“The deepest of all human needs in the need for meaning and purpose in life and work.” – Brian Tracy
Every once in a while we hear stories of people performing amazing feats of strength to pick up a car to rescue someone trapped underneath. How are people able to do so, and can you use this to help you overcome significant challenges in your training and event?
In 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis set out to break the record for hiking the Appalachian Trail (2185 miles from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia) in less than 50 days. At that time, the overall record was 47 ½ days held by several competitive male athletes who specialized in ultra-endurance events. However, 12 days in, and with 1650 miles to go, Pharr Davis was broken-down, depleted, and ready to give up. Shin splints and diarrhea had been wreaking havoc with her body for the past 4 days. Negative thoughts and fear were poisoning her mind. She was off the pace she needed and was ready to give up. She approached a juncture on New Hampshire roads where she was meeting her husband, Brew. She told him she was quitting. However, Brew reminded her that he had given up so much of himself to support her on this hike, and that achieving the record was a team effort.
At that point, she realized that the hike was more than about her and the record. Instead, she focused on the love of her husband, being in nature, and the love of her god. Her psychological stress removed, Pharr Davis pushed through her physical discomfort and broke the record by 26 hours. She had harnessed the power of purpose to overcome her fears and doubts. She had focused on something beyond herself and reflected on her core values, allowing her to courageously confront challenges and improve her performance.
We have the ability to do the same. Research by Dr. Victor Stretcher has shown that when people focus on a self-transcending purpose, or a purpose greater than themselves, they become capable of more than they ever thought was possible. Stretcher believes that this is due to ego minimization, which is important because the ego’s job is to protect our “self” and to shut down and flee when faced with threats. When we transcend our “self” and minimize our ego, we can override the fears, anxieties, and physiological protective mechanisms that often hold us back from achieving major breakthroughs.
Also, Dr. Tim Noakes noticed that runners were able to speed up during the final stretch of a race when the end was in sight and questioned why so many runners, seemingly overwhelmed by fatigue, were able to do so. Through his research, Noakes showed that physical fatigue occurs not in the body, but in the brain. It’s not the muscles that wear out, rather, it’s the brain that shuts them down even though they have more to give. This shut down is an innately programmed way of protecting ourselves. Basically, our brain intervenes and creates a perception of failure before we actually harm ourselves. Noakes suggests the brain is our “central governor” of fatigue and that our “ego” shuts us down when confronted by fear or threat. In other words, we are hardwired to retreat when the going gets tough. However, Noakes says it is possible to override the central governor with transcending purpose, such as someone saving another person trapped under a car by lifting the car, or Jennifer Pharr Davis’ performance in breaking the Appalachian Trail record.
Every year people with little or no running experience join organizations like Team in Training to complete their first marathon in support of those with cancer and other diseases. Many of these people have run no more than a 5k in their life, if even that. Another challenge these runners experience is that the training programs used by these organizations often include minimal mileage during the week, thus making the weekend long runs much more difficult. However, many of these runners still push through because they are running for something bigger than themselves. In the case of Team in Training it’s for those with leukemia and lymphoma. Others run for loved ones who have been stricken with other life-ending diseases, including other forms of cancer.
So, what’s the higher purpose that you are running for?
The idea of transcending yourself can be applied to other areas of your life as well, such as your work.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.
Your friend and coach,
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Peak Performance. Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. Rodale, Inc. New York, 2017.
Tim Noakes. “Time to Move Beyond a Brainless Exercise Physiology: The Evidence for Complete Regulation of Human Exercise Performance.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 36, no. 1 (February 2011): 23-35
Tim Noakes. “J. B. Wolffe Memorial Lecture. Challenging beliefs: ex. Africa semper aliquid novi,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 29 no. 5 (May 1997): S71-S90.