As reported on this blog last week, Yuki Kawauchi, a cult figure on the world marathon circuit, took part in a 50k race over the weekend. Kawauchi, best known for his third place finish at the Tokyo Marathon in February, started the Okinoshima Ultra Marathon on Sunday.
This was surprising news, given that elite marathon runners tend to steer clear of Ultra races, so many were intruiged by Kawauchi’s potential capability over the distance. Leading from the gun, he raced hard over a tough course and collapsed in the final kilometre. Perhaps this is no surprise. The Japanese athlete is well known for pushing his body right to its very limit in the marathon, having required medical attention after 5 of his 6 marathon races to date. The extra 8 kilometres may have been just too much for the 24 year old.
Kawauchi’s ability to push himself harder than most athletes is what sets him apart. It is also a perfect case study for students of Tim Noakes’ Central Governor theory. The central governor is not so much a tangible part of the brain, but a system in the brain that prevents overexertion according to the brain’s perceived physiological limits. In other words, one’s ability to exert oneself is governed centrally. Your body stops you before you stop it.
Noakes’ theory that the most successful athletes are those with the ability to override the central governor, to push the body to its limit. The signals from the brain to the muscles to slow down are just not as effective in elite athletes, a result of years of hard training. This immunity to pain is what drives these athletes to great success, but it can also be the downfall of some athletes. Literally, in Kawauchi’s case.
Of course, this time the central governor won, and the fact that he collapsed just 600m short of the line shows just how hard he was able to push himself. Of course, I hope that Yuki Kawauchi never fully wins the battle against his central governor because according to Noakes’ theory, this will mean he has died. But then again, to quote Kawauchi himself: “every time I run, it’s with the mindset that if I die at this race it’s OK.”
And us runners wonder why people don’t understand us…
Note: Credit for this blog post is due to the Japan Running News blog, an excellent Engligh language blog on the running scene in Japan.