Run, human, run
The “conceptual Swiss Army knife” of endurance
In his foreword to Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Endurance, the best-selling author and running enthusiast Malcolm Gladwell recounts two “superb” races he has run—one as a thirteen-year-old against boys two years older, and a personal-best five-kilometre race he ran at age fifty-one. He writes that in both races, inexplicably, he ran faster than training and experience could have predicted. Try as he did to make lightning “strike twice,” he could not repeat his two outlying feats of endurance. Nor could he explain them—that is, Gladwell suggests, until this book came along. He calls himself its “perfect audience.”
Hutchinson, one of North America’s top exercise-science journalists, and a writer I have long admired, begins the book with his own anecdote of an anomalous race, as a junior 1,500-metre runner at McGill University. During a snowy bus ride to a competition, worrying that his pursuit of a sub-four minute 1,500-metre run might elude him, he sifted through all the reasons why he should save his energy to attempt the breakthrough for another day—this was a ridiculously slow track, the subpar competition was unlikely to push him. Then, while watching his female teammate run to a scorching personal best and a place in the national collegiate 1,500s, he decided to toss out his “overwrought” strategizing and just “run as hard as I could.” He crossed the line in three minutes and 52.7 seconds, a personal best by an implausible nine seconds. Hutchinson was exhilarated, and confused. In one race, he had improved his time more than he had cumulatively over five previous seasons of racing. He writes that he had freed himself of his pre-race expectations yet concedes that “knowing (or believing) that your ultimate limits are all in your head” didn’t magically transform him into a faster runner in subsequent races. After suffering an injury just before the Olympic trials at the age of 28, Hutchinson hobbled away from the Canadian national team. His obsession with trying to understand the “conceptual Swiss Army knife” that he calls human endurance, though, remained.
Hutchinson had earned a PhD in physics while competing (an impressive feat of endurance in itself) but now turned to journalism for a career. He carved out a niche writing about the science of fitness for such publications as Outside, Runner’s World, Canadian Running, and the Globe and Mail, translating the cutting-edge knowledge generated in science labs to those hungry to apply it: top-flight athletes, sports coaches, and weekend warriors alike. When I was writing a book about my attempt to become fitter after the age of fifty (Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer), I kept a heavily underlined copy of Hutchinson’s first book—Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?— on my desk. Though unfortunately titled (for one thing, the answer is that both are important), it was a supremely handy field guide, a kind of “fitness for dummies,” but for those with an intellectual bent.
All this is to say that I was giddy to dip into Endure, eager to see Hutchinson stretch as a writer, applying his usual scientific rigour to his lifelong quest to become a stronger runner. His high-octane prologue takes us trackside to witness perhaps the most audacious attempt at a world record since Roger Bannister’s assault on the four-minute mile in the last century: Eliud Kipchoge’s challenge to break a two-hour marathon, backed (to the tune of millions) by Nike. Six months earlier, Hutchinson’s award-winning journalism had earned him an invitation into Nike’s top-secret lab facilities where a team laboured over every detail to help Kipchoge shave off every possible second from his time: from designing a faster shoe and more efficient racing garb (of course) to tweaking his training, fueling, hydration. The team was also researching optimal race conditions—track, temperature, humidity, pacing—
a practice that would automatically void a world record if Kipchoge did in fact set one when he ran.
Can Kipchoge, as the Nike slogan says, just do it? Can he break an endurance barrier in six months that Hutchinson himself predicts will not likely fall until at least 2075? Hutchinson leaves us hanging, right to the last chapter, for the result, though as far as narrative cliffhangers go, this one’s more of a molehill. Even those casually acquainted with the sport would surely know that Nike could not push Kipchoge under that two-hour barrier. Not with all its gimmickry, which includes a pace car, a triangular formation of pacers ahead of Kipchoge to break air resistance, as well as a perfect stadium setting, and ideal weather. And not with all of the millions Nike spent on performance-enhancing shoe designs and testosterone science.
