Sister Intensity and the Riven Cerebrum

14 February 2008

Your brain at mile 22.

I’m not a natural athlete. I recall a day in seventh grade gym class when I forgot my shorts and sneakers. I asked the PE teacher if I could run the 100 yard dash anyway. Looking upon me with prescient pity, he allowed it. Twenty yards later, the pencils and magic markers flopped out of my back pocket and I had to stop. It wasn’t the finest hour of my adolescence. The guy who “pantsed” me later would have agreed.

Such is life for those blessed with an artsy, Lego-loving genetic profile.

Ah, but I made up for my weedy physique with a fierce drive to out-work competitors. I’d simply “want it” more. I’ve cultivated a certain wiry stubbornness. This grit has probably made me the decent marathoner I am today.

Still, I’ve not yet qualified for Boston.

Consider last year’s Myrtle Beach Marathon. I clocked a 3:28 (then a personal record). Afterwards, a group of friends congratulated me. Amidst the congenial back slapping, one person (an accomplished runner whom I’ll simply refer to as “Intensity”) pulled me aside and bluntly asked, “Why haven’t you qualified yet?”

Taken aback by her direct question, I dribbled out flimsy rumblings about a “wall,” withering pain in my legs, and that drastically inaccurate 3rd mile marker.

Mercilessly she added, “You should have qualified by now.”

Then she just stared at me. Her eyes bored into mine like a penetrating sensei demanding that I, Daniel San explain why the Cobra Kai had just steamrolled me again.

I responded with more verbal meandering, explaining that I did my best, fought through pain, and never, ever walked. This I felt, was perfectly reasonable. “I just don’t have enough leg strength,” I concluded.

“No,” Sister Intensity responded coldly. “You are mentally weak.”

If you’ve never been looked in the eye and proclaimed the mental equivalent of a box jellyfish, you just haven’t experienced life to its fullest.

You’re respected professionally, educated, and hardly ever eat fast food. Nevertheless, you’re a troglodyte. Even though you’ve run endurance races attempted by only a small fraction of the population, you’ve been declared protozoa.

You’ll have to trust me here. Intensity has “more dedicated runner than you” written all over her. Somehow, I sensed that the grammar school “rubber and glue” defense would not salvage the situation.

What could I say? I log 70+ mile weeks during marathon training. I run through forest trails in the dark for crying out loud. And I assure you, weather never stops me. How could she question my resolve?

The mind can convince itself of anything, even that it is strong. But the marathon calls the mind’s bluff. It brings commitment and focus into stark relief. It forces one to confront the true nature of determination.

Worse, our brains are wired to work against us. In the latter stages of the marathon, every fiber of the body cries out for relief. The brain becomes a crisis manager, interpreting signals of exhaustion from the body as threats of imminent system failure. In turn, it sends out powerfully incessant demands to cease any unnecessary running.

And your brain can be quite persuasive.

It will actually send signals that mimic collapse before the actual point of collapse. It wants you to stop before you crumble. This is why mid-race you feel like death warmed over but somehow find the energy to “kick” at the finish. Your brain realizes you’re about to stop and allows a last burst of speed. This is real science, folks. Your brain tricks you. If you’re not ready for this clever cerebral assault, you will fold like a cheap lawn chair.

So, I have an extremely capable, strong brain. And really, thank goodness for that.

The problem lies with my mind, that small part of my consciousness that believes I can exceed my limits. My mind must conquer the ponderous evolutionary imperatives of my lumpy grey matter. Yes, it actually is mental weakness to give in to the influence of your brain. Sit in a rubber room and think about that one for a while.

And so I run Myrtle Beach Saturday. My body is trained. The machine is ready.

But what of the ghost within?

– Dean

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