Insight explores what drives people to push their physical limits? What are the consequences?
Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 08:30

In 2007, Grahak Cunningham spent 50 days running on a concrete footpath around a block in Queens, New York. He was competing in what is described as ‘the longest footrace in the world’ – the race is almost 5000km long and competitors run for 18 hours a day.

The opportunity to push beyond his limits attracted Grahak to the race. “The idea is you try and never give up and keep persevering,” Grahak says.

Sarah Hammond describes the ultra-endurance cycling races she competes in as punishing. Over the course of her rides, which can last up to 21 days, she battles with saddle sores, nerve damage, bad nutrition, dehydration and sleep deprivation.

“You’re basically ignoring every impulse in your body to stop…You have to make this decision, do you push yourself or keep going.”

The thrill of success spurs on Ant Williams. After freediving to a depth of 100 metres, a goal that took 10 years to achieve, there was plenty of celebration before looking ahead to his next challenge.

“I remember waking up every morning for the next three months with a goofy smile on my fact just going, I can’t believe I did 100 metres.”

Tim Franklin smoke, drank and partied through his late teens and early 20s. He says he weighed 115kg and was lazy. He decided to make a change. He started competing in triathlons and quickly caught the bug. Over the last decade he has competed in several Ironmans, an Ultraman and ultra-endurance marathons.

Despite finishing every Ironman race in the medical tent on a drip or in hospital, and despite advice from his friend, a cardiologist, that these types of ultra-endurance races carry significant risk, Tim shows no signs of quitting.

“There’s still a really big unhealthy person inside of me. So that keeps me driving to maintain the level of fitness and keep pushing.”

Most people happily go for a jog, a swim or a bike ride, but for many people it stops short of pushing themselves beyond their physical limits.

This Insight episode hears from people that are driven to push their body to its limits. And explores the role of the mind, does it control the body’s feelings of fatigue? Can it help push us further in endurance exercise? And, what are the consequences of doing that?


Presenter: Jenny Brockie 

Producer: Alix Piatek 

Associate producer: Madeleine King 



JENNY BROCKIE:  Welcome to you all. Grahak, you have competed in what's described as the longest foot race in the world. Tell us what it is involves. 

GRAHAK: Well it's called the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race and it's held annually in New York and it's around a block so it's around an 883 metre school block in New York.  You're given a maximum of 51 days to finish.  It's meant to showcase the limitless potential of the human spirit.  You're trying to stay focused, you're trying to stay happy and you average about 100 Ks a day. Obviously if you do more then you finish faster. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how long does that take - what between 40 and 50 days or something like that? 

GRAHAK: Yeah, my best time's 43 days. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So how many hours were you running a day when you were doing that? 

GRAHAK: You run for about eighteen hours a day, you have a couple of fifteen minute breaks but you run.

JENNY BROCKIE:  A couple? 

GRAHAK: Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  In fifteen hours? 

GRAHAK: Eighteen hours. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  In eighteen hours? 

GRAHAK:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What attracted you to do this particular race? 

GRAHAK:  Well, I'd followed it on-line, there's another Australian finished it, a Canberra runner, and I really saw he came, despite the ups and downs and the physical difficulties, I saw that he finished and I saw that spark in his eye that inspires other people. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  A spark in his eye at the end of the race? 

GRAHAK:  I meditate a lot. I'm a student of Sri Chinmoy, he started this race.  It's amazing - you can get into a very peaceful state as you're, as you're running in the middle of New York. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Around the same block? 

GRAHAK: Around the same block.  You have to dig a bit deeper, you have to overcome a lot of self-doubt and physical problems and worries and so forth, and at the end you come out a better person.  So I was attracted to it from that personal growth aspect or the spiritual side of it, if you like. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Describe what happens to your body when you run for eighteen hours a day for between 40 and 50 days like that?

GRAHAK: Your feet swell a couple of sizes, you get very inflamed to begin with so your shins swell up, your back hurts, it's hard to sleep, it's hard to eat. So the first day was great but after that it went really downhill quite quickly. You get a lot of rashes, it's hard to digest your food, it's hard to keep it down and just things get really sore and stiff.  But it's amazing what the body can get used to and the other runners would, would tell me don't worry Grahak, it gets better after two weeks and, and they were pretty right. Like somehow you get stronger, your body gets used to it. It's like when you start a new job and the first few days are really tiring and exhausting. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  It's not at all like starting a new job. At all.  Let's have a look at you winning the race in 2012 complete with a victory choir. 

GRAHAK: Yeah. 




It's 3100 miles, the total time was 43 days, 10 hours, 36 minutes and 39 seconds. Congratulations. 



JENNY BROCKIE:  What state were you in? 

GRAHAK: When I finished? 


GRAHAK:  Oh, it's indescribable the feelings you have just buzzing through your heart, you're just grateful to all the people that helped you, you're so happy and joyful, you're kind of proud of yourself. Yeah, it's really, it's overwhelming when you finish. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And apart from the cake, what did you get when you won?

