Our Central Governor
When we’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, challenge or problem, what is it that makes us say “enough, I give up!”? And how often, shortly afterwards, do we think that maybe we just gave up too early and that we should have persevered and continued on.
Tim Noakes, a South African professor in exercise and sports science, wrote in his book the Lore of Running about an inbuilt human mechanism where our body begins to send out signals to the mind to get us to stop, or at least rest, when we’re in a high level of stress for prolonged periods of time. In science speak, it is described as the central governor regulation of body homeostasis. Basically, the theory is that this ‘governor’ acts as a protective mechanism to prevent us from pushing our bodies too far and so protect us from the ultimate stress, which is, and to put it more bluntly, death. However, Noakes also spoke about how this mechanism, though logically useful for our self-preservation, actually seems to try and trick us in to believing that we are just about to collapse and that we’d better stop when we perceive sensations of a kind of impending doom when, in fact, that is not the case. In other words, it is proposed that these signals from the body come well in advance of the actual true danger, and so we have a tendency to stop even though we still have quite a lot still left in the tank, so to speak. In other words, we give up well before we need or have to. Although I understood this concept when I read it first some 15 years ago, I’d never experienced it personally, at least not until I participated in my most recent 100km race last October, one that didn’t at all go the way I’d have hoped.
On the 22nd October, I fronted up at the start line of the 100km Wihan Kilometrit ultrarunning race near Tampere, Finland. Under normal circumstances I probably shouldn’t have been there as I’d being feeling pretty crap for about one and a half weeks with a constant tickle in my throat and blocked sinuses. However, it was the last race in the Suomi Sataset (Finland Hundreds) series and since I had already finished the first two, I really wanted to complete the entire series. Since I didn’t have a fever, I figured that I could still do it, despite being fairly under the weather leading up to the race. A second reason was that I had no plans to do the series in the future as my idea of ultra-running is not getting a head spin from doing short laps around town streets and carparks. So, I convinced myself that this was what I wanted to do, even though I secretly wished I was in bed with a hot cup of tea and a good book about anything but running. Mind over matter right? In any case, attempting to run at my normal pace was out of the question and so I’d already decided that day was just going to be about having fun and simply enjoying the experience. Unfortunately, the reality of my decision and what it would mean began to already sink in well before the starting pistol had been fired – my resting heart rate was at 116 bpm, rather than the usual sub 55. Some of that was surely nerves, but I knew things weren’t right and that it was going to be a really long day. I was going to suffer at some point, probably quite badly. So much for the fun and enjoyment!
We were sent on our way at 9am. The first 10km went ok. I didn’t really notice anything else as I was busy recording the initial part of my run, just for fun, with a GoPro camera strapped to my chest. My friend, Pedro, was cycling next to me, taking some additional video with another camera and we were otherwise just chatting about this and that. Quite pleasant really. Maybe things weren’t going to be as bad as I thought at the start? Then something happened in the space of perhaps a few kilometres. I started to feel pretty bad. Heavy legs and a heavy mind. Pedro asked me what was wrong and I said, ‘Well nothing, if I was at the 90km mark, but unfortunately that’s still 80km away’. Pedro, a former professional mountain biker, already knew what that meant; I was in for a long, miserable day. I knew it too. Anyway, all I could do was keep going and see what developed. I soon ditched the camera, and Pedro too, and now tried to only focus on getting into my zone, the place where I have no concept of time and my mind and body are on a kind of autopilot.
At certainly milestones I would do a check on how I was going; 20km, still ok. 30km still ok, sort of. 40km, oh God, I’m in trouble! It seems that when approaching the marathon distance in an ultrarun, many ultrarunners hit their first bad patch, which is probably more mental than physical. It’s maybe due to remembering how fatigued or bad one felt in the past after having completed marathons when giving it one’s all. But this was a different set of sensations altogether. I was running really slow, much slower than usual at this point in an ultrarun, in fact, about 40 minutes down on my usual pace for the marathon. My heart rates were up about 20-25 bpm at any given pace so something definitely wasn’t right (geez, did I really still need any more convincing I should’ve stayed home?). However, I’ve run long enough to know that this was not the end and, despite feeling like the dog’s breakfast, I was still in control. I also knew that since I was already so far behind my usual pace at this point, it was much more than likely that something even worse was waiting for me down the track. I had to change something right now or I would be definitely DNFing at some point. So, I began using a 5 minute run, 5 minute walk or, in more layman’s term, a snail’s pace.
