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Stronger Than We Think: Lessons From Pushing the Bounds of Human Endurance

When the human body gets pushed to its limit, whether by running ultra-marathons to having babies, we can learn a lot about our emotional as well as physical endurance.

Not all of us identify as athletes. But we all have the ability to push our physical bodies beyond what our minds think possible. Host Anita Rao examines the meaning of human endurance through conversation with people who’ve taken themselves to the extreme.

I would always visualize this one person, or this one racer, who was just slightly ahead of me at all times to try and continue to push my body.
Mia Ives-Rublee

Ultrarunner Jacky Hunt-Broersma racks up miles (and we’re talking hundreds of them) on the treadmill and on the trail. In 2020, Hunt-Broersma set a world record as the first amputee to run 100 miles on the treadmill. And Mia Ives-Rublee has competed internationally in wheelchair track, fencing and adaptive Crossfit — and she now puts in emotionally intense hours as a civil rights activist.

Rao also learns about the importance of mental health and the science of endurance with counseling and sport psychologist Jeni Shannon, director of the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Psychology Program, and Herman Pontzer, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Please note: This conversation originally aired on January 29, 2021.

Interview Highlights

Hunt-Broersma on why she runs hundreds of miles:

A woman with a prosthesis below her left knee standing in a forest
Credit Jacky Hunt-Broersma
Ultrarunner Jacky Hunt-Broersma.

There's something about ultra distance … you feel like you're just literally pushing your body to the limit. And it's that reward after that limit. You're like, oh, my goodness, my body has been able to do this. And you get a little bit, in a sense, get addicted to it. And especially running on a prosthetic, there's so many other elements that go into it, so many issues with your skin. And it's a learning process, and it's a fun journey. It is. It's incredibly challenging, but it's the reward at the end when you've done it.

Pontzer on what pregnancy reveals about endurance in our evolutionary history:

Our bodies probably weren't shaped by the need to do a Tour de France, right? That kind of event probably hasn't been a big factor in our evolution. But certainly pregnancy and reproduction is a huge component of evolution and selection pressures on the body. And so it says to us that maybe these metabolic limits that we're pushing in sports are actually set by the metabolic limits that sort of shape and constrain pregnancy.

Shannon on training our brains to endurance intense physical activity:

We can be in a place to say: Yes, that hurts. I'm aware of that. I can have it be there. And I can keep moving towards the thing that matters more, the thing that's more important. So I think that acknowledgement becomes a really big part of honoring our body and what it's telling us. But we also can't underestimate our ability to keep moving in those valued directions if we take those committed actions.

An Asian woman lies in a hospital bed with a service dog lying next to her.
Credit Mia Ives-Rublee
Mia Ives-Rublee in the hospital after surgery on her femur. Ives-Rublee went through nine surgeries on her leg in about the same number of years.

  Ives-Rublee on applying physical endurance training to other parts of life:

I was always somebody that had a certain amount of anxiety, and then that went down as I was doing more exercise. But then all of a sudden I had this nonunion fracture that wasn't healing. … Which meant that my anxiety went through the roof and I was dealing with multiple surgeries. ... And I was beginning to realize how much I had learned from athletics to deal with other situations that weren't directly related to athletics. And that was actually around the time that I began doing more around my community in terms of community service and then eventually got into civil rights work. And I learned that the mentality of pushing through and learning to plan out things all came from the amount of training that I did through athletics.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.