David Hunter has focused his weekly column on Ken Sparks, a former top 800 meter runner, who was mentored by the great Dr. Costill, and came back and set Masters records. We think that you will enjoy this column on Dr. Ken Sparks.
Sparks Of Innovation
Midwestern Talent Is Pioneer In Running And Human Performance
America’s insatiable quest for innovation has been a foundation for its continuing advancement. It is a powerful force. But when you find that ambition within the makeup of an otherwise talented and curious athlete, you might find yourself with a truly special and driven person. You might find yourself with someone like Dr. Kenneth E. Sparks.
Ken Sparks rose from humble beginnings. Raised in the 50’s and 60’s on a farm in rural Indiana, Sparks was part of a 10-member high school track team. Notwithstanding the unfocused training that was required so those few athletes could compete in 4 and 5 events in each meet, Sparks was talented enough to cap his high school career with a 49 second 440 yard dash time – good enough to make the podium at the state championship meet. Not bad for an athlete whose training was confined to a staked-out quarter-mile grass oval in a farm field.
Sparks went on to Ball State University as a three-sport athlete: track, cross country, and – Indiana’s sacred pastime – basketball. It was on the Muncie campus that Sparks first had regular access to proper training facilities and – also for the first time – that he ran the 800 meters. “The first time I ever tried running a half mile was in practice and I ran two minutes flat. And it wasn’t very hard,” notes Sparks. And with a nod to Alberto Juantorena, he adds “So then I started running both the 400 and the 800.”
Sparks persevered at Ball State, making marginal improvement in his middle distance racing, but basically riding the pine during basketball season. But then came a sequence of events which would be the turning point in his life. The start of Sparks’ junior year coincided with the Ball State arrival of Dr. David Costill, noted swimmer and budding exercise physiologist. Early that fall, Sparks met the new faculty member and quickly learned of Costill’s abiding interest to explore the physiology of elite track and field athletes and the manner by which tailored training could allow them to achieve peak performances. As their nascent acquaintance grew stronger that semester, Costill’s intellectual curiosity ignited a similar attitude in Sparks. “He started training me. He trained me based on tests in the lab and on muscle biopsies,” explains Sparks. “I would do anything if he could explain why I was doing it.” And with a laugh, he adds “I was kind of a problem athlete I guess you would have to say. I wanted to know why I was running certain things and what it was going to do for me.”
The growth of a very special relationship was underway. Technically, Costill was not Sparks’ coach. But Sparks was surely Costill’s guinea pig – a type of human lab rat who allowed Costill to gather important information to advance his scientific exploration while Sparks would be the beneficiary of Costill’s growing knowledge of how track & field athletes could reach their true potential.
With Sparks as his subject, Costill went to work to explore the effect of lactic acid and an athlete’s ability to tolerate – and ultimately to adapt to – increased levels of lactic acid in the blood stream. “He was really working me,” smiles Sparks, who acknowledges that Costill would often use his interval workouts as one giant lab experiment, drawing blood from Sparks after each high-intensity repeat. But Sparks didn’t complain. He was riding the coattails of Costill’s intellectual curiosity – learning useful information about human athletic performance and making gratifying improvement in the 800.
Having dropped basketball and with Costill using his new-found knowledge to shape Sparks training regimen, Sparks was able to make marked improvement in the 800 – dropping his two-lap time down to 1:50. “I really developed during that time,” notes Sparks. “By my senior year, I was an All-American in the 800.”
The sizable improvements that Sparks achieved in the 800 under Costill’s scientific tutelage did not go unnoticed. Sparks, who two years after his 1967 college graduation joined Costill as a laboratory assistant, began to notice that other notable distance runners – such as Hal Higdon, Amby Burfoot, Ron Dawes, Ted Corbett, and even marathon world record holder Derek Clayton – were making pilgrimages to Costill’s lab, seeking to capture their own edge. “We had a lot of good runners that were coming around, kinda talking to him,” states Sparks.
The reputation of Costill’s Human Performance lab was growing. And Sparks was learning much working at Costill’s elbow. “That was where we really got into the nitty gritty of training and performance and different types of training methods,” notes Sparks with noticeable passion. “We started doing muscle biopsies. We were looking at lactate stacking – high intensity / short rest type of track repetitions. Really hard 200’s and 400’s with really short recovery, no real mileage at all. It was a training technique designed to promote the production of lactic acid in the muscles,” he explains. “We would see how high we could produce the level of lactic acid. With lactate stacking, you would just keep doing repeat intervals and you could actually produce higher levels of lactic acid than what you could produce in a maximal test.” It proved to be an experiment that demonstrated that an athlete’s body could adapt to develop increased tolerance of higher levels of lactic acid. “Especially in the 800 and other high intensity exercise – anything that was anaerobic – you could really push it beyond your limits. It was pretty amazing.” In no small measure, many of the discoveries regarding lactate threshold training that emerged from Costill’s and Sparks’ experimentation have aided a whole generation of distance runners and have served to inspire an even broader base of scientific study in this area which is ongoing to this day.
