Aiming for…Pain?

27 10 2012

Does exertion need to hurt? How much does success have to hurt? 

by AndrewLeonard

In Philadelphia, the elite New Zealander Kim Smith was running hard, breathing heavily and testing her limits as she  pushed through the last few kilometers of the Philadelphia Half Marathon. She had saliva all over her face. It was not a pretty sight.

In Hong Kong, Lau Chek-lun crossed the finish line at the Standard Chartered Half Marathon, and collapsed 40 meters later. He was declared dead soon after.

On the training track, my teammates sprinted interval after interval, their faces contorted and grimacing in agony as they worked their bodies to the maximum. At the finish line, they plopped down on all fours, heaving and wheezing as they tried to catch their breath before the next sprint.

And now, as I strive to become a strong, faster and better runner, I can’t help but wonder: how much pain is enough pain? Where is the line between pushing too hard and under-performing? At what point does exertional pain become a liability, rather than an accepted reality?

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful,” said Roger Bannister, the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, “is the man who will win.”

For years, the four minute mile seemed an elusive and impossible goal. The Australian runner John Landy himself declared that it was an impenetrable “brick wall”, and after running the mile in under 4’03 on six separate occasions, vowed, “I shall not attempt it again”.

Then came Roger Bannister.

As a medical student at Oxford University at the time, Mr. Bannister could only afford 45 minutes of training a day. His weekly mileage, by modern standards, was surprisingly low. And yet, despite minimal training, Mr. Bannister made history in 1954 by breaking the four-minute barrier. How did he do it?

Many believe that Mr. Bannister’s legendary feat was achieved not so much by his physicality as by his psychology. Gunder Haegg, a Swedish runner who came within 1.3 seconds of breaking the four-minute barrier in 1945, “always thought that the four-minute mile was more of a psychological problem than a test of physical endurance”. In a way, he was right.

Just six weeks after Mr. Bannister ran the mile in 3’59″04, Mr. Landy, who had all but declared the feat impossible, lowered the barrier even further by running the mile in 3’58″00 —  1.4 seconds faster than Mr. Bannister, and close to 3 seconds faster than any time he had run before.

It appears that the barrier was indeed a purely psychological one.

One theory has it that pain and fatigue are but tricks of the mind.Called the Central Governor Model, it proposes the following: Your heart requires oxygen to function. During vigorous physical exertion such as intensive running, the heart runs short on oxygen as more of it is diverted to the muscles. Sensing this, the heart sends signals to the brain, which then proceeds to restrict oxygen flow to the muscles. Hence, the pain and fatigue in your legs and the annoying voice in your head that says: “Why don’t you give up? Stop running.”

But — and here’s the catch — if you could override this subconscious impulse with a conscious effort, you will push past the pain and fatigue that prevents you from realizing your full potential.

Mr. Bannister may have done just that. He was able to convince his central governor (his brain) that the four-minute mile was achievable. He overrode the subconscious, and forced more out of himself than his brain would have allowed. Mr. Landy’s governor, by contrast, could not be convinced until it had evidence that someone else had achieved the impossible.

Is pain, then, all in the mind?

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, in an interview with the New York Times.

Of course, all runners hoping to run competitively must first attain a certain level of physical fitness. But at a certain point, the subtleties of the mind may start to play a bigger role than the brute force of the body.

Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish runner who dominated distance running in the 20th century, credited his physical feats with his psychological strength: “Mind is everything; muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.” He didn’t think his way to his nine Olympic golds, of course, but to him, mind rules over muscle.

In June 2012, I competed for Hong Kong in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships. Rounding the final bend in the 3000m steeplechase, I was neck and neck with a Vietnamese opponent. We emerged into the final stretch, and I braced for a final push to the finish. Suddenly, though, she accelerated. My legs felt like rubbery jelly, but I knew that there was still some fuel left in the tank.

Treacherously, my central governor kicked in at that precise moment:  “Don’t push. Just settle for your spot.” I watched my opponent pull further and further away.

She finished four seconds ahead of me — a massive and unacceptable gain over a mere 100 meters.

I had succumbed to the voice in my head, and though I broke my personal record, the race was an agonizing defeat for me. Never again, I decided, do I ever want to be defeated by my mind.

Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete and a four-time world champion in the Ironman, has a timeless piece of advise. Put off by the idea of painful exertion? Don’t worry. “Expect it will be painful and have faith in yourself that you will overcome those dark times.”


The Athlete and The Deaf Frog

3 06 2012

As I toed the starting line today, I knew what I had to do.

Run. Run fast. Push. Push hard. Break my record. Win. Nothing else matters – not until I cross the finish line.

For the next 7 laps, nothing else crossed my mind. Each and every step, leap, hurdle – all were propelled by nothing other than the desire to go faster, harder, to push physical and mental boundaries, to find within me the will and power to run my best race.


Prior to any race, I create a little world for myself to momentarily step into.  In this little world there is only me and me alone. There are no distractions – no cheers nor boos, no encouragement nor discouragement from others. It is only me, focusing intently on the immediate goal that I must achieve. I take deep breaths and immerse myself in this self-created world. I visualise my goal, I visualise success. Then the starting pistol is fired – I am jolted out of the little world that I have molded for myself, and spring into action.

When the going gets tough – when I can sense the fatigue creeping into my legs, when my heart and lungs are working at their maximum capacity, when I feel as if I cannot push myself any longer – I remind myself of the world that I had stepped into at the starting line. I remind myself of my immediate goal – I picture it, I visualise it, I savour it. And that’s what keeps me going, that’s what propels me forwards, even if my body tells me otherwise.

The finish line is right before me. I pump my arms, I call up my final energy reserves. I grimace in both pain and concentration, anticipation and excitement. The seconds are  slowly ticking away…11’49, 11’50, 11’51…11’52″03!!! I had done it – I had broken my previous record, I had run a personal best, I had set a new HK Junior Record!

New HK Junior Record for the 3000m steeplechase: 11’52″03


As I sat in the meeting room after the race for a HK Athletic Team briefing, Coach Paul told us all a story.  It goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a city of frogs, and in the middle of this city stood a huge tower. 1000 steps led to the top of the tower. Each year the city held a race, where frogs competed against each other in a hop to the top. No frog had ever made it to the top.

One frog, however, was determined to make it. As he toed start line together with other competitors, the crowd cheered words of encouragement. The frog hopped – the first step, the second, the third… gradually, however, other frogs began to slow and drop dead in exhaustion. The crowd was still loud and raucous, but instead of words of encouragement, were now seeking to persuade the frog to stop, to stop hopping before it was too late. And yet the frog kept going. He hopped and hopped until he made it to the top.

How did he to do it, a flabbergasted reporter asked the frog at the finish line.

The frog cupped his hands over his ears. I’m sorry, he said. I can’t hear you, I’m deaf!

The frog hadn’t heard the crowd discouraging him from carrying on. He had thought that they were simply cheering him on, urging him to keep going. And so, in his own little world, focused only on the goal before him, the frog succeeded.


I believe half the race is won in the head. As long as you tell yourself that you can do it, as long as you want it enough, as along as you are determined enough, as long as you push hard enough, persevere for long enough – then the race is for you to win.

Thank you to my uncle, Benson, and to my grandma, for their support today! Photo credits – Benson Chiu.