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When, in June 2010, Healdsburg held its annual Fitch Mountain Foot Race 10K, Rhiannon hadn't officially entered but agreed to run with her friends Scott and Amber Keneally. She and Amber were in the police-station bathroom half a block behind the starting line when the gun was fired. Beginning last, Rhiannon jogged with her friends for the first quarter mile. "Then we told her she could go ahead of us," Scott says. With a quick goodbye wave she started carving through the parade of runners. She was the first woman to cross the finish line.
Time and again friends made the same observation about Rhiannon: She was never out of breath.
We have all heard stories like the one about Nick Harris, the 5'7" Kansas man who in 2009 lifted a Mercury sedan off a pinned six-year-old neighbor. Or the one about Lydia Angyiou, the woman in northern Quebec who in '06 wrestled a polar bear long enough for her son to escape to safety. As a group of South African sports scientists recently wrote, "An unusual feature of humans is their ability to produce extraordinary feats of strength (hysterical strength) or inconceivable performances of endurance when the only alternative is to face death." These superhero exploits, the scientists concluded, are the result of the human brain's forcing the body to keep much of its muscle power in reserve unless the power is required to preserve life. A burgeoning body of data suggest that our brains ensure that we can never perform our best until the stakes are dire.
Consider the true power that is contained in a human body when all its muscle fibers are fired at once. If a man who is electrocuted is flung across the room, it is not by the electrical explosion but rather by the force of all his muscle fibers contracting in unison. He is jumping.
Because of the risk of injury or exhaustion, the brain usually does not allow all or even nearly all the body's power or endurance to be marshaled without that life-threatening danger. After lifting the Mercury, Harris tried to replicate his newfound strength later the same day, to no avail. But that one time, with life on the line, "somehow, adrenaline, hand of God, whatever you want to call it—I don't know how I did it," Harris said.
In recent years the same scientists have considered acts of endurance and reached another conclusion: Because the brain stingily holds a physical reserve, wringing the most stamina from the body requires a mental finish line. In order to go our hardest, we need to know when or where we can finally stop. In the absence of an understood finish line, the brain will hold the body back.
In a 2009 study at the University of Cape Town, competitive cyclists performed four consecutive 40-kilometer time trials. As they learned the course, they rode better and with less pain on each successive trial. In a fifth trial, when information about the length of the course ahead was withheld from the cyclists, their power output plummeted and their feelings of pain and exhaustion skyrocketed. Until they came into view of the finish line, that is.
In a related study, when club runners were tricked about the proximity of a finish line, they struggled to continue beyond the line they had expected, and their moods demonstrably worsened—even though the extra distance was well within their physical capabilities and they had, in fact, covered it at the same pace previously.
This apparent effect of the brain on endurance expresses itself in elite competition as well. In world-record performances in every event between the mile and 10,000 meters, world-record-beating athletes do not slow down steadily over the race as toxic metabolites build up and their muscles progressively tire. Rather, they pick up the pace in the final segment of the race.
Intuitively, Rhiannon Hull knew this. The mind of the experienced runner is a supercomputer for rationing physical and mental energy, for anticipating the end and calibrating the threshold of exhaustion to just that moment. Here she was in the Pacific Ocean, hoisting her son, unsure of where—if anywhere—the finish line was. So she had to create one.