Mel Williams, Ph.D. over 100 marathons and counting

Mel Williams, Ph.D. over 100 marathons and counting

Jeff Venables

Mel Williams, Ph.D., sighs and sheepishly offers that “Monday was just an easy five.” But this “easy five” came after having already run 18 miles on Saturday and seven hilly miles on Sunday. “You find you don’t recover like you used to,” observes Williams, who has an astounding 112 marathons under his belt.

His wife, Jeanne Kruger-Williams, an accomplished distance runner who has won her age group at the New York City Marathon and placed second in Boston, is the other half of “we”. It takes a dedicated marathoner to keep up with Mel, whose mileage seldom drops below 50 miles a week.

But that’s just part of the story. Ergogenics expert, author of, among countless other books, Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport (now in it’s 7th edition), professor emeritus at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, even former paratrooper in the U.S. military, Williams embodies the well-rounded soul in every way.

If there’s a guiding principle to Mel’s major life pursuits, it is quite possibly the question “Why?” Williams is a major academic; his voracious appetite for information and up-to-date research makes him a valuable asset to the Running & FitNews editorial board. Mel is both incredibly easy to talk to and always, always worth hearing out.

Early Intrigue

Williams was born in 1937 in Kingston, Pennsylvania. He recalls the area at that time as something of a “hotbed for football and wrestling.” As an offensive lineman, Mel was on the lighter side. His lifelong interest in ergogenics, essentially the study of sports performance enhancement, can quite possibly be traced to an early need to use every available tool to make up for lost pounds on the line of scrimmage. Then one day when Williams was preparing for a high school game, he observed his quarterback drinking whiskey, explaining that it made him play better. The incident stuck with the skeptical young Mel over the years; he would eventually write his doctoral thesis on the effects of alcohol on muscle strength and endurance.

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Williams moved on to wrestling (where opponents are carefully matched by body weight). But he soon encountered a teammate whose premeet ritual included tea with honey. Everywhere he turned, it seemed, someone had a half-baked idea on how to enhance their athletic performance.

During his three years in the military stationed in Munich, Mel was next intrigued by an ex-football player he’d befriended who intended to study physical education when he got out. Williams had been in the medics as a paratrooper, and it all seemed to flow toward an interest in physiology, so he soon found himself studying physical education himself, at East Stroudsburg University in 1958. Mel played football there, and in 1961 when a teammate collapsed due to an overdose of amphetamines after a game–the best he’d ever played, according to Mel–Williams was permanently hooked in the budding field of ergogenics.

After earning his masters in Physical Education at Ohio University in Athens, Williams coached football and wrestling at the high school level in Reading, Pennsylvania. His desire to coach college-level athletics motivated him to earn his Ph.D., which he did in 1968, from the University of Maryland. You might say Mel’s early interest in alcohol eventually led him to explore other substances. Amphetamine use by professional football players appeared to be widespread at the time, and an interested team physician for the Norfolk Neptunes, a local professional football team, agreed to help with a study. Soon Williams was researching the effects of other ergogenics, such as caffeine and blood doping, on athletic performance. In the 30 years since, he has explored everything from skin-tight swimwear to the effects of hypnosis on athletes.

An Ever-Expanding Knowledge Base

Over the years Mel’s interests broadened to include a wider array of new supplements, as well as general daily nutrition requirements, for athletes. In 1976, Williams drafted an extensive monograph entitled Nutritional Aspects of Human Physical and Athletic Performance, which was written primarily for his exercise physiologist peers. A vice-president for a national book publishing company, who was also a runner, expressed interest in “trade booking” this text, the result being the first edition of Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport. Once again, what had begun as an impassioned search for answers had resulted in a comprehensive understanding valuable across many groups. The book has become a widely-read college text. So what nutritional advice does Williams have? “Well, it’s common sense, really. Distance runners aren’t going to do well on the Atkins Diet,” he demurs.

In addition to nutrition, biomechanical analysis has never left his sports performance radar screen for very long. Williams has learned over the years that athlete-specific strategies are essential to performance enhancement. And certainly specific sports call for different types of ergogenic aids. A diuretic is not a good idea for a distance runner, but, Mel points out that for a high jumper, if three pounds of water loss get you over the bar that much easier, it certainly can benefit this type of performance. However, use of diuretics is prohibited in sport competition.

Regarding currently in vogue supplements, as someone with longstanding ties to the wrestling community, Williams is concerned about the new generation of high school creatine abusers for whom strength is an end that justifies any means. Although creatine may have some beneficial effects for certain athletes, the most significant improvements in sports performance come about through sufficient and proper training. He believes that training is the most important ingredient in this–or any–type of athletic achievement. “I’m afraid some young athletes may be missing the boat on that, thinking some magic pill can make up for the lack of proper training,” he says.

Williams’ longtime membership in AMAA stems from his desire to share the information he’s acquired over the years. He first remembers being invited to speak at the Marine Corps Marathon by Dave Brody, an orthopedist and the race’s medical director. In 1983, representatives from what was then called the American Running & Fitness Association saw Mel speak about ergogenic aids in triathloning. He has since presented his research numerous times in D.C. and maintains robust ties to AMAA.

Research for Running Laurels

It seems Mel’s dedication to his life’s work–improving athletic performance–has paid off, in the form of a lavish marathoning career few could even dream of. Williams has completed 112 marathons since 1976, including all Marine Corps Marathons. There are now only five other people who can claim this. These MCM Ground Pounders, as they are known, will be running the 29th installment of the race this fall. “My goal is to run in the 50th,” Mel says. He certainly shows no signs of stopping, although he is gradually slowing down from his P.R. of 2:33:30 in 1981 to a current range of 3:15 to 3:20. Does the man who routinely runs four marathons a year, and who has run up to 10 in a single year, have advice on running longevity? “I think I was blessed with good biomechanics,” he offers. “As a wrestler, I’d have to run quite a bit in flat-soled shoes. I think I just learned to run ‘softer.'” Years of running barefoot along Virginia Beach, which he has lived near and trained at since 1968, probably didn’t hurt either. At least not enough to stop.

Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews, the publication of the American Running Association.

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