9,000 Seconds, With Only 47 to Spare

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In this personal essay, Nicholas Thompson, editor in chief of Wired, writes about what he has overcome spiritually, mentally, and physically, to continue to improve as a runner, running a sub-2:30 marathon at age 44. Thompson considers the role that running has played in his life (he’s overcome cancer) and how his father inspired him to excel. Thompson knows that hard physical training, technology in the form of GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and nutrition regimens are important, but he believes running is simply a form of hide and seek with your own brain, ever vigilant in protecting the body from injury.

My variant of thyroid cancer was eminently treatable, and in the months that followed I recovered slowly. At first, I would step out of my apartment and struggle to walk the one block uphill from my apartment, in Brooklyn, to Prospect Park. But in due course I could walk anywhere, and eventually run. One glorious day, I both ran 10 miles and talked optimistically with my wife about having children. Fitness came back faster than I expected. Nine months after the diagnosis, I ran 15 slow miles in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, and burst into tears as I came down from the last peak.

So why do runners have limits? And why do the limits differ from one person to the next? In part, it’s because of physiological factors: blood oxygen levels, lactate, muscular strength, each of which has a genetic component. But there’s another theory, put forward by a sports physiologist named Tim Noakes. As he puts it, in what he calls the central governor model, part of the reason we slow is because our brain is telling our body to stop because it’s scared. It doesn’t want you to overheat or develop a stress fracture in your shin, so it preemptively hits the brakes. If Noakes’ theory is right, it implies a mind-body dilemma. We all can go faster. We just have to persuade our brains not to start the subconscious shutdown process right away. But the only thing we can use to trick our brain is our brain.

Hitting my goal meant running a marathon in 9,000 seconds, and I crossed the line with just 47 to spare: 2:29:13. Only one person older than me went faster that day. My family sent texts full of emojis and love. Finley came running to congratulate me, to celebrate, and to reveal that, having seen me the week before, and toward the end of the race, he’d worried I’d pushed it too far. For the first time, he said, I had looked like I was truly exhausted. I’d made it. I’d done it. But now it was time to stop for a while.

We give our children our genes and our love, and we don’t have any idea of what, in the end, they’ll do with them. My grandfather scarred my father by trying to push him into sports; my father inspired me by taking me running around the block. Maybe one of my sons will write a tell-all one day about the pressure his father put on him to be something he didn’t want to be. Or maybe they’ll find that they love the sport too, and I’ll end up drinking beet juice with my grandkids.

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