A month or so ago I read an article about a Slovenian cyclist named Jure Robic, who has attained stunning success in a series of ultracycling events. Ultracycling differs from mainstream cycling events like the Tour de France in that there are no required stops. This effectively means that victory in these races belongs not to the fastest cyclist but to the one who is willing to sleep the least and endure the most pain. That cyclist is usually Jure Robic.
The article dwells on one particular event, a race across America, in which “winners average more than 13 miles an hour and finish in nine days, riding about 350 miles a day.” Starting in San Diego, “The first breakdowns, in the California and Arizona deserts, tend to be related to heat and hydration (riders drink as much as a liter of water per hour during the race). Then, around the Plains states, comes the stomach trouble. Digestive tracts, overloaded by the strain of processing 10,000 calories a day (the equivalent of 29 cheeseburgers), go haywire. This is usually accompanied by a wave of structural problems: muscles and tendons weaken, or simply give out. Body-bike contact points are especially vulnerable. Feet swell two sizes, on average. Thumb nerves, compressed on the handlebars, stop functioning. For several weeks after the race, Robic, like a lot of RAAM riders, must use two hands to turn a key. (Don’t even ask about the derrière. When I did, Robic pantomimed placing a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.)”
Although talented, Robic’s success in these events are not due to an extraordinary set of physical gifts. “On rare occasions when he permits himself to be tested in a laboratory, his ability to produce power and transport oxygen ranks on a par with those of many other ultra-endurance athletes.” Robic wins, instead, “for the most fundamental of reasons: he refuses to stop.” Over the course of many races together, Robic’s trainer came to the conclusion that, “at the dark moment when Robic feels utterly exhausted, when he is so empty and sleep-deprived that he feels as if he might literally die on the bike, he actually has 50 percent more energy to give.” When asked how far past the 50 percent limit can be pushed, his trainer responded, “‘Ninety, maybe 95 percent.”
The author finds considerable scientific evidence to support the claim of Robic’s coach, citing a number of studies that conclude that “the origins and controls of fatigue lie partly, if not mostly, within the brain and the central nervous system.” Researchers have “postulated the existence of what they called a central governor: a neural system that monitors carbohydrate stores, the levels of glucose and oxygen in the blood, the rates of heat gain and loss, and work rates. The governor’s job is to hold our bodies safely back from the brink of collapse by creating painful sensations that we interpret as unendurable muscle fatigue. Fatigue, the researchers argue, is less an objective event than a subjective emotion — the brain’s clever, self-interested attempt to scare you into stopping. The way past fatigue, then, is to return the favor: to fool the brain by lying to it, distracting it or even provoking it.”
The governor. In the time since I first read that article I’ve come to think of the governor as something more than the switch in the brain that fools the body into thinking it doesn’t have anything left in the tank. I think of the governor as the part of me that is weak, that is afraid of doing hard things because they will be painful and because I might fail. It’s the voice in my head that tries to convince me not to start and to quit once I’ve started. I have to admit that I listen to the governor much, much more than I should. But ever since I read that article I’ve listened to him less than I normally do, and every time I ignore him I find that he was lying. Yes, him. I have gradually anthropomorphized the governor, which makes him easier to hate, to fight, and to defy. He doesn’t yet have a face, although I think he may be starting to look a little like Kobe.
I mentioned a while ago that Melissa convinced me to sign up for the New York Ragnar Relay with some friends. I’ll write later about my experience training for and running this race; for now I just want to mention one little portion of it that taught me everything I need to know about the governor. Due to some injuries on our team we ended up switching legs around, and it fell to me to run 4.8 miles for my first leg. I wasn’t too worried about this, as Melissa and I had been training pretty diligently and had run further than that many times. I knew the last two miles were straight uphill, but we had done some hills as part of our training, and although I was concerned about it, there wasn’t really another option, so I set off.
It was hot outside – hotter than the kind of weather we’d been training in. The first two miles were fine, although I noticed myself dragging a little, which surprised and worried me. The governor was making his presence known. I carried on, but I was more than a little scared of what lay ahead.
And then I came to the hill. It was gradual at first, more of an upward slope than anything. I started telling myself that this was probably as bad as it got, although i didn’t really believe it. The slope turned into a hill, and then the hill turned into what seemed like a mountain. To be honest with you, this particular hill probably wouldn’t have been that difficult for a seasoned and fit runner. But I am neither of those things, and my legs started burning. And then they stopped burning and started feeling like all of the bones and muscles had been scooped out and replaced with tar. I couldn’t catch my breath. I regretted the 2 or 7 swedish fish I’d eaten right before running. I started feeling a little light-headed. My mouth felt like it was coated in rubber cement. I still had 1.5 miles to go. The governor told me I was done.
I started to break down mentally. A song came on my iPod that I didn’t like, and I feared this may be my undoing. I summoned up the energy to change the song, and when another song that I didn’t like came on it felt like the end of the world. I imagined that the finish was just around every curve of the road, and every time it wasn’t my heart broke a little. A car passed me, and for a split second I thought, “Hey, why don’t I just get in that car? That would be so much easier and better.” And then I remembered that the point of running a race is, you know, running it and not riding a car over the course.
And then the girl who I’d been following most of the way stopped to walk. And then the guy in front of her did, too. My only goals for the race were to finish and to run the whole way without ever stopping to walk. And now the governor was telling me to stop and walk, that I literally couldn’t run any more, and that I still had a mile to go. And that’s when I remembered that when Jure Robic feels like he’s about to die that he still has 50 percent more to give. I remembered how our brains trick us into feeling like we can’t go on when in fact we can go on for quite some time. And I realized that all of the thoughts and feelings of fatigue and fear and pain weren’t coming from me, but from the governor. And even though I still felt fatigue and pain and fear, knowing they came from the governor made them easier to bear. And then I passed by some race volunteers who told me I was close. And then I thought I heard what sounded like people cheering. And then it was over.
Look, I’m not trying to give you the impression that I’m Jure Robic or some kind of awesome crazy endurance athlete with will power coming out my nostrils. I’m not. I was really, really, really, really out of shape before I started training for the race, and now I’m only really, really, really out of shape. I still have a long road ahead of me in my quest to conquer the governor completely. I’m just a guy who found out something that a lot of people probably already know: the governor is a liar and a cheat, and sticking it to him felt better than anything I’ve experienced in a long, long time.