We have a reserve tank

When your brain tells you you’re done, it turns out you’re not. Just like in a car, it’s a conservative safety measure designed to make sure you always have something left, even when you think you don’t.  If you’ve ever worked out, you’ve probably experienced this.  If you can quiet the mind, you can always do a few more reps.  Sometimes people on drugs chemically turn off the safety valve and exhibit superhuman strength.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from WNYC’s marvellous Radio Lab explored this in their recent show “Limits“. From the transformational tale of Julie Moss, who collapsed at the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 1982 (you’ll probably remember the video).  The voice in her head said “get up”.  In their description of the amazing 3000 mile  Race Across America, you’ll hear about what happens when the cyclists push through this safety valve.  For example, a soldier in the race thinks he is being chased by Mujahideen and just takes off, sprinting like crazy.  A fascinating piece of research found that cyclists directly injected with glucose into their muscles experienced no improvement in endurance, but if they swirled sports drink in their mouth and then spat it out, it tricked the brain into thinking more energy was coming, and the conservative empty signal was temporarily shut down resulting in an increase in endurance.  (Perhaps related, in Born to Run , it describes Kalahari bushmen taking a tiny sip of water and swirling it in their mouths to revive themselves, rather than gulping it down.)

To me, this explains what ultrarunners do when they find a way to keep going.  If you’re running for 8, 10, 12, 18, 24, 36, even 48 hours, you’re going to run out of steam at least once .  Like the example of Scott Jurek, arguably the greatest ultranunner ever, 7 time champ of the premier 100 miler, Western States,  lying down exhausted in the “world’s toughest foot race” the Badwater 135 mile race from Death valley to the portals at Mt Whitney.  As retold in Born to Run, he was way behind the leader, he has a conversation with himself while lying on the ground, gets up, and somehow finds a way to not only keep going but to blow the competition away and win.

In my upcoming 50 miler, if I end up feeling like I can’t go on, I hope the voice in my head says “keep going”  🙂 At any rate, it’s handy to know my brain is just trying to trick me, and if I dig deep, should be able to tap into that reserve tank.

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Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.