Wednesday 14 August 2019

The Pain Cave

I left my bottle at the side of the 400m track when I was 11.  I could do the fast stuff, the anaerobic stuff, 100m sprint or 80m over hurdles but twice round the 400m circuit was too much to run. I'd stop halfway and walk a bit to get my wind back. I was known to be asthmatic, in those pre-inhaler days, but I think a big part of the problem was that my ambition genes were shot off in the war. I just couldn't lift myself across the smallest threshold of grit / determination / bottle . . . never mind Second Wind; The Wall; let alone The Pain Cave. Because it is so alien, I have an anthropologist's fascination with athletes who push that running envelope, who don't wimp out at the first wheeze / rainshower / twinge / rattlesnake / puke-up. Examples:
Zatopek - Andrew Lloyd - Lasse Viren & Emiel Puttemans - Luz LongJohn Landy - Deratu Tulu - Scott Jurek - Tarahumara - Ernest DalzellIditarod - Barkley 100 - Billy Mills - Mark Pollock

If you win the Soccer Cup Final, even if you score the winning goal, you gotta realise that the win is not solely due to you. But for runners, even those with coaches and pacers and a support team, win or lose is up to the runner alone. And in a real sense, as all the great Ultra-runners acknowledge, you're running against (and for) yourself: running you best life. I tried to capture this as doing the best you can . . . and then a little bit more. The last in can have run better than everyone else.

Anyway, I'm here because of a long interview [100 mins] between Joe Rogan and ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter [her feet in the kitchen R] just after she won the Moab 240 [miles! = 380 km] in Utah in under 58 hours. Albeit that it was the first time this desert, canyon, mountain circuit has been run; Rogan has trouble getting his head round the fact that Dauwalter was 10 hours = 20 miles = 30 km = 8% ahead of the next best finisher. Reflecting on that led to the idea that certain barriers are known to be insurmountable . . . until they are surmounted. A lot of nonsense [hindsight!!] was talked about the 4 minute mile being a non plus ultra set by human physiology until Roger Bannister sailed through that 'barrier' after lunch on 6th May 1954. John Landy ran even faster a month later and sub-four became the new normal. Similar things are being said about a sub-two-hour marathon: all the 10 fastest marathoneers, male and female, were born in either Kenya or Ethiopia - except Paula Radcliffe [prev who incidentally Bob (ya wimp) had exercise-induced childhood asthma].

The other relatable thing about Courtney is that she is so normal about it: she stokes up for a race with natchos & beer and candy-bars. She doesn't do [insert your latest health/fitness fad here] but is not averse to giving yoga, stretches or cryotherapy (A Thing in California) - it just hasn't seemed necessary - and maybe seems a bit boring for something that has only uncertain benefit. Better to go out on a trail and, just, run. She's so freakin' normal that when she sees leopards in hammocks and silent cellists in the woods during a night run, she just nods howdydo and runs on. That sounds like Charles Bonnet Syndrome which has been normalised by my vision-impaired mother these last couple of years. Don't worry her none, though: it just is.  As a teacher of Human Physiology, I'm interested in how internal systems breakdown at the edges . . . of old age, stress, and now extreme exercise. And she's so freakin' 'ard that when she goes temporarily blind (possibly corneal oedema) on the last stage of a 100 mile race she just stumbles on to the finish trying to miss hazards, without 100% success [see L for most significant head-wound], with the 5% of her remaining vision.  Sure it cleared up within a few hours; sure why worry? Exec Summary 10 mins about physiology from the Joe Rogan interview.

Her day job? Is teaching science to middle school kids in Colorado. You can see it as she solves problems in her races: logistical, physiological, mental [see above] problems that require a solution that works . . . is evidence based, is scientfic rather than woowah. What's not to love about that? Could there be a better ambassador for the Enlightening Arts? A better role-model for young women?


  1. Respect. I wonder if the competitive thing is a gene or a state of mind? My oldest sister seems to be wired that if someone pulls out in front of her from a side road she has to overtake them. Me? I'm happy to potter along enjoying the view (very slowly). Check out Jasmin Paris for another 'wow' runner, expressing milk along the way and finishing 12 hours ahead of the next person.

    1. Jasmin Paris tribs prev on Blob: