Methodical Madness and Fatigue

Read this: “That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger” (See BugMeNot for password).

It is a story about the Slovenian ultra-endurance athlete Jure Robic who's won the last two RAAM races. You can see some pictures from the 2005 race and the 2004 race, including the treatment of a bad case of saddle sores. He's a tough guy.

It's a great article, quoting Timothy Noakes as saying:

In fatigue, it only feels like we're going to die. The actual physiological risks that fatigue represents are essentially trivial.

And Timothy must know, he made some pretty ground-breaking experiments a few years ago, showing that fatigue is something in the brain, not the muscles. And it can be overridden. Robic goes crazy:

The craziness is methodical, however, and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.

“Mujahedeen, shooting at me,”, he explains. “So I ride faster.”

The fact that his crew play traditional Slovene marches and Lenny Kravitz for him while he's riding might also be a factor.

It reminds me of when I did my very first Ironman race in Rødekro 1994. I don't think I trained more than 8–10 hours/week then, but for more than 6 weeks leading up to the race I spent the last 30 minutes before I fell asleep thinking through the race in minute detail, including what I'd do if I had a flat on the bike, cramps, food and drinking strategy etc. I wasn't fit at all, but I was mentally 100% prepared.

I finished in 12:31′50″ completely stripped of all energy and humanity, just a raw soul and an exhausted body, and I remember the last 15 km of the run like in a dream, repeating that one mantra that I had programmed my brain with in the last 6 weeks: “Don't walk, run” over and over. Completely detached yet so incredibly present in what I was doing. Like when Robic explains:

“I feel like if I go on, I will die,” he says, struggling for words. “It is everything at the same moment, piled up over and over. Head, muscles, bones. Nobody can understand. You cannot imagine it until you feel it.”

A few moments later, he says: “The pain doesn't exist for me. I know it is there because I feel it, but I don't pay attention to it. I sometimes see myself from the other view, looking down at me riding the bike. It is strange, but it happens like that.” Robic veers like this when he discusses pain. He talks of incomprehensible suffering one moment and of dreamlike anesthesia the next.

I understand. On a smaller scale, but I understand.