Upon completing his three year internship, Sparks fulfilled his pledge to Costill by going on to earn a Master’s degree and ultimately a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. All the while, Sparks continued his own focused middle distance training as a post-collegian, employing his new-found knowledge from Costill’s lab and hoping for the best. It paid off. Training in Muncie but racing for Ted Hayden’s University of Chicago Track Club, Sparks finally achieved that breakthrough race he had been chasing. “I was in the invitational 800 at the Drake Relays in 1972,” explains Sparks. “I ended up finishing third and ran in the low 1:47’s and qualified for the Olympic Trials. I couldn’t believe it. I ran over two seconds faster than I had ever run before. And that’s lot in an 800,” he notes. Sparks saw right away that his steady diet of high-intensity intervals followed by very short recovery was achieving the desired result of elevating his tolerance for higher levels of lactic acid. “I saw that I could tolerate that faster pace,’ he confides. “It was one of those things: Once I did it, it was like ‘I can do this now.'”
A USA Track & Field Federation championship in the 800 followed later that season – a perfect stepping stone for the Olympic Trials. But the ’72 Olympic Trials proved to be a whole different ball game. Not only did the U.S. have a bumper crop of top flight 800 meter specialists, the pathway then to the Olympic team was a grueling, unrelenting three-day grind. “This was back-to-back-to-back,” notes Sparks, pointing out that there was no rest day before the 800 final. “Back then, it was kind of different. Because if you didn’t have an Olympic qualifier, you didn’t run in the Trials. So all 32 Olympic aspirants in the 800 had met the Olympic standard,” Sparks explains. “So it really was anybody’s race on a given day.” After running within himself to advance out of the first round, Sparks didn’t have that “given day” in the next day’s semi where his 1:47.6 positioned him as the semi’s fastest non-qualifier. The third day saw 800 upstart Dave Wottle win the 800 final in 1:44.3 – matching the American record and serving as a precursor to his electrifying come-from-behind victory in the Munich final.
In the years that followed, Sparks sensed that the end of his career as an elite athlete was approaching. After a final nomadic 1975 season trouping around as a member of the International Track Association – “It was kinda like a traveling circus” – Sparks was facing a change. And he was ready. Well groomed during his apprenticeship as Costill’s assistant, Dr. Sparks had the tools and the experience to continue human performance exploration in a laboratory of his own. And that he has done. Today he serves as the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Cleveland State University, working with athletes – of course – but also making contributions in the area of cardiovascular disease and research and development. And he still stays in contact with Dave Costill – nurturing a friendship with his mentor that spans over four decades. More recently, Sparks’ lab has made contributions in addressing the dangerous issue of hypoxia in F22 fighter pilots – the onset of a crippling dizziness that impairs cognition. “We have collected the data here which has allowed the development of a sensor device that pilots wear on their mask now that can detect the approaching onset of hypoxia 30 seconds before it actually happens,” Sparks explains. “We can now predict onset before it happens.”
Sparks has even enjoyed an athletic encore as a Master’s runner. Employing the type of low mileage / high intensity training techniques he learned during his time with Dr. Costill, Sparks experienced remarkable simultaneous successes both as Master’s miler and as a Masters marathoner. At age 46 – working off a training regimen of 60 miles a week and no runs longer than 9 miles – Sparks displayed Dixonian range when he ran a street mile in New York City in 4:13 and then two weeks later ran the Columbus Marathon in 2:28.
Now comfortably easing into his late-60’s, Sparks maintains a peaceful balance by relying upon an effective tool that he has employed in the past – adaptability. “I had to learn how to shift gears,” Sparks notes. “It was a real challenge to shift from running for competition – something that motivates you to keep going – to just running for your health.” And with a laugh he adds, “The competition seems to be a bigger motivator than one’s health.”
“Now I am a fitness runner and I still enjoy running. Maybe I enjoy it a little bit more now that I am really into it. I am still running 5 days a week. My goal is to run 15-20 miles a week.” With a smile he adds, “And that keeps me happy.” Dave Hunter