GRAHAK: You win a plastic trophy and a tee-shirt when you win so that's it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So there's no money, this is for the love of what you're doing or?

GRAHAK: Yeah, there's no money but I think you make life times of progress when you're out there and you can't really, you have to earn that I think, you can't really do it any other way. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Ant, you've been free diving for fifteen years, you're looking very askance at this.  You wouldn't do this, right? 

ANT:  No, no, I think what I do is a little kind of out there but when I hear stories like this, it's crazy, that really is endurance and mental discipline to be able to do that, to put yourself through that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alright, so we'll start your story by you thinking he's crazy, okay? You've been free diving for fifteen years, describe what free diving is? 

ANT:  So free diving is basically when you go out on into the ocean and you run ropes down from your boat into deep water.  You state how far you think you can drive on the one breath of air and then it's a competition to see who can reach the greatest depth and come all the way back.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And this is using no equipment, just your own breath? 

ANT:  Yeah, so you're just using your own breath, no breathing equipment.  You have a mask and maybe a wetsuit and that's it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Here's some footage of you doing your only 100 metre competition dive. Can you talk us through what's happening here. 



ANT:  Yeah, sure. So off the surface you're swimming really hard because there's so much buoyancy with all the air in your lungs.  So here I've got a kick with this big undulation, we wear a big mono fin on your feet, it's kind of like a mermaid tail, pretty cool. About here you can see I almost stop kicking, I get to about twenty metres there and now the weight of the water above me is so heavy it just actually causes me to sink and I can just stop kicking and I just drift.

Coming down here sort of past 40 to 50 metres, starting to get a bit darker, you can see I'm just free falling and the whole focus is on just making sure that you're equalising your ears correctly. At 100 metres you're incredibly alone, there's no one down there waiting for you, it's absolutely pitch black. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  How are you feeling at this point? 

ANT:  You're kind of desperate to get out of there, yeah, pretty quick.  But you're also feeling in control. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What's your body doing when you're down there? 

ANT:  For me at the bottom I was just really conscious of what was happening and how compressed my body had become. It felt like someone was ramming a petanque ball through my chest and trying to push it out the other side, the pressure's just quite remarkable at that depth. But I also felt great. I wanted to get out of there quickly but it felt amazing to have achieved that depth. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And coming back up?

ANT:  So coming back up you've got to swim pretty hard off the bottom and pretty quick in order to overcome, all this pressure of water above you and you also have this thing called narcosis which is like being instantly drunk.  So it means that you're not functioning that well mentally. So it's all about making sure that you follow that rhythm of what you've been doing for many years about getting back to the surface and really looking after your, your mental head space because it's very easy to allow that narcosis and the depth and the fear that's always there to push you to a pretty dark sinister place. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Are you constantly fighting the urge to turn around and go back up and just grab a breath? 

ANT:  No, no. The natural inclination is to fight it, to tense up and to just kind of use some aggression against it, but you're in the ocean, you're in nature and what you have to do is actually surrender to it and just let go and allow yourself to be crushed and that's how you get deep. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What are the risks if you get it wrong?

ANT:   I think from the outside a lot of this, a lot of sports like this do look dangerous. It's actually, it is actually a very safe sport. It's a sport where if you follow the rules, you can do it in such a safe way. In fifteen years I've never had an accident that's, you know, injured me or I've genuinely been fearful of my life. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  But people have died doing it? 

ANT:  Yeah, when they've broken the rules and it can be a simple rule such as, you know, going out and diving when you don't have someone qualified to watch you, to supervise you. 

JENNY BROCKIE: Sarah, what do you think of what these two do? 

SARAH: They're different kinds of crazy. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tell us about your kind of crazy? 

SARAH:  My kind of crazy.  So I do ultra-endurance bike riding. I do the really long stuff and it's unsupported, so. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Unsupported meaning? 

SARAH: Meaning, it's not staged.  So if I was running a race, you have a start line, you have a finishing line and it's whoever gets there first wins. So you have to do that under your own guidance, you have to find your own food, your own water, you don't have a first aid car, you don't have any support.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what sort of distances are we talking about? 

SARAH: So the longest race I did was in America last year and that was 6,900 kilometres. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Over what time? 

SARAH: 21 days. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And breaks or?

SARAH: In all my races I average around three hours sleep a night. As far as sitting down and having lunch breaks, that stuff's kind of out of the question. I don't shower, I wear the same set of clothes right till the end. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  For the whole time? 

SARAH: Yeah, it's not good, it's not pretty. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  No showering for all that time? 

SARAH: No, that takes time. You're allowed to, it just depends how quickly you want to get to the end. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You've described it as total suffering. You've also ridden across Australia, let's have a look. 



SARAH: The one thing he said at the start there's nothing technical on this ride. I'm like trying to ride up frigging boulders and down rock beds and ran into a kangaroo this morning - that was good. Oh, it was just, it was a really long night. Like I got a couple of hours sleep which was good but, yeah, and then woke up this morning.