I trudged on to the half way or 50km mark with this half run – half walk strategy. It was lucky that I did as now the thought of running even one more minute in a row was just simply out of the question. With just under 6 hours since the start, I calculated a possible finishing time and it certainly wasn’t under 12 hours! It is a very hard thing to negative split ultrarunning races, as it requires a great feel for perfect pace judgment, as well as also needing for most things to go your way on the day, regardless of your fitness level. I think the best that I could hope for, if things didn’t change, was to go close to 13 hours, that is, the same again plus an extra hour. The ‘impending doom’ was still a while away, but the thought of another 50km was not something I could deal with very well at this point. So, time for another change to my strategy. I now only focused on just completing 5km at a time, before worrying about the next 5km stretch. It was as if I was now entered into a series of nice short ‘fun runs’. That was something anyway could do, right?
My first ‘fun run’ went ok, as did the next, but when I reached the 65km point (actually it was exactly 66.66km or one third of the race), the wheels started to well and truly come off. I was now starting to feel in a way that I’d never experienced before. It was like a kind of like a, well, impending doom. I was now ready to quit right, and not just because I felt really bad, but because I truly thought that I might cause myself some serious physical trouble if I continued. I became very cold and started shivering and I slowed to a very slow shuffle, which resulted in me getting even colder. My body just felt like it was shutting down. However, my brain was still functioning surprisingly well. I was fully aware of what was happening to my body and it seemed as if my mind was watching it as a spectator, like a passenger in a car that is about to breakdown. This gave me a kind of safe temporary sanctuary to consider my thoughts and options for what to do next. Then I remembered what Tim Noakes had said about that feeling of impending doom, and that it was not necessarily real. Things were maybe not actually as bad as they seemed to be. This thought led me to major race strategy change number three. I had now completely forgotten about sticking to any kind of timed run-walk strategy. It was now all about making sure I got enough warm food and drink into me at the main aid station on each lap and just putting one foot in front of the other for as long as I could. What I then noticed was that a crazy debate had started in my head. My very own angels and demons* argument about whether I should keep going or quit … and I was playing both roles!
This battle raged on for the next 15km. To an outsider, I’m sure I just looked like a sullen figure who was a bit out of it, maybe someone to feel sorry for, but in my mind it was all systems go! The angel was on my left shoulder whispering gently ‘You can’t stop now, you have the strength to finish’, while the demon on my right was shouting ‘Dude, you’re a loser, you can’t do it. Your not a real runner, so just give up now!’ After a while I wasn’t sure which one was which. I was feeling worse with each progressive lap. Then I began to wonder whether the angel had changed his mind after saying ‘Look, this is actually crazy, I was wrong. You could even get permanent heart damage if you keep going while your sick’, while his impish counterpart now seemed to be the encouraging one, ‘Hey, the first two races you did this summer would have all been for nothing if you stop now. You’re so close! Just keep going!’ I just didn’t know whom to believe anymore. What I was sure of, though, was that I was still able to keep moving forward at a reasonable walking speed, although running was now just a very infrequent gesture to maybe try and convince any spectators that I was actually in the race. Maybe it was even more to convince myself that I was even a runner at all, as I was seriously entertaining the idea of giving up ultrarunning altogether.
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Part 2, entitled ‘Even the worst hunger is cured with one meal’, will be published before the end of December.
* Running with Angels and Demons was the title of one of my earlier blog articles about the love-hat relationship I have with running and how both suffering and pleasure are closely intertwined.