In 2008, Haile Gebrselassie made the run of his life. The weather for the Berlin marathon was perfect, a clear cool morning in late September. At the starting gun the 35-year-old Ethiopian set off at the front of the pack. By the halfway mark, he was running at a record-beating pace. But with Kenyan James Kwambai matching him stride for stride, the path to victory was still uncertain. An hour and a half into the race, however, Kwambai fell back, and from then on Gebrlassie might as well have been running solo. He passed under the Brandenburg Gate and crossed the finish line, breaking the world record by nearly half a minute.
The performance was a remarkable achievement by a human body continuously pushed to its limit. Or rather, that’s what it looked like to the untrained eye. But when South African research physiologist Timothy Noakes reviewed Gebrlassie’s performance he noticed something extraordinary: even though the runner had seemed to be going flat-out throughout the race, when he reached the last mile Gebrlassie began to run even faster. Somehow, he had harnessed a previously untapped reserve of energy to accelerate himself toward the finish line. “End spurt,” as physiologists call it, is an automatic behavior often observed among competitive runners. Yet conventional physiology offers no way to explain it. According the standard view, what limits our performance is the physical strength of our bodies, specifically the ability of our cardiovascular system to provide oxygen and fuel for our muscles. If we go out and give it all we’ve got – if we unleash the “110%” that high school football coaches ask us for – there should be nothing left to give.
What scientists have recently discovered, however, is that we always have more to give, no matter what form of exertion we’re undertaking. “Even the world record marathoner had a reserve,” Noakes points out. We can’t consciously choose to tap it, however, because our minds have a subconscious self-limiting mechanism.
To explore this effect, Noakes and a group of his colleagues gave a group of elite cyclists a drug called methylphenidate, a stimulant often prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and narcolepsy. The key thing to understand about methylphenidate in the context of the experiment is that it has no effect on the lungs, heart, or muscles. It only affects the brain. The researchers then asked their subjects to pedal hard on a stationary bike for as long as they could. It turned out that the cyclists taking the drug were able to generate significantly more power and to pedal much longer than when they had only taken a placebo – even though they didn’t feel like they were working any harder. Noakes concluded that the methylphenidate was interfering with the brain’s automatic self-limiting mechanism, allowing the cyclists to tap their otherwise inaccessible reserves.
But why do we have such a mechanism in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better to be able to run as fast as possible, and exert as much strength, whenever we want? The problem is that if we could exert ourselves 100 percent whenever we wanted, we’d exhaust ourselves and probably wind up injured as well, just as a driver who redlines his engine will burn it out. So evolution has given us a built-in safeguard.
Its origins go back millions of years ago, to a time when our ancestors were long-distance runners who hunted prey by chasing it down over long distances in the heat. “They had to pace themselves,” Noakes says, “because once they caught the antelope they had to kill it, and then had to carry it back to where they lived. So it would be pointless to be exhausted at the moment they caught the antelope.”
So, like the parents of an irresponsible teen who only lets her use the family car under direct supervision, our subconscious minds keep us from enjoying total control. You might well wonder what’s the point of having extra strength, speed and endurance if we can never use them. The answer is that we can use it – but only when we really, really have to. That judgment doesn’t rest with the conscious mind. It’s made by our emotional subconscious.
When I was researching my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, I came across innumerable cases in which the override kicked in: stories of soldiers in the heat of battle running on broken legs, of hikers fighting off wild animals four times their size, of people lifting cars off accident victims. The one inviolate rule is that only the strongest of emotions — intense fear, wild rage — can break our inner shackles. Fierce competition can do the trick as well. It’s no accident that world records tend to be set amid the intense drama of the Olympics.
The important lesson to take home from all this is that you possess hidden abilities – superpowers, you could say — that you’ll never experience until the moment you find yourself in desperate need. The summoning event might be a life-threatening crisis like a house fire or an automobile accident. Or it might be something quite wonderful – like the sight of the approaching finish line, on a clear September morning, when you’re a few moments away from setting a world record.
(A version of this essay originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of Red Bulletin magazine).