It's been really, really good, but yeah, I'm starting to feel pretty average today. 

REPORTER:  In what way? 

SARAH:  Oh, you really want the details? Far-out. I've got a rash off a plant and I've got ulcers, saddle burn, at screaming point, all the normal things. It just feels like you're coming down off a really big weekend. 



JENNY BROCKIE:  Some of that looks quite beautiful but it sounds awful? 

SARAH: Very remote. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How long was that race? 

SARAH: So that race last year was from Adelaide to Uluru.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Over what time? 

SARAH:  That was one a week, so eight days, just under. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What else does it do to you physically? 

SARAH:  The first three days of any of the races are the hardest. You're putting your body under a lot of load very quickly, your body's basically fighting against you, the lack of sleep.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What's the worst thing you've eaten or the worst amount of something you've eaten? 

SARAH: I can't eat Snickers bars any more. The race, the race that you just showed some footage from, I think I got through a stretch where there wasn't much around and I ate about thirty Snickers bars over this period of time to the point my jaw just hurt from chewing them. But you'll eat food that's been packed to your bike for days.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do you enjoy about it?

SARAH: I love riding my bike. I like being able to disconnect, I like being able to explore places on my bike. There's the challenge side of course of seeing what my body's capable of. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You describe it as punishing? 

SARAH: Yeah, it's a competition how much you can hate yourself, it's…

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do you mean by that? 

SARAH: Well, you're basically ignoring every impulse in your body to stop. So when I ride I'm riding with saddle sores, nerve damage in my hands, you know, bad nutrition, sunburn, dehydration, sleep deprivation.  These are all logical things that if you're out for a bike ride on the weekend you would probably go home. So you have to make this decision, do you push on or do you give in. So it can be very punishing, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And that's part of the appeal for you? 

SARAH: Yes, yes, absolutely. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Luca, you like a challenge too, let's have a look. 



LUCA:  The running for me is a way to express myself but at the same time to quiet my mind. The suffering is experienced only in your brain - it has got nothing else, nothing physical so when I test to see how much I can suffer and how much I can get my brain to override that feeling.

Nine hours and twenty minutes, I'm feeling pretty shit. That my body can do it is all in my mind. Just I think I'm not yet strong enough in my mind. 



JENNY BROCKIE:  Luca, why do you want to see how much you can suffer? 

LUCA:  It's a hard question. I guess it's basically seeing whether I've got what it takes to become the person I really want to be. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what is the person you really want to be? 

LUCA:  A person that can be, I guess, an example for my kids and someone that doesn't, doesn't stop at the first, first sign of difficulty. So I started running long distances when I lost my mum to pancreatic cancer, that was the catalyst of my running and through what she went through, just gave me, this idea of how much you can you push yourself and go through difficult times.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now that was you training in your garage to break a world record. What was the world record? 

LUCA:  The world record was the further distance run on a treadmill in twenty four hours, which is now 261.2 kilometres. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now we've got some footage of what you went through during that twenty four hour record attempt. Just talk us through this. So this is a break that you're having? 



LUCA:  Yeah, this is one of the mental breaks I had. So this was in the middle of the night and the difficult part of this run was that basically you are running on the spot and destroying the water bottle to the cameraman, he was in front of my face and I just needed some space. All the reasons I had behind this run, they just came out at any point. So I cried, I throw water bottles, I just asked for help.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what are you thinking when you're doing those things?  In a situation like that, what's going through your mind? 

LUCA:  For me at that point it was all about maintaining the pace and trying to recollect the reasons why I was doing what I was doing. It wasn't just to break records, it was to test my own limits and also we were trying to raise funds for, for a cause.

JENNY BROCKIE:  We should play the footage of you breaking the record. 



LUCA:  261.18


JENNY BROCKIE:  Luca, you did some research on endurance when you were training to break the world record. What did you find? 

LUCA:  One thing that stood out for me was a research by Samuele Marcora, was the head of research at the University of Kent and he had this concept that, or better he proved something that I think all endurance athletes feel deep inside which is that the limiting factor of performance or endurance is actually not physiological, so it's nothing to do with the body but is all in your mind.

For me it was a great insight because all of a sudden I stopped worrying about my physical training and I focused much more on what I could do to trick my mind, to make sure that my mind wouldn't, wouldn't stop me from achieving what I wanted to achieve. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  We have Sam here tonight with us from Edinburgh whose research inspired you. Sam, welcome, good to have you with us. What is going on in the brain when people are pushing themselves to these sorts of physical limits? 

SAMUELE:  What I actually study specifically is perception of effort, which is basically the perception of how hard it is to maintain a given speed and so this perception of effort will increase over time to a point where you feel that you cannot keep going. Even if your body is actually capable of, but of course what determines is our behaviour, what determines whether we give up or not is how we feel.  

