To the edge of human endurance, and beyond
September 25, 2009 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Jure Robič raced on bicycles in his hometown in Slovenia, skilled enough to race with small Slovene teams but nothing professionally, supporting himself with a sales job for a bike-parts dealer. It was with the death of his mother in 1997 and his subsequent depression that Robič discovered his calling: ultra-endurance cycle races, in which he competes with a methodical madness. (1 page print version, via).

About ten years ago, a friend of his suggested he train for the Crocodile Trophy in 1999. Robič finished third, with 2 stage wins. In October of 2001, Robič completed a 24 hour time trial and covered 803.5 km (499.3 miles), and also qualification for Race Across America (RAAM).

A year later, he quit his job and volunteered to join the Slovene military, undergoing nine months of intensive combat training (he surprised his unit with his penchant for late-night training runs). He earned a coveted spot in the sports division, which exists solely to support the nation's top athletes. For Robič, the post meant a salary of 700 euros (about $850) a month and the freedom to train full time.

Robič continued with cycle racing, and his results continued to climb, placing second in the Crocodile Trophy in 2001 and 2002, 3rd place in Race Across the Alps in 2002, covering 550km and a 13500 meter ascent in 23:39.33 (the winner, Paul Lindner, made it in 22:47.25). In 2003, he dominated the men's solo category of the Silberreiher-Trophy 24 hour race, covering 911 km in 23h 41 min. He set the official European record at 2004 Kraftwerk Trophy - Krems Austria 24h road race, getting 1st place for covering 974,4km in 24 hours.

2003 was the year Jure Robič placed 2nd in the Race Across America, traveling from the 2921.7 miles from San Diego, CA to Atlantic City, NJ in around 9 days, losing to Allen Larsen's time of 8 days 23 h 36 min. Robič went on to get first in RAAM in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. In 2005, he also got first place in Le Tour Direct, which is also known as Tour de France in one stage and that name tells it all. Instead of tackling the route in sections, it's covered in one continuous go, all 4,022 km (2,500 miles) and 47,000 m (~140,000 feet) of climbing at once, first one there wins, whatever it takes.

For Robič, that's a craziness of the most literal sort, and it's re-shaping the understanding of human limits. As told in the New York Times article linked above the break:
The craziness is methodical, however, and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.

‘‘Mujahedeen, shooting at me,’’ he explains. ‘‘So I ride faster.’’
He is not always the fastest competitor (he often makes up ground by sleeping 90 minutes or less a day), nor does he possess any towering physiological gift. On rare occasions when he permits himself to be tested in a laboratory, his ability to produce power and transport oxygen ranks on a par with those of many other ultra-endurance athletes. He wins for the most fundamental of reasons: he refuses to stop.
Research into fatigue and exhaustion initially assumed that it was the muscles themselves that reached their limit, but more recent studies have shown mental fatigue can affect physical endurance, though the definition and sources for muscle fatigue are complex, making studies of fatigue complex to say the least.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this! I read the Times article from the MetaChat link when I woke up in the middle night and couldn't get back to sleep, so I was fascinated and in exactly the right frame of mind. An amazing story. Still don't really know what to think about it all.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:58 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of videos of Jure Robič on YouTube, including trailers for Bicycle Dreams and The Wheel of Life. The former is a documentary about Race Across America that includes Robič amongst others, and the latter a (forthcoming?) documentary on Robič alone.

Another endurance athlete from Slovenia: Martin Strel, covered three times previously.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:00 PM on September 25, 2009

Poor guy.
posted by jouke at 4:20 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wonderful and awe-inspiring. Thanks very much for pointing me toward this.
posted by localroger at 4:23 PM on September 25, 2009

posted by fixedgear at 4:25 PM on September 25, 2009

Poor guy.

The beginning of the NY Times article casts him in a fairly happy light, though the end displays some misery. According to his website, his only dream is to be the first one to win RAAM four times, and he's accomplished that. I'd like to believe that there's some joy in his life, but his successes could all be from personal torment.

