Archive for April, 2010

“I want to solve the demon”

Jure Robic is perhaps “the world’s best endurance athlete.”

Over the past two years, Robic, who is 40 years old, has won almost every race he has entered, including the last two editions of ultracycling’s biggest event, the 3,000-mile Insight Race Across America (RAAM). In 2004, Robic set a world record in the 24-hour time trial by covering 518.7 miles. Last year, he did himself one better, following up his RAAM victory with a victory six weeks later in Le Tour Direct, a 2,500-mile race on a course contrived from classic Tour de France routes. Robic finished in 7 days and 19 hours, and climbed some 140,000 feet, the equivalent of nearly five trips up Mount Everest.

To achieve such success, Robic trains 335 days each year, for five and a half hours per day, “logging some 28,000 miles, or roughly one trip around the planet.”

As explained in this NYT profile, however, it’s Robic’s insanity “that sets him apart from the rest of the world.”

The craziness is methodical and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.

‘‘Mujahedeen, shooting at me,’’ he explains. ‘‘So I ride faster.’’

His wife, a nurse, interjects: ‘‘The first time I went to a race, I was not prepared to see what happens to his mind. We nearly split up.’’

As kottke notes, Robic’s story is “awesome and disturbing.” Kottke also points us to another fascinating episode of RadioLab, this on the limits of the human body:

Jad and Robert talk to two Ironman competitors, Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham to find out how they do what they do. Physiologist Dr. David Jones tells us how to trick the voice in your head that tells you you’re exhausted. Then we follow two men, Patrick Autissier and Jure Robic, as they bike across the country as fast as they can in a crazy race called The Ride Across America. Producer Lulu Miller brings us their story and New York Times writer Daniel Coyle walks us through the process of physical and mental breakdown RAAM competitors face.

Also worth checking out—Discovery produces an interesting video series called “Human Body: Pushing the Limits.”

UPDATE: Here’s the clip of Julie Moss’ epic body breakdown in the 1982 Hawaii Ironman referenced on RadioLab:

April 22, 2010 at 10:45 pm 3 comments

A strong body, strong mind

Discover magazine explains “Why athletes are geniuses“:

This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action…. The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports.

MindHacks explains the methods of the brain scanning research and concludes:

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice. It’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

April 21, 2010 at 11:25 am 1 comment

Play is the beginning of knowledge

From a review of Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind in this month’s The Atlantic:

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Update: Andrew Sullivan explains why play matters:

Once one leaves the reductionism of evolutionary biology, can we not see play as also, well, play? And play is defined by its uselessness, its freedom, its ability to resist productivity. It is a form of ultimate freedom – in my view, the freest human beings can be. Because a game has no known winner in advance, if it has any winner at all. It is about being together and engaging together without an ulterior purpose.

That’s why I see play as something close to the divine. That’s why I believe Jesus loved children. Because, in play, they had found a way to be with each other without any other over-arching purpose.

April 21, 2010 at 10:51 am 1 comment


Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More


Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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