I first read about Dr. Yannis Pitsiladis MMEDSci., PhD, FACSM in The Sports Gene, a book by David Epstein about what makes super athletes different than the majority of us. Dr. Pitsiladis is a Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton who has done research on obesity and the detection of doping in athletes but his passion is running. He travels around the world studying the genes and environments of the world’s top runners (often on his own dime) and created the largest known DNA bio-bank from world-class athletes.
Additionally, Dr. Pitsiladis must deal with a severe fear of flying before boarding planes to places like Jamaica and Kenya. Dr. Pitsiladis was kind enough to answer a few questions about facing his anxiety to research the fastest people on Earth.
What is the extent of your fear of flying?
I typically have to ingest alcohol to board the flight. I cannot work, especially when there is turbulence. I also have to sit at the window and spend most of the time looking outside even in the dark. I only fly with certain airlines and often choose to drive long distances especially in Africa so as not to take local airlines. As a scientist this makes no sense as I am aware of the data.
How often do you travel and what is an average year like for you?
I travel typically every week of the year.
[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis with 4-time Olympic medalist Herb McKenley of Jamaica.]
Has all of this flying changed your anxiety, for better or worse?
I go through ups and downs depending on how bad/good the previous experience is but mainly depending on the airline and weather. On a British Airways flight on good weather my anxiety is low. On a Russian airliner in bad weather my anxiety is sky high! My anxiety is also very high when my family travel with me although I do my best to hide it so as not to pass on my fear to them – often without success.
There’s a saying that there is no greater enemy than one’s own fears, what about your research motivates you to overcome yours regularly?
Yes totally. I never let it stop me flying with a few African examples where i will drive 7 hours to avoid a 30 min flight across the Great Rift Valley.
[Above: Dr. Pitsiladis sampling blood in Africa.]
I’m fascinated by descriptions of the Champs [Jamaica’s annual high school sprinting competition] and would like to hear your impressions or favorite memories from the events you’ve attended.
The atmosphere, especially when the victorious school is clear, which is more exciting than an Olympics – even the 100m final day at the Olympics.
Which runner(s) have been the most difficult for you to reach due to travel constraints?
For data protection I cannot answer.
Finally, where are you headed next?
To break the 2 hour marathon barrier…
Thank you again Dr. Pitsiladis for taking the time to share some of your experiences in the air and catching the fleet-footed on the ground. You can read more about Dr. Pitsiladis’ research on why people of east African descent seem to always win marathons, Jamaicans excel at sprinting, plus studies done by others in a fascinating book I highly recommend, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.