the crew member never met up to pass off a headlamp, although Byfield did cross the 50-mile mark, causing him to run back over Hope pass (the highest peak of the race) in the dark. He was ultimately disqualified just over 62 miles into the race. He was 45 minutes over the checkpoint time of 10 p.m.Leadville Course

“When you’re doing research, especially case studies, you get invested in the research subjects, you get to know them because you’re spending quite a significant amount of time with them,” said Dr. Davitt. “It’s not just a race, they understand that there’s data collection going on. Unfortunate ending for our research subject.”

“I made it over the peak twice, which was very challenging for me,” said Byfield. “I didn’t finish, but I think that was more success for me, having to make it over a peak of 12,600 feet.”

ByfieldThough they were unable to complete a study of the 100-mile race, Dr. Davitt said he still got valuable data. He said the unexpected turn was a great example to show students what can happen in the field despite all the preparation.

“It’s a learning experience; I’ll write down everything that went right, write down things that went wrong and look forward to the next one,” he said.

Dr. Davitt plans to do another case study on an ultra-endurance athlete next year and hopes to bring a student to firsthand teach them about case studies and field research.

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