Mad Runner Disease spreads

ROCHESTER, N.Y. Fred Hunter used to run 40 miles per week. But three months ago the office equipment repair technician complained to his wife about fatigue and a vague heavy feeling behind his eyes. After some discussion they attributed the symptoms to increased job stress brought on by a recent restructuring at his company. Things would soon get better they felt, and the weird-smelling berry flavored Recycle energy bars that Hunter had been snacking on lately seemed to perk him up. Then last month during one of his long weekend runs, Hunter became disoriented and severely dehydrated, finally collapsing dead in a remote area far from his usual training routes. When an autopsy revealed dozens of half-inch diameter marbles that had formed within his brain tissue, Mad Runner Disease was listed as the official cause of death.

"Well what can I say? It's just a terrible tragedy," commented the Hunter's family physician Dr. Doug Gonnet as he furtively pocketed a handful of the swirly multi-colored marbles to take home to his kids.

While Hunter's doctors and mad runner experts can't prove it, they're certain that he became infected with the deformed proteins called "prions" that cause the disease, by eating the Recycle brand sport bars that have been heavily promoted to runners.

"Fred was a long time vegetarian," friend and training partner Heywood Jaeatmi told reporters. "There's no way he would've eaten those bars if he had known they contained rendered runner protein."

Almost three years ago, frustrated by newly imposed rules that banned the feeding of cows to cows in order to thwart the spread of mad cow disease, the protein recycling industry began exploiting a loophole in FDA regulations that allows runners to be fed to runners. Known in the industry as "downer runners," dead runners found lying on the side of the road frequently carry no identification, and in such cases are free for the taking according to the laws in most States. Protein recyclers shovel up these dead runners who have been run over by motor vehicles or collapsed due to exhaustion or dehydration, and take them to a facility where they're boiled down running shoes and all in giant pressurized cookers. The end product is a protein blend in power form that is later mixed into sport bars and canned smoothies sold under the Recycle brand, and widely distributed at marathon expos and road races throughout North America. But new estimates suggest that as many as 50% of downer runners are infected with mad runner. The incurable brain destroying disease causes runners to loose their bearings, wander into oncoming traffic, or exceed their physiological limits literally running themselves to death. When runners eat the sport bars containing the rendered mad runner protein, they can become infected. The protein recycling industry defends the practice, claiming the science behind the infection theory is inconclusive if not flawed, and that their products are safe and nutritious.

"We're making good use of corpses that would otherwise end up rotting in cemetery plots, probably polluting the ground water," explained enthusiastic industry spokesperson Will Grossemout at a recent news conference. "Yeah that's right. And we're cleaning up the roadsides too." But when a reporter offered him a Recycle "protein enhanced" sport bar and challenged him to eat it on the spot, Grossemout politely declined, glanced at one of the six chronographs adorning his wrists, then began talking about several exciting new bar flavors including Chewy Chunky Carrot Cake, Extreme Red Mocha Ice, and Wild Apple Cinnamon Crunch.

A bill in Congress authored by Senator Inda Jestion that would ban runner protein from the human food supply faces heavy opposition from States that have large downer runner processing operations. While sky-high natural gas prices have slowed the construction of new cookers, as the rendering plants are called, the industry remains poised for long term growth. But the Marblehead Foundation, an advocacy group for mad runner patients and their families, wants to shut down the industry by closing the regulatory loophole that they believe is fueling the spread of the disease.

"Hopefully a good looking celebrity will come down with mad runner, so that we can get more attention", said Gail Hunter. The widowed wife of Fred Hunter who visited the nation's capital recently to plead before a Senate subcommittee for more funding to find a cure for mad runner, is suing Dr. Doug Gonnet for the return of her husbands missing marbles.

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