An amazing story. Still don't really know what to think about it all.

Ditto. It's been rattling around in my head for a while, and I've thought back to backpacking trips where I just want to curl up and sleep on the trail, but I know there are miles to go. Nothing like crossing the country in less than 9 days on a bicycle, so sore feet from a few hours of hauling gear seems like an insignificant concern.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:27 PM on September 25, 2009

his successes could all be from personal torment
I can only imagine this being the doings of a tormented soul. But that could be my hineininterpretieren.
posted by jouke at 4:45 PM on September 25, 2009

Perhaps tangential, but Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things starts off with him being abducted by aliens during Race Across America. This common experience is now making me wonder if aliens are just fans of ultra endurance athletics. Might explain why they hang out so much in the middle of nowhere.
posted by Humanzee at 4:55 PM on September 25, 2009

Hallucinations in the sane is actually a page on Wikipedia, and there was a random website I stumbled across that listed a few accounts from endurance athletes, but I can't find it at the moment. Weirdness abounds within, if not without.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:16 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was once in a living room at a party and saw the host's plaque and trophy from a relay RAAM team that set a record. I was impressed by the insanity, but I didn't realize that they had a solo category.
posted by Frank Grimes at 5:26 PM on September 25, 2009

The truly nuts bicycle races are the Audaxes and Brevets... insane distances, with no support crew. In an Audax, you are racing against the other racers directly, in a Brevet (or randonee), you are racing against a clock for the best time, and it's not as competitive. You need to carry all of your food, water, tools and spares yourself. (Tho "drop bags" at checkpoints are allowed at some races... bags stocked with food, water and other essentials. This is because the locals in some French races were getting this kind of help on the sly anyway, and this evened things out.)

The Boston-Montreal-Boston race is truly insane stuff. I hope to compete in it one day.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:56 PM on September 25, 2009

I'm an adventure racer and ultrarunner and have pushed through some tough times in races, but Robič scares me. (He also makes me wonder a LOT about how much harder I can push, which also scares me).

Really great FPP, flt, thank you.
posted by dolface at 6:12 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

To all the ultra-athlete mefites: have you ever experienced hallucinations or delusions? Have you seen anything of Robič's imaginary world? It seems like few do, or at least few confess this, but I ask, as someone who comfortably withdraws at early signs of wear (I can walk for ever, but running .. I need some practice).
posted by filthy light thief at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2009

The truly nuts bicycle races are the Audaxes and Brevets... insane distances, with no support crew.

Brevets are the qualifiers, the big races are called Randonees. Alas, BMB is gone -- hasn't run since 2006.
posted by eriko at 7:26 PM on September 25, 2009

Having once just driven across the country without any sleep for the first two days, I can tell you that hallucinations are just a normal reaction to long term lack of sleep. Basically the brain just says "You're not going to sleep? Heck with it, I'm going to start dreaming anyway. And you dreams will be triggered by the stimulus you see and hear." At one time an ambulance was in front of me, and I had a hard time shaking off the idea that it was a UFO.
posted by eye of newt at 7:47 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Basically the brain just says "You're not going to sleep? Heck with it, I'm going to start dreaming anyway. And you dreams will be triggered by the stimulus you see and hear."

Ah, there is there that. One time, after driving through the night following a day of dancing in the desert, I made it through 6 hours of driving, and in the last 20 minutes before home, I thought a large trailer truck was a tunnel. I realized it was not, and decided to drive around it instead of through it.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:57 PM on September 25, 2009

Wow. Excellent FPP. Best of the web indeed.

A co-worker is doing the Furnace Creek 508 next week (go Ross!).

As for the BMB being defunct :( Well there are 1000km routes around.

Or just go solo. I finished a 960km unsupported Toronto to Quebec city last week. 35h cycling (but with plenty of rest), a day off in Montreal after the 310km day ride from Kingston (into the wind all day long, white caps on the St Lawrence and flags fully unfurled pointing upstream.. tough day.

I'm in awe of people who do similar things without sleep. batshitinsane tag needed.