But what we found also is that actually, this perception of effort doesn't really come from your body, it actually comes from the brain itself. So for example, in a situation where, for example, you have a lot of pain because you have a blister or, you know, your saddle rash, the normal response of the body, of your mind actually, not the body, is to stop because you know, it's not good for you to run or continue to cycle if there is something, some damage in your body. But because we have the goal to finish the race or to beat the record, you need to overcome that urge to quit and, this is a psychological function.

But the interesting thing is that this psychological function, which requires effort, is the same brain area or brain areas that also drive your locomotor muscles or leg muscles, for example, when you run or cycle. So at brain level there is an overlap between mental effort and physical effort and this is why the two things really you cannot disconnect them and why you need to take care of both your physical training but also your mental preparation for the kind of races that these people do, also shorter races that normally are thought to be more limited by your body.

JENNY BROCKIE: Can you relate to what Sam's saying? 

ANT:  100 percent. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Yeah?  In terms of mental, like getting to the point physically where you can't go on and your brain kicking in to make you keep going? 

GRAHAK: Yes, I think I break down things into shorter portions, like a certain amount of laps per hour because if you think of running for like 50 days, it's so hard to deal with emotionally.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And this pushing through idea, getting past when your body's telling you to stop, can you relate to that? 

SARAH:  It's all mental for me. People ask me do I train thousands of kilometres a week.  I do ride a bit, but a lot of it's mental. I don't go into these races if my head's not in a good place.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So Sam, how do people train their brains to keep going? 

SAMUELE:  I think the physical training itself, what people call physical training is actually training your brain because you are training your brain to, you know, sustain the effort, the discomfort that you will encounter during the race. But you can also use psychological techniques.  In psychology, for example you mentioned already that you divide the race in different, in different parts and they have goals maybe for each section. So that's goal setting and we did a systematic view of all the literature on psychology, psychological skills and endurance performance and we found that goal setting is actually, there is a lot of evidence that it works.

Another one that we found is quite useful is self-talk, positive motivation or self-talk.  So you need to, you can actually learn to avoid the negative thoughts that come into your head, especially when things go wrong and especially in an endurance event, so you need to be prepared and have what we call "if then" plans so that you know exactly what you can do when a specific situation arises.  Especially when the things get really hard, using this motivation self- talk we found that also can reduce perception of effort and increase endurance performance. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tim, you're 34, tell me what endurance events you've competed in and what they involve. 

TIM:  I've done a few Ironman, so about seven Ironman triathlons so that that 3.8 K swim, 180 K bike ride in a marathon, and then I grew into, if you will, an Ultraman which is a three day triathlon.  So it's a 10 K swim, a 420 K bike ride and a double marathon. And then just most recently I've done a Big Red Run which is an ultra-marathon in the desert out, leaving from Birdsville and running into the Simpson Desert and that's 250 Ks over five days. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How many hours a week do you train in the run up to a big event? 

TIM:  That will depend. I, I'm not a gifted athlete by any stretch so I have to ring every little bit of ability out of my body. So leading into the Ultraman, for example, I was probably training 35 to 40 hours a week.

JENNY BROCKIE: You're a lawyer, how do you fit that in? 

TIM:  Yeah, my social life takes a fair hit and I go to bed early and get up early.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  What time do you get up? 

TIM:  So for instance when I'm training for the longer stuff I'm probably out of bed quarter past 3, 3.30 every morning. Always before 4 so I can get it in before I hit to work and then I'll probably go to bed at, oh, I usually see the start of the 8.30 program but I wouldn't see the end of it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What happens to your body straight after a big event like those? 

TIM:  Right after there's exhilaration of finishing, the finish line is the thing that keeps bringing you back. But then that dissipates quite quickly and then probably for the next sort of ten days, fourteen days, just general fatigue. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Every Ironman you've finished on a drip, is that right? 

TIM:  Correct, yeah.  

JENNY BROCKIE:   You've also torn a quad while you were racing, what happened then? 

TIM:  Yeah, so in the Big Red Run, I was leading the event and unfortunately turned back off what was a path back onto sand and stood in a snake hole and gave myself a grade 2 tear on my right quad. So I had to run 125 Ks with it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  With a torn quad? 

TIM:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And why did you keep going? 

TIM:   Because there's no such thing as not finishing. I enjoy pain, as weird as that sounds, sadistic as that is, I love it. The more I hurt, the more perception I am of working hard. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Where does that come from?  Have you always been like that? 

TIM:  No, no, I actually, I've probably got a story that's very similar to a lot of people in endurance, endurance events, is that I used to be about 115 kilos and just lazy. Ate and drank and partied and smoked all through my sort of late teens and early 20s and then decided that I needed to make a change and my natural ability is not anywhere near other people's so what I have to rely on is my ability to hurt and to enjoy it and I do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And do you have people advising you? Do you have people looking after you physically to make sure that you're not pushing yourself too far? 

TIM:  I do. I don't see anyone in particular but a very good friend of mine who happens to be sitting just to my right is a cardiologist and he quite often explains to me the things that I should be doing, but more often should not be doing, and I listen to it loosely and, um, and probably more often than not choose to not take it on board. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Geoff, you're the cardiologist? 

