Black Snow, Exercise And The Endurance Athlete


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Soot released by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials such as coal.

Soot released by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials such as coal.

In the winter of 1959, a 17-year old boy was home alone in Bristol, England, in a sparsely furnished room in an otherwise empty house, and he was bored. He had lived for about 6 months in this empty row-house, having a single bed, a coal fire, an old couch, a wooden table, a few clothes, and his water polo gear, plus of course his school bag, and it was the dead of winter. Being dark outside and late in the evening, there wasn’t much for him to do apart from read or sleep. He’d finished his 6th form homework, as a good student should, and so he cast around for entertainment. Then he remembered the bottle of old used methanol (wood alcohol), previously employed at his grammar school for storing biological specimens (e.g. dead frogs), that his Biology teacher had given him because he was known to be an avid biologist. Then he thought, “I wonder what methanol is like when it burns?” With a good fire burning in the grate, he decided to thrown a teaspoonful of the dark green liquid onto the fire, and boy, what a lovely surprise. A bright red-yellow fireball filled the grate for a fraction of a second and then was as quickly extinguished. Then a small cup was used, with a consequently larger flame, reaching the mantle.

Row houses, similar to the one in the story, in Bristol, England, 1959.

Row houses, similar to the one in the story, in Bristol, England, 1959.

Being a boy, and living alone, he thought, why not the whole bottle (about one liter)? So hiding behind the couch for protection, and with a little (but not enough) trepidation, he threw a long stream of the liquid into the fire, and wooosh! A massive flame engulfed the entire wall, extending to the margins of his ‘protective couch,’ and again the flame was as quickly gone, leaving an uncanny silence. He really enjoyed that, and was considering a second bottle (yes, he had two), when he noticed a black smudge on his arm, and then another. Looking up he was delighted and then horrified to see a swirling mass of black snow flakes filling the entirety of the top two feet of the room, and they were gently descending upon him and his few belongings. The snow was pure carbon (C), released from the methanol (CH3OH) as a fine black powder. This carbon took a form resembling snowflakes as a consequence of a limited oxygen supply in the center of the flame. He had experienced incomplete combustion, which he would later revisit as an endurance athlete.

Yes, the boy was FitOldDog! What a blast!

FitOldDog's Ironman Coach, AIMP Ironman Coaching, Chris Hauth,

FitOldDog’s Ironman Coach, Chris Hauth, of AIMP Ironman Coaching. A remarkable endurance athlete.

Foodstuffs contain large amounts of carbon, and this carbon is burned by our bodies to produce energy. We are, in fact, carefully regulated fires, taking carbon and hydrogen from food, and oxygen from the air, to generate useable energy. Complete combustion of our food yields carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), along with a great deal of free energy, which we employ to do things immediately, or it is stored for future use. Complete combustion requires a plentiful supply of oxygen. If there is a shortage of oxygen, as in intense exercise, much of the energy is made from sugar through incomplete combustion (glycolysis), but instead of black snow, the major byproduct is lactic acid. This acid accumulation interferes with muscle action, which is one reason intense exercise can be maintained for only brief periods of time. Alternatively, one can employ complete combustion by regulating the degree of exercise to one that is completely aerobic (plenty of oxygen in the tissues), to yield the perfect flame of the endurance athlete, completing races that may last all day, or more.

Endurance training is designed to encourage at least three major changes in your body, these being, (1) the development of more mitochondria, structures responsible for complete combustion of food with oxygen, (2) to encourage the burning of fats, which are energy rich and generally undergo complete combustion, and (3) to discourage the rapid burning of sugars, with their tendency to generate lactic acid via an inefficient energy generation system (glycolysis).

When it comes to nutrition and training, the goal of the endurance athlete is to limit the black snow of lactic acid accumulation and maximize efficient energy production.

-k @FitOldDog



  1. Dr Jo Franklin says

    ‘Tis the time of year for reminiscence, but what I love is how you relate such varied topics back (or forward if we’re being metaphysical about it!) to your athletic exploits. Learning a lot from you & your blog. Inspired to get back to previous levels of fitness in 2013 – but following your mantra have started gently & safely. Thank you.

  2. Hi Jo, thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad you are planning to exercise more in 2013. Don’t forget to consider studying body awareness if you have a chance. I really like Feldenkrais, and just a few sessions can make all the difference. Cheers, Kevin (aka FitOldDog)

  3. So you endangered Mum’s house in Morse Road, St George.
    How irresponsible. Me, I was learning all about guns – much more sensible!!!

  4. It’s true, I was irresponsible, but that is what youth is all about, it would appear. -kevin

  5. It was 1961/62.

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.