Saturday, August 21, 2010
The most important distance in Ultrarunning
For a 100m sprint the mental component is only required for a few seconds, and the focus is to ensure your body is giving 100% of its physical capacity for the duration of the race. However there are physiological limits on the speed at which you can run, given the anaerobic nature of the exertion and the use of the fight or flight energy reserves.
As you progress to longer and longer distances, there is of course a physiological component, but the importance of the mental will to keep going takes a more significant role. It is actually very unusual for a runner to drop out of a race because they are physically unable to continue. The only occasions of this I can recall are related to injury such as a sprain, or through heat exhaustion or dehydration. More often than not the person will drop out of a race by choice, with the belief that they can’t go on. I’m not for one minute suggesting that we should all continue to run until we are physically unable to continue, but more to open the discussion as to how much we could achieve with the correct motivation and drive.
The thing is from a physical perspective we can do far more than we think, as our perceived ability is based upon what we have experienced. The running forums are full of stories from runners who have exceeded their expectations, and develop a life changing belief that they can achieve anything they put their mind to. Sure we may have to do more training, and have to change our priorities in life, but we believe we can do it.
There are a great number of examples of extreme human achievement which illustrate this, from people such as Pat Farmer, Kurt Fearnley and Dean Karnazes who have all completed seemingly super human physical challenges, and yet each of them consider themselves to just be ordinary people.
So what is it that differentiates these “ordinary people”, from what we ordinary people would call “ordinary people”?
It’s an overused phrase that you need to have good parents, suggesting that genetics pay an important part in running ability. I believe that we all have the same fundamentals and that we can train our body to work efficiently; that is to say that our running style is not set in stone and can be altered through specific stretching and strength training. John Landy, one of the three great athletes striving to be the first through the 4 minute mile barrier (as detailed in Neal Bascomb’s “The Perfect Mile”) changed his style by keeping his head down out of sight of an observer behind a wall, to ensure he was running with bent knees.
So with all else being equal (or close to it) the real difference is what goes on in your head. When I first started running I thought that to run a marathon was the ultimate running distance. After crossing the finish line of my first half marathon with my brother he asked me how I’d feel about doing it again? It hit home how far a marathon was beyond my world of experience. Of course running a marathon wasn’t impossible for me, but at the time it seemed like it was.
This is something that these guys (and girls) who exceed what most of us believe to be the limits of human ability must do with every challenge. They have to stretch the belief of what is thought to be the limit, and make that the new reality.
So the most important distance in ultrarunning is 8 inches, the 8 inches between your ears.
“Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceives ourselves.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau