You have to let it all hang out, which is no problem for a thin little Irishman with a low pain threshold.
The race should be the ultimate test of my running ability, the stopwatch the final judge, but I never really believe it. I always feel I could do better, that I have not yet exhausted the limits of talent and training. Most of all, I fear I have not given a full 100%.
So I went to Indiana to find out the truth, to spend a day working with David Costill, Ph.D., at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie.
Earlier, in Dallas, I had had all the exercise physiology tests given our Olympic distance-running candidates—vital capacity, percent of body fat, muscular strength, maximum oxygen intake, running efficiency and a calf-muscle biopsy. All this to tell what my potential is and whether I am running up to it.
I soon learned that to Costill and his crew, human performance meant maximum human performance. I hardly had time to rejoice over having only 5.3% body fat when I was being pushed to my limit and beyond. Every test was accompanied by a constant stream of encouragement to do more, to try harder. And every test was repeated until I was doing worse instead of better. They had to know they had pushed me as far as I could go.
During the maximal oxygen uptake test on the treadmill, I knew they had. I had first run a mile at an eight-minute pace, then one at seven minutes, and finally one at 6:40, which is approximately nine miles an hour. Between each mile, I took a break to towel off and get my breath.
But now it was time for maximum effort. The electrodes for the electrocardiogram were reaffixed to my chest, the plastic helmet holding the oxygen apparatus was readjusted and the mouthpiece was refitted. Then suddenly I was off at a 6:40 pace, going up a 4% grade. Costill's staff would increase the grade to 6% after three minutes and an additional 2% every two minutes thereafter until I couldn't go any farther. When I felt I had only 30 seconds of running left in me, I was to give a hand signal. With each of the first three miles on the treadmill I had been required to noticeably increase my effort, but I had felt in command. It was hard work, but I was getting accustomed to the peculiarities of the treadmill, of staying in one place, of having people nearby urging and cajoling and imploring me to do my best.
But now, when they raised the grade from 4% to 6%, I knew I was reaching my limit. My legs began to get heavy. The helmet became cumbersome and started to flop around. The mouthpiece was a distraction. I was barely able to keep up. And then they raised the grade to 8%.
A mounting wave of fatigue and pain washed over my body. My chest and legs were in a relentlessly closing vise. More people had wandered in to watch my final agony. They began to take up the chant: "Push!" "Harder!" but the struggle between me and the machine was coming to a close. Six minutes into the test, after one minute at the 8% grade, I gave the hand signal.
I had waited too long. I was finished, but I still had 30 seconds and 130 yards to go on the infernal, unforgiving apparatus. It was an eternity in time, an infinity in space.