GEOFF:  Indeed 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you're a mate of Tim's?  What do you think of the way he approaches exercise? 

GEOFF:  Well it depends which hat I wear.  My colleagues here, I can identify, because I do the Ironman racing myself, I can identify with the challenge and the physicality. But as a cardiologist, I have a different hat and there is risk in what we do and it's measurable, it's well defined that endurance sport can, on occasions, be dangerous.  When he lined up for the Big Red Run, I said to him that I didn't think that that was sensible, particularly as he was going to fly to Europe and join me and some friends and family for a relaxing week. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now this was the run where he tore the quad? 

GEOFF:  Yeah, so he injured his thigh. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And kept running? 

GEOFF:  And it's swelled, very significantly, and his knee, all his toe nails were black, a couple of his toes were infected and so, well he talks about suffering, I've got my doctor's hat on and say this doesn't sound very wise and then he flew all the way to Greece and I'll let him tell you what transpired after his return. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you do? You got on a plane to go on holiday? 

TIM:  Yes, the very next day we flew out of Birdsville, I landed back in Brisbane and then flew straight out to Greece. Spent a week with Geoff and some friends, and then came back and then four days after returning I had a pain in the right side of my chest and went to the hospital a couple of times and it was diagnosed that I had pulmonary emboli, so blood clots in both of my lungs with part of my lung, right lung dying due to lack of blood flow because of the clot. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And this was directly as a result of what had happened in the race? 

TIM:  I think it was a combination of the race being dehydrated. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And the flight? 

TIM:  And then the flight and the torn muscle, it was the perfect storm is what the doctors referred to it as. 

GEOFF:  And I had told him in advance of his endeavour that that was a significant risk and I thought he shouldn't do it. But all of these people I feel hear you but they don't listen because they have, they aspire to do something that tests their limits and I acknowledge and I admire that.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tim, after all that had happened, did it change anything for you in terms of the way you approach what you do? 

TIM:  No. That's, um, that's a risk that I was well aware of. I took it, it got the both better of me, but I'm still here and there's plenty more I want to do. I didn't realise we could run 5,000 kilometres around a single block.

JENNY BROCKIE: That was not, that was not the aim of this program.

SARAH:  That inspired him!

TIM:  So I'm actually glad that I'm here and now I've got another goal. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And why do you think you have that in you to want to keep doing that? 

TIM:  I think I hear but don't listen because I do get where he's coming from but it's not going to stop me. I've only got one shot at it and I don't want to stop doing it. I already wasted sort of twenty odd years being unhealthy and yeah, so I don't want to waste any more and there's still…

JENNY BROCKIE:  So would it be a waste if you weren't doing this? 

TIM:  There's still a really big unhealthy person inside of me. So that keeps driving me to maintain the level of fitness and keep pushing.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And why do you feel there's still a big unhealthy person inside you? 

TIM:  Because when I'm not training and I'm not in the routine, he makes an appearance. 


TIM:  Diet, alcohol, staying up late, sleeping in, eating, yeah, eating poorly. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And are they the only choices, either being …

TIM:  I would consider myself to be very much an addictive personality.  So I'm full throttle one way or full throttle the other way. Balance in my life, I mean there's many girlfriends past that would probably wish there was some. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Is there a girlfriend present? 

TIM:  That's probably a whole other show. No, not at this current stage, no.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What's the payoff for you in doing it? 

TIM:  The thrill of the finish line, the journey that I'm on, the confidence that I take of it, borderline arrogance that I started this knowing it was hard and .002 percent of the population have ever done an Ironman and I'm one of those people. How can you not be chuffed?  How can you not pat yourself on the back? 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So how big a part is it of how you define yourself do you think? 

TIM:   I am a triathlete/runner before I'm anything else, definitely before my professional career, yeah, absolutely. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Elizabeth, you've been an ultra-marathon runner for more than thirty years.  How many endurance events would you have run? 

ELIZABETH:  Oh, wow, I don't know if I can count them any more, lots, yeah. I mean before I started doing ultra-events I'd run 46, 47 marathons and then stepped up from there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  In 2011 you were part of a trial for marathon runners.  What you did find out? 

ELIZABETH:  I found out that I had an enlarged heart. So I have a condition that's, you know, colloquially called the athlete's heart which is basically just an enlarged heart. The heart's a muscle so the more you work it, the bigger it gets and if you do that for thirty odd years, it gets pretty big. That in itself is not so much a risk factor on its own, it's more that it could be a precursor to other things occurring, and certainly for me then, two years ago I started getting other cardiac symptoms.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did your cardiologist recommend? 

ELIZABETH:  My cardiologist recommended a few things.  One was to reduce the speed sessions and the really high intensity sessions. The other one was to limit my physical activity to 90 minutes a day.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how did you react to that idea? 

