Mur­phy’s Lore

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - Sam Mur­phy tweets @ Sam­mur­phyruns

If you can’t go hard, go harder, says Sam

am near­ing the end of a pro­gres­sion run in which I’ve upped my pace ev­ery minute for 12 min­utes. The com­fort zone in which I be­gan this ses­sion is a dis­tant mem­ory and I’m grab­bing quick sips of air be­tween wheezy blows, my arms and legs mov­ing at a car­toon­ish clip to keep me from fly­ing off the back of the tread­mill.

The plan, once I reached this fi­nal stage, was to main­tain my pace for two min­utes be­fore go­ing back down the gears. But my mind informs me that I can’t pos­si­bly keep up this speed for a fur­ther minute. So I don’t. In­stead, com­pletely on a whim, I ac­tu­ally speed up a notch. I not only nail the ses­sion but fin­ish it feel­ing in­vin­ci­ble.

The no­tion of at­tempt­ing to run away from my fa­tigue sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive – crazy, even – but it was a strat­egy that worked for Emil Zá­topek, the ‘Czech lo­co­mo­tive’ who won three gold medals at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. ‘If you can’t keep go­ing, go faster,’ was re­port­edly one of his favourite max­ims. I’d al­ways thought this was just the leg­en­dar­ily play­ful run­ner’s way of ex­press­ing his cease­less work ethic, but ac­cord­ing to Richard Askwith, au­thor of Zá­topek bi­og­ra­phy To­daywe Diealit­tle (Yel­low Jer­sey), it ex­plains how he se­cured one of his three Olympic golds. ‘[Zá­topek’s] whole strat­egy was based on the as­sump­tion that he could burn off his rivals with one dev­as­tat­ing fi­nal 400m sprint,’ writes Askwith about the 5000m fi­nal. ‘ He kicks, but within 100m has slipped from first to fourth. You can see his world fall­ing apart. Yet in­stead of suc­cumb­ing to de­spair, he ral­lies. Soon he’s claw­ing back the me­tres that sep­a­rate him from [Chris] Chat­away, Ger­man Her­bert Schade and French­man Alain Mi­moun. On the fi­nal bend, all four are level. Then Zá­topek sum­mons what an­other writer called ‘the strength of an­gels’. In a frenzy of self-be­lief and de­ter­mi­na­tion, he pow­ers away to a dra­matic win.’

On one level, this story merely il­lus­trates the fact that we can search in­side our­selves and, al­most al­ways, find more to give. Fac­tors such as how much we want it (whether ‘it’ is an Olympic gold, a PB or a fi­nal mile), how will­ing we are to suf­fer to get it and our ca­pac­ity to with­stand pain come into play here. But what fas­ci­nates me about the Zá­topek ploy is that it isn’t just about keep­ing go­ing or not slow­ing down, it’s about step­ping up your ef­fort when your re­sources are al­most de­pleted. How so?

The essence of its suc­cess, I think, is the change in stim­u­lus. When my mind told me ‘I can’t con­tinue with this,’ my body replied, ‘OK, try THIS’ And my mind was grate­ful for the end of what it per­ceived to be an in­tol­er­a­ble ef­fort de­spite it be­ing re­placed by a greater chal­lenge.

I’ve since found that many a run­ner has, whether wit­tingly or not, em­ployed the ‘when you can’t keep go­ing, go faster’ strat­egy. It helped for­mer Olympian Adam Goucher win the US NCAA Cross-coun­try ti­tle in 1998 and ul­tra run­ner Rob Jebb used it when he ran the sec­ond-fastest ever Bob Gra­ham Round last year.

It’s not front-page news that the brain has a tremen­dous ca­pac­ity to in­flu­ence the body – in­deed, the no­tion lies at the heart of the lat­est the­o­ries about what un­der­lies fa­tigue. ‘ Run­ners al­ways reach the limit of their tol­er­ance for suf­fer­ing be­fore they reach the limit of their phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity, hence the phe­nom­e­non of the “end spurt”,’ says Wil­liam A Peters, au­thor of

The Re­silient Run­ner (Creates­pace). But could it be that tweak­ing the source of that suf­fer­ing – be it speed, sur­face or gra­di­ent – could dupe the brain into with­stand­ing just a lit­tle more? If so, it gives the old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ a whole new mean­ing.

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