Sifting through an excellent site on sports psychology (Marvin Zauderer's personal site has a wonderfully long page filled with a broad array of articles on that topic), I tripped over a fascinating New York Times article on Jure Robic, one of the most successful ultracyclists out there. These are guys who ride as far they can in 24 hours, or ride across the continental United States in just a few days. Many days and thousands of continuous miles on the bike, with very little sleep interspersed. In other words, they're a little crazy to start with. (As well as physiologically different from you and me).
But Robic goes beyond the usual "embrace the pain" banalities. Far beyond.
As the race progresses, he literally descends into a swamp of mental illness. And the article is a wonderful, fresh lens on the very tenuous difference between the "mentally ill" and "the rest of us."
All endurance athletes have reached that certain point in a ride or race when our demons bash down the locked door to the cellar in the back of our minds and emerge to taunt us. The difference is, Robic's demons come all the way out; they do the macarena on the dining room table. He doesn't have -- or chooses to deactivate -- the mental security gate that most of us would never mess with, the one that keeps those demons at a certain distance, no matter how close. You and I might enjoy facing down pain, fear, harsh memories of the past (see Suitcase of Courage's recent post on Bill Strickland's fine book, Ten Points, for a perfect example of the latter), low self-esteem -- all kinds of worthy adversaries -- as part of the challenge and reward of riding. Hate to say it, but your very harshest day on the bike makes Robic's happiest day look like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. He is John Howard and August Strindberg rolled into one.
Now, I'm not romanticizing this idea. For all his talent, I don't envy Robic. I'm a mental health counselor, and even at this early stage in my career (thanks to a mid-life job switch), I have seen enough of demons and the destruction they inspire to last a lifetime. But there's a difference: When Robic's not on the bike, he's at least in balance enough to be socially acceptable. He's more or less sane, in control.
So it's okay that the article is funny. I found myself wishing I'd thought of the title first: "That Which Does Not Kill Me, Makes Me Stranger."
There's also some super-cool stuff in there about the psychological nature of endurance-related pain. This is the kind of stuff I really dig. (Guess it's not surprising, since I'm a therapist and an endurance athlete.) Turns out it may be closer in nature to an emotion (i.e., a way of perceiving reality) than to an actual, biological reality.
See, there seems to be a "governor" built in to the brain/mind that keeps us from pushing past a certain level of endurance, because our evolutionary genetic makeup "believes" that we might need the last bit of reserves for something important -- say, running from a sabertooth tiger. So the brain/mind actually creates a sensation of pain when it's not there (or amplifies it, at least), to get us to back off.
Thing is, when you're on the bike, there are no sabertooths (except for that joker in the green jersey who's been on your wheel the entire break). And there appears to be only "trivial" consequences to turning off that governor and pushing beyond -- way beyond. It might feel like our body's on fire, and of course, there's always the danger of overtraining, but we won't die, which, at a certain point, is what the ultracyclist's body is stridently trying to tell him will happen. The theory goes that Robic's "unique" psychological make-up -- his mental illness -- disengages that governor. It just bypasses it altogether.
What lies beyond is strange country, indeed. And beyond that? Podiums.