ELIZABETH:   I just said thanks for that information. I'll take that on board. I suppose in a way my body got the better of me in a way about six months later I actually broke my leg and my ankle running down a mountain so I was forced into having some reflection time because I actually couldn't run on that. And then I just completely obsessed over the rehab so then I was just …

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you could run again? 

ELIZABETH:  Yeah, oh, yeah, yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So have you taken on board any, like have you modified at all or do you just think you don't want to modify? 

ELIZABETH:  I don't want to. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  The desire to run and to compete is greater than the warning? 

ELIZABETH:  The desire to run is just a part of my identity, that's who I am. I would identify myself as being a runner first and foremost, probably over and above all other roles. The desire to compete has changed a little bit as I've got older and so I've been prepared to moderate some sessions based on the cardiologist's advice.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Adrian, you've been testing the hearts of endurance athletes, what have you found? 

ADRIAN:  Yeah, well it's really interesting.  I think we should precede that discussion with saying that over the long term, even these kinds of athletes tend to do well.  The long term health outcomes are better but they do develop some enlargement of the heart, particularly the volume side of the heart for endurance athletes, and then consequently what you end up seeing are cases where athletes develop some arrhythmias and occasionally, if there's an underlying genetic disorder, then you may have some cases of sudden cardiac death or cardiac arrest during a marathon. So those are the common things that we would see in athletes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So would the majority of endurance athletes be fine, be healthy, be…

ADRIAN:  Oh, absolutely, absolutely.  It's not a huge proportion of athletes that develop these problems. For atrial fibrillation, for example, which is the common arrhythmia that you see in athletes is probably on estimates about 2 to 3 percent of very high volume endurance exercisers who may develop that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And it exists in the broader population as well? 

ADRIAN:  Absolutely. You know, your lifetime risk of developing AS probably one in four but it generally occurs as you get into the older years.  So as you become 70 and 80 years old, then those are when you see most of the AS, whereas in athletes it tends to occur earlier and you know, probably a two to threefold elevation in risk in those younger years. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Jeff Bond, you're sitting here listening to all these stories.  You were the head psychologist at the Australian Institute of Sport for many years. What do you make of these stories? 

JEFF:  Well I think they're fascinating and what they've done is absolutely fabulous.  So they're at the top end of this, so underlying everything that everybody's said, all of your guests have said is this need to achieve and it's not good enough to just break the Guinness of Records, there'll be something else and for Tim, you know, he's got races planned for next year and they won't stop until something really, really adverse happens. But on top of that there are other things, aren't there? I mean Tim's compensating for having a crap lifestyle and trying to make himself fit and healthy and disciplined and focused and all the rest of it.

JENNY BROCKIE:  But why do some human beings want to take it to the limit like people in this room? 

JEFF:  Well for some it's compensation, they really want to prove themselves. I think there's two sides to the coin. I think for some people it's the need to prove to themselves that they can do something special and we heard some of that. On the other side of that coin I think there's, there's a great self-belief, and we heard that particularly just recently from Tim in the sense that I'll be okay, I can find a way through this. I can navigate a way through this. I can take up the mental challenge and I can plan some way through this and they get a great sense of achievement out of doing that. So there's a bit of everything in here, it's not the same for everybody. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I was interested in what Tim said about, you know, what motivated him to get involved in these sort of endurance sports. What kinds of things have motivated you to do this? 

ANT:  Initially it was a desire to learn how to take risk because I thought I was too risk averse and I was working with a lot of athletes who took crazy risks and I kind of thought how do athletes like big wave talent surfers or base jumpers?  Like when I've been around them in the lead up to doing their sport, I'd just be petrified for them and they'd be so calm, nonchalant, very orderly, pragmatic, and then they'd go about their sport and I'd say I want that same sort of sense and coolness before doing something that I perceived as dangerous. And part of that was me wanting to tap into my own fears and actually kind of go well, there's something really satisfying about acknowledging what your fears are, choosing one and tackling it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Luca, you did mention your mother and you said that her death from cancer motivated you very strongly to do what you do. How?  What is it about, about what you do, about that running that you do, that addresses that somehow? 

LUCA:  It was just to clear my mind in the sense that there is, at least for me, I'm sure maybe the same, but after two, three hours, four hours running, you are at bare bone of what your thoughts are. So when I normally have an issue that I need to resolve or something that I need to understand a little bit better, I go for a very long run and then I just find clarity.  And in that case, my mum is, I’m originally from Italy, my mum was still in Italy so I will actually go for a very long run before I had the courage to call her up and talk to her, just because in that way I was free of all the negative emotions and I could be positive. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So it was a way of clearing your head? 

LUCA:  Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Of negativity? 

LUCA:  Absolutely, and also all the time became also my way to make my contribution, I guess, with…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Fund raising? 

LUCA:  Fund raising, yeah.  So when my mum passed away I had not yet run a marathon and right then I decided to run twenty marathons in a month around Italy and just to raise some funds and some awareness.  And the thing snowballed and now five years later I'm doing this crazy stuff. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Leah, you're 46? 

LEAH:  Mm-mmm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  This photo of you that was taken five years ago led to a big change? 