Why would shaving three minutes off the men’s marathon world record be so tough? Hutchinson, who renders complex research in cloudless prose, presents three prevailing scientific models of endurance, each with its own unanswered questions.
The first is that every individual body, like a machine, has a maximum limit to performance, which training and physiology can predict (except, of course, when those anomalous performances blow past all predictions). The second, called the “central governor” theory, holds that the brain, interpreting stress signals, unconsciously puts the brakes on performance to prevent us from pushing past physiological limits and, say, boiling our organs by running too hard in hot temperatures (though apparently 143 football players have done so, dying of heatstroke between 1960 and 2016). The third is much like the second, only that the brain consciously applies the brakes so we invariably leave some untapped reserve in the tank (but if the decision is conscious, why, with so much at stake, could Kipchoge not dig a little deeper and run hard enough to collapse on the finish line rather finishing with enough energy to jog to his coach for a consoling hug?).
Hutchinson opens the next six chapters with anecdotes about astonishing feats of endurance, then marshals a whack of scientific studies that explain what limits performance—pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, fuel—and which model of endurance best explains it. That a rare few athletes occasionally and inexplicably blow past those limits, he argues, suggests we require a more complex model of human endurance to explain them, perhaps a combination of the three theories.
Hutchinson’s survey of the science is near exhaustive, and near exhausting. Well before the third section—which focuses on ways we might overcome the brain’s role in limiting performance—I knew I would appreciate this book for reference but found myself growing grumpy in the company of (mostly male) scientists defending theories of endurance that we instinctually know to be limited. I wanted to hear more from the athletes producing these anomalous performances. What did they think propelled them to such magic? Hutchinson, relying too often on secondary sources, rarely asks, relying on science to explain.
Hutchinson even lets the science overwhelm a truly wonderful narrative—the quest of his overwrought younger self to shave off the seconds that would have elevated him from pretty good to an elite runner. That oft-terrified racer pops up later when he takes up the marathon in midlife, only to find himself battling the same barriers and demons he had had as a young middle-distance runner even though he now knows scientific methods for overcoming some of them. But these appearances are too fleeting to keep Hutchinson’s narrative afloat through all that science.
Perhaps I am not this book’s perfect reader, being female. Bookending this volume with sections on Nike’s Breaking2 project, frankly, put me in a cranky mood. For Nike, this was a massive publicity stunt to generate sales for the release of a special-edition shoe. If the millions it poured into science produced any real breakthroughs, we wouldn’t know—Nike kept its findings a corporate secret. So why treat that stunt with such gravitas in the narrative? The ethics of the project aside, Nike was not the least bit interested in pushing out the limits of human endurance. They spent millions trying to expand men’s endurance. No women marathoners were invited to participate in the project, though female distance runners now outnumber their male counterparts in North America. Nike didn’t think it worthwhile to spend a dime trying to slice three minutes off the 2:15:25 women’s world record. Women weren’t even allowed to compete in the Boston marathon until 1972 (it was 1984 for the Olympics) yet if a woman could run a 2:12:25 marathon, that time would be good enough to have won the prestigious Boston Marathon outright three times since 2007, besting the top male finishers. Perhaps that’s not the kind of human achievement Nike wanted to inspire.
Unfortunately, gender is a bit of a blind spot for Hutchinson as well. There’s emerging research that suggests that women are very different (and superior in some respects) endurance athletes—from how we burn fuel, work muscles, feel pain, even find motivation to push through physiological and psychological limits. But, too often, physiologists recruit only men for exercise studies, as if applying the findings to women were merely a matter of downsizing results to their smaller frames. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon, says competitions have been designed to showcase men’s strengths rather than women’s ability to endure extreme heat and cold, sleep deprivation, intense pain and stress, all while covering very long distances without external fueling, that is by digging into and burning fat stores in the body alone. Hutchinson never addresses sex differences in science or performance and overwhelmingly features men in his anecdotes of extreme endurance. And he ends off his survey calling for a more complex scientific explanation of human endurance than the three prevailing theories on offer. Considering the complexity of gender might be a good place to start.