Everything else pales in comparison, heck Just today I decided I'll run a marathon on Sunday. And just to make it mildly interesting I figured no training. I haven't run even one km in years. I'll probably walk most of it but with training it wouldn't be much of a challenge, heck if people in their 70s are running marathons in under 3 hours then I can do it in 6h w/o training. (Crosses fingers).
posted by ecco at 8:21 PM on September 25, 2009

I am a randonneur and I have roughly 6000-7000 km worth of events under my belt (never bothered to tot it all up, really), including the 2007 Paris-Brest and a recent 1000k across Vancouver Island, which I completed unsupported in about 74 hours, with roughly 6 hours of sleep. So, yeah, not exactly standing on the same podium as a Slovene who can eat 1000k's in 24 hours, but I can probably comment on the insanity.

The thing that you have to understand about these ultradistance events is that it really all boils down to mental endurance. The tip that I give to anyone considering randonnuering is if you can ride a seven hour century, you're fit enough to try a 200k brevet. If you can complete a 200k, try a 300k. If you can finish, the 300k in the time limit, then you're physically fit to do a 1200k. Everything after that is mental ... and, really you're just getting started.

As you do more of these events, your body becomes tuned to the point where, given a steady stream of calories, electrolytes and hydration, you really can go on forever. Assuming that you've mastered your hydration and nutrition discipline ... the only thing stopping you is will and will alone.

But, gosh, is it ever so easy for that willpower to just dissolve. Eat the wrong thing and let your calories drop, and your morale goes with it. Climb a hill, alone, at night when you've been up for twenty hours and start wondering why you're out here. Try to change a flat with tired hands in the rain, and feel the temptation to just thumb a ride.

Couple that with the fact that, for all of these events, you're getting by on minimal sleep, and really how can you be surprised when insanity sets in? I remember, during PBP, crossing a field of grass just beyond Rambouillet, running on five hours of sleep in the last 84, and I swore that I could see rabbits the size of dogs pacing me through the grass, and I was convinced (convinced!) that they were feral, carnivorous rodents who would eat me if I slowed down too much.

Hallucinations aside, the brain also gets tired with having to constantly monitor all of your vital systems without rest. So, what tends to happen is that you start temporarily shutting down non-vital stuff, like long-term memory and the ability to articulate compound sentences, while redirecting your energy towards ensuring optimal digestive and cardiovascular operations. It's a bit of a wonder of human physiology even if it does result in behavior that others see as odd or handicapped.

It is also true what Robic's coach says about, "when he's at his darkest, utterly exhausted and ready to give up, that he still has 50% more energy to give." A cashier in an isolated little gas station in the north of Vancouver Island asked what I learned by doing this ride, and I said "that sometimes success comes from self-deception." You have to lie to yourself about how far everything is -- not think that you have to go 1000 km, but you only have to go 25k, and then repeat that about 40 times. You have to find reasons why it's easier to go forward than to go back. You have to convince yourself that quitting is hard because, well, you're already pedaling so you might as well keep doing what you're doing.

So, yeah, you also go crazy from all of the little lies and all of the little ways you tell your brain to ignore what it perceives as logic. Because your brain lies to you when it tells you that you're at your limit. It only remembers the near horizon of your abilities. It doesn't know how far you can reach beyond that boundary.

So, yeah, it is a weird little world to visit. I somewhat protest the idea that it can only be enjoyed by a tormented soul. You're not punishing yourself for the sake of punishment, but for self-enlightenment. I learn something new about myself every time I do a brevet, and the day that I'm convinced that I've stopped learning is the day that I stop.
posted by bl1nk at 8:24 PM on September 25, 2009 [21 favorites]

just to comment on some of the other stuff:
The truly nuts bicycle races are the Audaxes and Brevets... insane distances, with no support crew. In an Audax, you are racing against the other racers directly, in a Brevet (or randonee), you are racing against a clock for the best time, and it's not as competitive.

correction: Neither Audax nor Brevets are competitive. Audax tends to be used interchangeably with brevets in Europe and North America, but generally speaking, an audax style ride is one where all of the participants ride together, take breaks together and sleep in the same spot. It's essentially a really long organized club ride. Brevets (or allure libre audax) are timed events against along courses of similar length where participants can ride at any pace they choose, so long as they finish within the time restriction.