LEAH:  Mm-mmm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why, what happened when you saw that photo? 

LEAH:  Well, actually that was Christmas 2012 and I distinctly remember, you know, getting dressed and my mum makes a lot of my clothes so I'm super lucky, and I thought I felt like I looked nice.  And then I saw this photo on my sister's Facebook and I just, I just died inside. I just thought I didn't realise I was, that I looked like that. Like I knew I was overweight but I didn't, I didn't see, I didn't see that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So what did you do? 

LEAH:  I made a commitment to lose weight, signed up with like the twelve week body challenge and was 1200 calories a day.  It was this super hard exercise program which I didn't do, actually, it was too hard, I bought a low impact Denise Austin, you know, super American DVD, it was for half an hour.  You didn't have to get on the ground, it was amazing, she did lots of little dance moves and lot of spirit fingers and the whole thing. So I'd just get up every morning and just do half an hour.  Be really hungry.  The first three weeks I was so hungry but got used to what 1200 calories a day looked like and it came off. Two years, for two years, it took two years to come off so probably around 60 kilos I'd say, because I'd go up and down now, but I don't weigh myself. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You started competing in marathons and triathlons in the past year? 

LEAH:  Mm-mmm. 


LEAH: I don't know, because they really hurt and I'm not fast.  Look, there I am. That's my marathon, it's amazing.  Can I just say Robert de Castella, at the end, like I think I proposed to him. I'm still waiting to hear. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So why did you do it? What was the motivator? 

LEAH:  A friend of mine suggested I'd like join a running club and like running club is crazy, I can't run.  I just went to this running club and they're like oh, we have a marathon program. You know, I thought well I could probably do the half. So six months, did the half, that was in 2015, and then of course if you do the half well you've got to do the full. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How much training do you do each week? 

LEAH: Well for Ironman triathlon that will vary between ten and twenty hours a week, depending on what part of the stage I'm at. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And have there been other benefits apart from just the physical? 

LEAH: Oh, absolutely. I suffered with a bit of depression, had a marriage breakdown at the end of the first year of this weight loss, I'd lost 30 kilos and a husband, so, anyhoo.  So, but you know, it was very sad and I got a lot of anxiety from it. Like I actually have a lot of anxiety, I'm not sure if that's coming through, but, and the running really helped that mental, me being mental. So just calmed down and I can't meditate though, and I've tried but I just get really cranky.

So yeah, I just tried something else and a friend of mine gave me her mountain bike, I had to learn how to ride a bike, I could not ride a bike. Nobody's ever said to me you can't do it. I've never had that said you can't do it, you can do it, it's me who's always said oh, I don't think I can, I don't think I can.  I've got a coach and he's like super positive and reframes everything, I just want to like punch him. I'm just like just accept that I'm finding this really hard and he does, but he just knows not to engage when I'm being manic.  I think that's what he's doing.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what's the pay off? 

LEAH:  Well, you know, the payoff will be to finish Ironman, I haven't, I got 96 percent through one, I worked that out, eight kilometres from the end.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And did it matter that you didn't finish that one? 

LEAH: Oh, gosh, it's like so much grief. I was devastated, devastated from that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Does that make you really want to finish one now?

LEAH:  Yes, so I've signed up for Port Macquarie which is in six months, which everyone tells me is really amazing. It's hilly and terrible road surface but you know what, it's an Ironman that none of them are easy, they're all going to be horrendous. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So what keeps you going? 

LEAH:  I don't know. I just, we've got one, there's just one life. We've only got one and I don't want to be morbidly obese with what I've got left. I don't want to be ordinary.  I don't, I don't know, I just want to be better. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Sputnik, you were doing ultra distance races for a few years but now you've pulled back, why? 

SPUTNIK:  Yeah, I want to put myself into a different category to these guys because they're all talking about how they enjoy suffering and getting up, and they get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and I never enjoyed it and I never liked getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning.  I started running just to get a little bit fitter and then ran the New York Marathon, and then thought if I can run a marathon, maybe I can run an ultra and if I can run an ultra, maybe I can run 100 Ks. And for me it just, A, I had a few injuries and a few mishaps but that wasn't really what stopped me. For me it was about balance in the end.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Was there a turning point, was there something that happened? 

SPUTNIK:  I had a dramatic, you know, I had a helicopter rescue out of a race in Nepal so that's like my kind of my cool story if I'm trying to compete with everyone how stupid I am.  And I did have that moment where I said look, can I keep going and I actually didn't want to keep going. I felt so crappy and miserable.

JENNY BROCKIE:  You had altitude sickness? 

SPUTNIK:  Yeah, but I thought Oh, I don't want to actually quit so I said to the doctor, you know, if I keep going what are the chances I'll be okay and he said probably 50/50 that you'll die so I thought well that's not great odds so that was the one time, that's my one and only DNF and I listened, which is great.

