Greg Whyte makes jokes about ‘disturbed individuals’ whose sporting aspirations are at the ‘ludicrous end of the spectrum’; ‘nutters’ taking part in ultraendurance multi-day races across the Sahara Desert.
The celebrated sport and exercise scientist is concerned about the impact of endurance exercise on athletes’ hearts.
“My passion, tragically, is the death of young athletes,” he told a group of staff and students at the School of Sport and Exercise Science last month. But Professor Whyte (who ran the London Marathon dressed as a heart) has taken part in five London marathons, four ironman triathlons and swum the English Channel twice.
The Olympic pentathlete is currently Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University and Chair of the Scientific Committee for the 2012 Olympic Conference, London.
He was at UWA as a Raine Visiting Professor, hosted by Professor Danny Green, who also specialises in the impact of exercise on cardiac function.
As well as his highly-cited academic work and applied sport science roles, Professor Whyte has recently started working with non-athletes, to achieve the seemingly impossible.
He trains celebrities to swim and run to raise money for charity. They include the comedian David Walliams (Little Britain, pictured right) whom he trained to swim the English Channel; a group of nine celebrities who climbed mount Kilimanjaro last year; and 47-year-old comedian Eddie Izzard (Death Star Canteen), who he trained to run 43 marathons in 51 days.
So why does a man who says he is concerned about ‘nutters’ doing multiday high endurance races, encourage a non-athlete to run nearly 2000 kilometres in less than two months?
“In the presence of a healthy heart, all exercise is good,” he said. “There is significant environmental stress associated with these ultra-endurance events: a run across the Sahara or a race to the North Pole: it’s either burning hot or freezing cold.
“With the athletes who do it for charity, it’s about completing, not competing. They don’t do it in excessive weather conditions and they don’t do it to win. It took Eddie about 11 hours to finish one of his marathons. you could walk it inless time! But this is about raising money for good causes, not beating other competitors.
“Preparation is critical and it is my job to keep these non-athletes safe. This is where sport science and sports medicine comes into its own – proactive, rather than reactive.”
Professor Whyte said the ultraendurance events had become more popular as triathlons and marathons had become crowded with so many people.
“When the London Marathon began in the 1980s, it had 251 runners. Last year, there were 36,000 competitors. so the ‘nutters’ look for something even more challenging. When they push themselves to the absolute limits, it does stress their hearts. But are repeated bouts of acute exercise deleterious to the heart in the long term?”
He has been researching the exercise cardiac field for about 15 years and he still doesn’t have the definitive answer.
Professor Green hopes Professor Whyte’s three Raine lectures inspired the graduate exercise science students to find it.