It is, of course, inevitable that people will informally compete in such affairs. A lot of people pay attention to the first finishers or consistent fast timers on brevets, and some folks on audax rides might sprint for city limit boundaries, but these are not races and generally, most results for these rides are posted in alphabetical rather than chronological order.

Boston-Montreal-Boston, as many others have pointed out, is defunct. The New England Randonneurs club is currently planning on running it as a permanent (basically, you can ask to ride the route anytime you want and if you finish, you can get mileage credit for it, but it is truly unsupported. You buy what you need along the way, and sleep where you choose). There are, however, several equally challenging 1200k's out there that don't have the history but still come with tons of challenge, scenery and club support (Endless Mountains, Shenandoah and Cascade 1200 all come to mind for stateside riders, and there's also the Rocky Mountain, VanIsle and the new Granite Anvil 1200 in Canada. But, really, none of them compare to PBP for just sheer fun on a bike.

The next PBP is in 2011. Next spring is a perfect time to start training.
posted by bl1nk at 8:37 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Good lord, that is horrible and disturbing. Especially this:

During the race, Robic’s brain is allowed control over choice of music (usually a mix of traditional Slovene marches and Lenny Kravitz)
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:00 PM on September 25, 2009

This is a fantastic FPP, one of the best I've read in a while. Nice work and glad to read the comments so far. A friend has recently gotten into long distance running, but I handn't thought about the equivalent in road riding. I was happy to read about James Bowthorpe and his record breaking 18,000 mile ride around the world last week on MeFi and this post is a great addition. Looking forward to a ride tomorrow.

bl1nk said:
Hallucinations aside, the brain also gets tired with having to constantly monitor all of your vital systems without rest. So, what tends to happen is that you start temporarily shutting down non-vital stuff, like long-term memory and the ability to articulate compound sentences, while redirecting your energy towards ensuring optimal digestive and cardiovascular operations.

As a non-biologist, this statement makes me wonder if there is some connection between these symptoms in extreme athletes and these symptoms in, well, normal/handicapped people. Assuming that athletes actually do experience these kinds of things and if its their body chemistry under extreme stress that causes it, it seems like some similar period of stress during development could cause similar effects in other people.
posted by pkingdesign at 10:36 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

bl1nk: sometimes success comes from self-deception

This is incredibly profound, and goes far beyond extreme sport in its usefulness. Every major system of human thought -- science, religion, secular self-improvement, mysticism, and on and on -- seems to be aimed at finding and aligning us with the truth. They argue about what the truth is, but hardly any of them dare to argue that it's a little self-deception that will set you free.

Yet that does seem to be the case, because in the much longer endurance race of life we have the same problem, and the same solution works. So many of us accept truths that aren't so true as they are the necessary lies that make it possible for us to get up in the morning; but wouldn't it be better if, like the athlete, we could have clear eyes about the lies we tell ourselves when nothing else will get us past the next crisis, so that when there is no crisis we could adopt more appropriate lies. Or maybe even, sometimes, the truth...

I feel an urge to re-read all my Robert Anton Wilson books now.
posted by localroger at 6:38 AM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

pkingdesign -- I'm not a physiologist either, and everything I wrote about what your body does is pure conjecture, but all I can say, from my experience is that it usually takes about 20 hours before I start to really have issues, and it's really all just stemming from sleep deprivation and mental fatigue. This is to say, that the symptoms are truly temporary and corrected with a bit of rest. Normally, 8 hours of sleep gets me back to normal, and even after the 1000k, I was fit for socializing with friends after getting through a couple of REM cycles in assorted naps. It's not like PTSD, which is probably more akin to what you're imagining.
posted by bl1nk at 7:29 AM on September 26, 2009

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