But that was more of a gradual thing where, for me, I was probably not chasing, not dreaming my own dreams any more. I was probably chasing it because we surround ourselves with these people who go, yeah, you can do it, you know come on, and you go and say I'm going to do the 50 K, not the 100 K and they call you soft. So there's this, you know, peer group pressure which in some ways is fantastic because it's supportive and inspirational and motivational, and then in other ways it's very hard to back away and have people, once you're at that level, have people accept that in some ways. 

JENNY BROCKIE: So what do you do now? 

SPUTNIK:  Oh I just, you know, just a lazy little marathon every now and then.  I’m quite happy at about a half marathon, maybe a 25 K trail race, something like that.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how do you think you got from that point to that point? What do you think?

SPUTNIK:  From the ultra - back down? 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Yeah, and do you miss it? 

SPUTNIK:  Yeah, I do miss it because, you know, when there's a big race on and all my friends are off doing it. I mean we just had a race on Sunday where there was a 26 K distance and a 16 K distance, and I went oh, I just, I'll just do the 16.  And you know, I was a bit jealous because it's that, what do the kids say, FOMO?  Fear of missing out you know, you go oh my God, what did they see on the trail that I didn't see and, you know, you still feel like, a little bit you feel like you're doing, you're not pushing yourself hard enough or, you know, that's the experience.  So yeah, I miss it sometimes but I don't miss all the, I don't miss getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning, I don't miss eating healthy food instead of pizza. You know, I'm…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can any of you imagine doing that? Winding it back? 

SARAH:  I enjoy the down time. It normally takes about three months to get back to normal after these events and that's mental and physical. But I, I enjoy, some of the down time I like, sleeping and drinking and eating and catching up with my friends and just having some balance back.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What are you like when you're not racing? 

LUCA:  I'm pretty miserable I must admit. It's not about racing, it’s when I'm not training. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Training? 

LUCA:  I guess I must admit I'm pretty miserable in the sense just, yeah, it has a roll on effect on everything I do, I have, my energy levels are very low so I'm not very productive at work and yeah, essentially I have no, not a nice person. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What are the rest of you like? 

LEAH: I love training with my friends and the networks I've made and talking to people who know so much more about bikes than I do and running than I do and swimming, all these experts who are now also my really good friends and I just can't believe that from that original picture, Christmas 2012, to my rich life now.  It's that's why I do it and that's why I train and I will complete that Ironman and I will see you Ironman and I will complete you. I see you. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Ant, what's your next challenge? 

ANT:  Next challenge is to train up for a world record attempt to become the deepest man under ice. So… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  We've got some footage here of I think of you diving under ice in Finland. It looks so cold. 

ANT:  It's so cold. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why under ice? 

ANT:  Just I think it's interesting you're talking about scaling back things and how you're training, the amount of effort you're putting in, I just really wanted to go out to the edges of my sport and experience something completely different.  Even though the discipline is still the same but under ice it's so dark, it's so incredibly cold, it's so foreboding that it's out on those fringes that after you learn a lot more about yourself. You start to innovate, you start to disrupt what you hold to be true in the sport and learn new things to progress the sport further.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tim, what are you aiming for next year? 

TIM:  A couple of things. I have been spending some time over in Mexico for work and they have an Ultraman in Mexico which I've agreed to do. And in September there's a 270 kilometre trail race through the Grand Canyon in the US which I'm hoping to do.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Luca, what's your next challenge? 

LUCA:  A planned run back in Italy from the top of the Mont Blanc all the way down to Sicily, that's 2,000 kilometre run, and I do have another secret until now but I'm hoping actually that I've got a big audience and my wife is here so one of the great…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Wait Lydia, listen. 

LUCA:  I love to do is called the Bad Water and 130 miles race in the middle of the desert in the US during summer through the Death Valley and…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Death Valley in summer?

LUCA:  Yes, it is, well it is amazing in the sense that strange things happens, one of which is apparently the shoes melt because of the heat from the pavement so people run on a straight line where the white line is. But they…

JENNY BROCKIE:  So how did you react when you heard that? 

LUCA:  I think it's amazing.  No, it's one of the things I love running and heat and I think that would be completely different training strategy that I'll have to develop and learn much more, but I think all the people that I've talked to, now that I'm making plans, but yeah, everyone said it is an amazing experience, so. 

LYDIA:  You are so not doing that race. 

JENNY BROCKIE: This is the first you've heard of this? 

LYDIA:  Well, no, I've known for a while that he's had his eyes on that race and for me that's where I draw the line. I mean not that I have so much power, you know, in this kind of decision, we talk about it a lot actually, but for me this is where I draw the line where you're putting yourself at risk. For me it's a no no. 


LUCA:  Well let's talk about it. I think.  Raise hands how many people…

JENNY BROCKIE:  No, no, no, no, no, Insight is not going to become part of this dispute, yeah. Okay, so you two are going to go away and try and work this out obviously. Interesting.

Thank you all so much for joining us tonight. It's been great to hear your stories and that is all we have time for here.  Thanks everyone, thank you.