The Mind of a Marathoner

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Last month I mentioned that I was training for my first marathon. Training was tough, but I was doggedly following the plan. Then, less than a week before my marathon debut, Superstorm Sandy hit New York. Floodwaters filled subway tunnels and homes, and strong winds toppled power lines and trees. Roughly 750,000 New Yorkers lost power. In the wake of the storm, Mayor Bloomberg maintained that the race would go on. He pointed out that the marathon would be symbol of New York’s resilience. But the backlash grew, and ultimately Bloomberg caved. Just 42 hours before the first wave of runners was set to cross the Verrazano Bridge, the race was cancelled.

I was devastated, but also relieved. Now I don’t have to run the damn thing, I thought. But then I came to my senses: Oh right. Running the damn thing was the whole point. So I signed up for another marathon: the 9 1/2th Potomac River Run.

I could go on an on about how miserable that race was. On and on and on. The course was an out-and-back and out-and-back, meaning I ran the same stretch of wooded path four times. The last leg was torture. As I rounded each bend, I expected to see the finish line. Instead I saw more wooded trail. The trees all looked the same, and with no mile markers I lost all sense of how far I had come or how far I had yet to go. Around mile 24 great hiccuping sobs overtook me. I truly believed that I would never reach the end. The finish line seemed less like a physical place and more like a metaphor for total mental anguish. I interspersed short bouts of running with increasingly long bouts of walking. Eventually I finished, but I wasn’t triumphant. I saw my husband and burst into tears.

Lots of people run marathons and most of them don’t end up weeping, so clearly my experience is not representative. But it reminded me of just how much of a mental game endurance running is. Yes, I was physically exhausted. Yes, my knee ached and my blistered toes throbbed. But it was my weepy, terrified brain that was my undoing. My body could have run that entire race without walking. My body could have done it quicker. But my stubborn-ass brain felt so sorry for itself I could barely hobble. 

For decades, researchers didn’t think much about the brain’s role in athletic performance. Dogma held that what limits an athlete is the amount of oxygen reaching his muscles. Surpass the upper limit and the body can’t perform, the athlete slows down. But Tim Noakes thinks the real limiting factor is in our head. He argues that the brain holds a “central governor” circuit that monitors the body’s energy reserves. The pain and exhaustion endurance athletes feel is the governor’s “take it easy” signal. The problem isn’t the muscles, Noakes argues, it’s the conservative brain trying to hoard energy and head off organ failure.

Not everyone buys Noakes’ hypothesis. In fact, it’s pretty controversial. The most outspoken critic has been Roy J. Shephard, who argues that Noakes and his colleagues have no proof. The debate has been surprisingly heated. During one particularly pointed exchange Shephard wrote, “In the parlance of my North American colleagues, the time may now be ripe for proponents of the hypothesis to ‘Put up or shut up.’ ” This wasn’t an email. He wrote this in a scientific journal. Yeah, wow.

Last year Noakes fired back, offering 30 studies he claims support the idea of a central governor. “Perhaps this will bring to an end the charade that holds either (i) that the brain plays no part in the regulation of exercise performance; or, conversely, (ii) that the role of the brain is already so well defined that further research by other scientists is unnecessary,” he wrote.

Proof or no proof, Noakes’ idea seems to be gaining traction. In his article “The Race Against Time,” Alex Hutchinson writes:

As the evidence piles up, it becomes hard to deny that the old “brainless” view of human limits, nearly a century’s worth of textbook material, is incomplete. Says American Society of Exercise Physiologists co-founder Robert Robergs of Noakes’ influence, “Most of the younger breed of exercise physiologists, in which I would group myself, recognize that, boy, some of his challenges are correct.” In the end, that’s how paradigms finally shift: the old guard is never convinced, but eventually retires.

But if Noakes is right, how do we explain the athletes that seem to defy limits? In 1982, Julie Moss, a 23-year-old grad student, came within 500 feet of winning the Hawaii Ironman. Then her body gave out. She collapsed, stood up, staggered, and collapsed again. She was done. “I just thought, ‘Eff it,’” she said in an interview for Radiolab’s show Limits*. But then something strange happened. “All of a sudden, there’s this voice that just said, ‘Get up. Get up. Just keep moving forward,’” Moss recalled. She couldn’t walk, but she could crawl. And she did — all the way to the finish line. It’s painful to watch, yet completely riveting.

“I made a deal with myself. A deal was struck. I don’t care if it hurts, I don’t care if it’s messy. I don’t care how it looks. I would finish,” Moss explained.

Was Moss’s central governor broken? Is mine overactive? And what prompts us to run at all? Once upon a time we ran to survive. Today the stakes couldn’t be lower. We run for fun and glory. My race wasn’t fun or glorious, yet I’m already thinking about my next marathon. Look for me in New York City in 2013. I won’t be in it to win it, but I promise I’ll cross the finish line. And I’ll probably be hobbling — and weeping.

Photos courtesy of Soren Wheeler

*If you haven’t listened to the Radiolab show Limits, you’re missing out. It’s one of my very favorites.

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4 thoughts on “The Mind of a Marathoner

  1. I actually thought about you when we found out the marathon was cancelled. We had just driven 11 hours from home and checked into a hotel on Long Island (Queensboro) when we found out. My husband was disappointed to not be able to run the marathon, and still more disappointed with the timing of the announcement. It would have been his 13th marathon, but his first NY (he’s run Boston 3 times!). He’s debating about registering for next year.

    We ended up sightseeing with our three children. We went down to Central Park on Sunday, and watched a bunch of people just running for fun. I hope our tourism dollars help those affected by the hurricane.

  2. Great article! I just finished reading a related book called “Brain Training for Runners” by Matt Fitzgerald. In the book, he translates the “Brain as the limiting factor” idea into an actual training program for runners. As a bonus, he also throws in some specific exercises to help runners strengthen that muscles in your body that are often overlooked (and which can impact your form & running results).

    It is also interesting to hear your thoughts AFTER running a marathon vs. the ones BEFORE. As Roger Bannister proved when he broke the 4 minute mile … anything is possible (once our brain knows that someone has done it).

    Now that you have run a marathon, the next one doesn’t appear quite as ominous, right?

    See you at the starting line !

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