For many years I was honored to serve as the coach for the Roadrunner program in Los Angeles. During this time I constantly reminded runners of all abilities that during the course of a race, particularly in the later parts, you will start to feel fatigue, beat and begin to struggle mentally. This is usually the breaking point in a race. In a 5k it usually tends to be at the half way point. In a 10k this moment will occur somewhere around the 4 mile mark. The Half marathoner will experience this moment somewhere around the 9 mile mark and the marathoner will meet this moment around mile 20 or 21. At this moment your world is starting to fall apart, you reach that fork in the road and you have THAT MOMENT when you have to decide on one of two choices. 1. Ease back a bit and take a little off. This is easy because you will slow down and the pain will go away BUT your race is compromised and your goal is more than likely thrown out the window. The is the easiest of the two. Or you have the other option. 2. Continue to press, the pain wont go away and you will go to the limit. It will be very uncomfortable. This is by far the hardest of the two and it is scary. It requires courage and a risk. IF you choose this option you can’t lose. If by chance you bonk and bonk hard you can always kick your shoes off at the end and know you gave everything you had and there is no greater satisfaction in that even if you missed your goal time. Or you will realize that somehow your body when pushed to the brink somehow responded and you realized you were stronger than you ever thought. Most runners never choose this option because it’s a hard place to go to, it’s much easier to relax and take option one and say to yourself, “next time, there will be other races” This is true but what if I can convince you that your body will always respond? Would you try it? Keep reading.
There is a story on WNYC’s Radiolab program about a sports physiologist named David Jones who conducted a study with a bunch of bikers where he puts them on stationary bikes and put them in two separate groups and had them pedal about 40 kilometers or 24 miles. The two groups were given an energy drink but they were not allowed to drink it. The rule was to swish it in their mouth and spit it out. One group was given real energy drink to swish in their mouth and spit out, the other group of bikers were given fake energy drink to swish in their mouth and spit out. The energy drinks both tasted the same and nobody knew which drink was fake or real. So you would think nobody would get any benefit from this scenario because nobody is actually drinking the energy drink, nothing is getting into the body. Or in another scenario perhaps the taste would give a placebo effect equally. Well here is the result, only the people who swished the real energy drink got a boost. And actually it was a couple of minutes of a boost which can be the difference between finishing first and last in racing or getting that PR. So maybe something in the first set of athletes who got the real energy drink, something inside them knew something. Here is the theory, there is an idea that has been floating around for quite some time called the central governor theory. which is that somewhere in your head there is a little circuit which is starting to show up in brain scans, there is this little circuit that governs your energy supply. And when it feels like you are in danger of running low it will trigger signals of pain to be sent to your body to try to get you to rest. But what scientist are finding is that this governor circuit is actually conservative and will send you a pain to try to get you to stop WAY before you are out of juice. So if you were a fuel tank it will flash E when you still have a half tank left. So what happened with the bikers is the sugar landed on the tongue, the tongue sees the sugar, sends a message to the brain and the governor see’s this message and thinks “OH! we are about to get some energy well then I guess its OK for you to spend some energy so let me just give you some from my stash here” and so? you feel that boost. So the conclusion here is you have a reservoir of extra stuff but it is so deeply disguised that you can’t even know that its there. Think of a marathon if you have run one before, around mile 22 when the pain is starting to really creep in and you are feeling tired and spent, chances are you are not tired and spent, maybe you are feeling the effects of that governor lying to you. The reality is when the body is completely done and there is nothing left your body will go to the very last source for energy, your mind. They say running is 90% mental and 10% physical. Yes this could be an exaggeration but if you train your mind your body will follow. There are amazing people doing extraordinary things monthly in marathons all over the world. Runners with severe disabilities who line up on the start line of a marathon who in the back of your mind and many minds would imagine they really have no business out there. But in their minds they are convinced they will do whatever it takes to get to the finish line including playing with their governor in their head and convincing it otherwise.
I was at the finish line of the NYC Marathon this past November of 2011 in Central Park. Imagine nobody there, all support staff gone, no spectators in the bleachers, the finish line like a ghost town? Kind of hard to believe right? Well that was the case except it was past 8pm, over 10 hours from the start of the race and there were runners still coming in. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. There was one particular runner from Korea slowly coming in making his way to a 11 hour finish time. He had two prosthetic legs, one arm and was hobbling into the finish. The few of us there were all in tears cheering and clapping as loud as we could. Do you think his governor was kicking at mile 3? Probably. It was truly inspiring to see. After he crossed he was in such great spirits. He was tired but still refused to sit down. I asked him if I could take a picture with him and he gladly agreed. He spoke little english and after the photo was taken to the left here, he asked me if I ran because I had my medal and he gave me a hug to congratulate me. It was nice but he was my hero that day and I told him that. He took himself to the limit that day. Not sure whether this was his first marathon or 5th but I am sure somewhere in his life he came to that fork in the road and chose to do what really would be uncomfortable, to train with these disabilities and do what few in this world will ever accomplish, a marathon. It shows the body really has no limits and will always respond but only if you are willing to take it down the road and have the courage to take that risk. He is a true example that anything is possible if you can believe it.
I believe everyday in some small way we are faced with forks in the road, some small, some big. In running you will have THAT MOMENT I described up above. If you take that risk and put it on the line, tell your governor NO and press forward you will see your body respond when you thought you had nothing left. It is only when you do that, you will have the chance to not only reinvent your running but also your life. That is what we do, we take the lessons from running and apply them to life. 2012 will throw these forks in the road at you all year. Take that risk and take the road that is uncomfortable, that is scary and you will see new doors of possibilities open before your eyes. If you never test your limits you will never know your true potential. Have a great day and I will see you down the road less traveled.