The Wisdom of Running a 2,189-Mile Marathon - The Atlantic

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Science backs up the notion that this unflinching drive forward is as essential as physical talent for competitors like Jurek, if not more so. Endurance is not all in your head, but as the journalist Alex Hutchinson explains in Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, the brain plays a pivotal role in gauging exertion and ultimately dictating when it’s time to stop. “The psychology and physiology of endurance are inextricably linked,” Hutchinson writes. “Any task lasting longer than a dozen or so seconds requires decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, on how hard to push and when.” As things get tough, the mind constantly takes stock of physical reserves and negotiates with the body over just how long it can hold out.

This feedback loop is a relatively new model of endurance. Living creatures were long thought to be powered by some inscrutable, vital force. That belief gave way in the 20th century to what Hutchinson calls a “mechanistic—almost mathematical—view of human limits: Like a car with a brick on its gas pedal, you go until the tank runs out of gas or the radiator boils over, then you stop.” But more-recent research into the mind’s influence has made for much trickier analogies. . . .

In her own more reflective way, Jennifer Pharr Davis—the very person whose record Jurek set out to break—ends up confirming the power of compulsive determination in her book The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience. In 2011, she blitzed the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes—an average of 47 miles a day. Though Davis’s ultrarunning credentials pale in comparison to Jurek’s, she’s no slouch: She’d already completed the trail twice and set the fastest time for women.

“Endurance isn’t a human trait; it is the human trait,” she writes, giving Jurek’s borrowed mantra more philosophical sweep. “We exist only as long as we persist.”