Published March 15, 2015
Candace Smith Brown, now able to run on her own, continues her training at Virginia Beach over winter break.
Photo: Provided Photos
Special treadmill allows people to run at reduced weight
Susan Stephen, physical therapist at Central Vermont Medical Center, speaks enthusiastically about the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill that can be found at only three facilities in Vermont.
One is in Bennington, another in Burlington and a third at CVMC in Berlin. So what is an AlterG, and why should it be good news?
Basically it is “a treadmill that reduces a runner’s weight and allows that person to train without beating the pavement,” Stephen said.
The concept opens doors to a range of users from elite athletes to the sedentary, from those injured or rehabilitating from surgery to those limited by disease, weight, frailty or age.
The AlterG is a rather curious looking piece of equipment, a bit like a McDonald’s bouncy funhouse on a treadmill. The user steps into what looks like a plastic bag, zips up to the waist and inflates it so the running weight is the chosen percentage of actual weight.
With the upper body free and the lower body putting less weight into each step, a participant can walk and run securely and without pain.
People who struggle with an altered gait, such as those with Parkinson’s disease, “can be taught to revert to a normal gait,” Stephen said, and develop good movement patterns and form that will eventually be the default, as much as is pragmatically possible.
For someone who is obese and struggling to lose weight, the AlterG offers an opportunity to run, a form of exercise that might otherwise be awkward and painful.
Then there are the hard-core exercise enthusiasts, runners and elite athletes who will push through pain to their own disadvantage. The last thing a runner wants to be told is “stop running until this heals.”
Working with appropriate rehabilitation guidelines, that athlete may continue to run while healing and, in fact, may heal more quickly.
Another aspect of the AlterG is the role it plays in training and improving athletic performance. Stephen’s daughter Liz, a cross-country skier who has competed in two Olympics and multiple U.S. and world championships, trains in the off season, often on an AlterG.
From NASA to Oregon, the AlterG brings space-age technology down to Earth.
Alberto Salazar, director of the Nike Oregon Project, knows about running. Three times a New York City Marathon winner and once the Boston Marathon winner, Salazar tested an AlterG and ordered 20 for training his athletes.
Salazar encourages his runners to add miles to their training, and this can be done safely by adding a weekly workout on the AlterG as cross-training to their outdoor running. Salazar said running on the AlterG helps prevent injury as well as rehabilitate it.
“Where there is no pain, there is no damage,” he said.
He points to volume and quality of training as a winning combination.
Perhaps, however, an equally impressive response to training on the AlterG is the confidence that develops over time and use.
Success in the making
On Nov. 8, Susan Stephen assisted at a running clinic at CVMC, in part to help promote the AlterG treadmill.
“The last person I put on this was an unfit-looking woman,” Stephen said. “She was in so much pain in her lower legs when she ran, but intently focused on running.”
By the end of her time she was amazed, felt great and was smiling.
“Everyone who gets on has an ‘aha’ moment, a big smile, an ‘I can run’ awareness,” Stephen said.
This particular woman was grossly overweight and diabetic. When Stephen asked her why it was so important for her to run, tears came to her eyes and she shared her touching story.
The woman, Candace Smith Brown, had been married to Walter Brown, who was for many years the starter of the Boston Marathon. As he was dying of cancer, just weeks before, he had asked her to promise to run the Boston Marathon so she could taste his passion for the event.
“All I want to do is finish in the same week,” Stephen said Brown told her.
Her journey began, a journey working through grief and getting healthy, a journey that continues.
Brown, who grew up in Plainfield, is retired and the grandmother of four with one on the way. I caught up with her in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where her family had convened for a winter vacation.
Speaking of her quest to run the Boston Marathon, she said: “It’s changed my life. My friends are sick of hearing me talk about it.”
Brown, her two daughters and her sister plan to meet her goal.
“I told everybody I was going to run on the beach,” she said, “and we did it.”
Would she have done this before? “Absolutely not,” she said.
Over the years, dealing with injury and her husband’s illness, she had gained significant weight.
“I was getting very unhealthy,” Brown said. “My diet was horrible, I was too uncomfortable to add exercise, and my blood sugar was way out of control. Just changing eating wasn’t going to do it for me.”
Several things happened to start Brown on her way: Her sister joined a “boot camp” and began to run (and lost 60 pounds along the way); Brown learned of the Jeff Galloway training that combines walking and running intervals; and she tried the AlterG.
Perhaps as a leap of faith, Brown joined the Boston Athletic Association, her ticket to the marathon — a new member is given an invitation. She must pay a race fee, but at least she was in.
Walter Brown’s funeral was Oct. 15. A friend had passed along a newspaper announcement of a running clinic offered by CVMC beginning in early November. Brown showed up in all new running gear that accommodated her 270-pound body.
The experience confirmed how poorly conditioned she was. Part of the clinic was to film her running and perform a gait analysis, but Brown could barely run the necessary 30 seconds.
“I wanted to get out of there and go cry,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do one more unsuccessful thing.”
It was her turn to try the AlterG. With Stephen’s help she experienced running as a 130-pound woman. Nothing hurt. She could do this. She could continue. This is what she will feel like when the pounds gradually melt away.
“Goodbye, pizza and brownies,” Brown said. “You get to feel what it would be like.”
In the months since, Brown has continued to pursue her walking and running program, visiting the AlterG twice a week and doing her run/walk at 30 seconds each with a group of friends. She tries to exercise every day, including 60 minutes walking her dogs.
The immediate goal is, of course, the Boston Marathon on April 20.
“I’m not trying to win,” she said, “just finish.”
Having accomplished 20 miles on a recent weekend, finishing is more than a possibility. “It’s all about my personal goals and enjoying the company of my fellows.”
But Brown can now look to the future. She weighs 60 pounds less but is eating moderately and plans to continue the weight loss, hoping to reverse her Type 2 diabetes as she does so.
To her surprise, she finds running fun. Participation in local fun runs and joining family and friends while training have reawakened a sense of competition as well as goal-setting.
“Finishing last is not my cup of tea,” she said.
Brown’s story points to many components of success: the courage to assume an almost insurmountable challenge, the determination to honor a promise, the willingness to move forward step by step, and the support of family and friends.
Linda Freeman is an athlete and trainer based in central Vermont. Reach her through her web site, www.lindafreemanfitness.com.