A grad-school friend of mine encouraged me to listen to WNYC‘s Radiolab on our Union Break one summer morning. I got hooked, and found that listening to the latest Radiolab got me through lonely runs and labtime and writing in my office. It inspires me to think about different things than my typical research stuff. Plus, I really enjoy learning. So on this sunny, Sunday morning, I decided to listen to the recently released Radiolab instead of saving it for my drive downstate. It was quite possibly the best motivator to get me out of the funk and out the door on my bike.

Earlier this week, Jad and Robert hosted an episode entitled “Limits.” It starts off with an interview of Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham, women who are infamous for their determination in the Ironman. Julie, who competed in the fourth Ironman, went into the race with very little endurance training, just sort of on a whim, and almost won the race. She had no real goals before starting the race, but when she found that she was second off the bike, she started to want it. She caught the lead woman within eight miles of the run, and wanted the win more and more. Here’s a recap of the run portion of that infamous race:

Julie and the Radiolab gang discuss the limits she faced in that fateful day. She refers to it as watching “a train wreck”- The limits of human physiology, moreso than psychological limits, are what forced Julie to crawl. Her muscles cramped, her legs slowed, and she collapsed. Her legs just didn’t work. Julie’s determination got her across the line that day – this little voice telling her to “get up” – forced her to crawl across the line.

Robert brings up a good point, in that the voice she heard didn’t tell her to stop, to give up. Julie interjects, that voice would be her ego, and that voice was overpowered by this other voice that changed her life.

“I made a deal with myself- A deal was struck. I don’t care if it hurts. I don’t care if its messy. I don’t care how it looks, I will finish.” – Julie Moss

So according to Julie Moss: Psychologically– there are no limits.

What about physiologically? David Jones joins the show, a retired physiologist that had performed a study on cyclists and energy intake. The hosts discuss the Central Governor Theory, which is basically the “limiting” signal generator that allows your body to maintain its energy reserves for emergencies. It tells your body “HEY! I am done! No more energy, no more activity, stop what you are doing because I ain’t got anymore juice!”- but really, the body probably has a little bit of reserves left. Basically, it governs your energy expenditure just like an engine governor (like on a school bus) limits speed. And just like an engine governor, it’s thought that it can be turned off.

So how far can you take your body? People race the Race Across America, Ultramans, ultramarathons, and all other sorts of incredibly tough endurance activities. How do they do it? What is going on in their brain and their body that makes them able to do this?

Find out! I encourage you to head over to WNYC and NPR to listen to the latest Radiolab podcast! While it won’t answer all the questions (and it will probably raise even more questions than what it starts with), Radiolab is science + entertainment, and it definitely makes learning more fun.


6 thoughts on “Limits

  1. What an awesome post. I’m downloading the podcast as I write this!

    The other day at swim practice, I found myself going off on a much faster interval than usual – mostly because I hadn’t been paying attention and wound up going off the sendoffs for the lane next to me. Once I realized it, I figured, what the heck, I’ll go with this as long as I can, and when I need to, I’ll drop down to my usual interval. But — holy crap. I kept up. I held it. I didn’t panic. Just kept digging deep and reaching long. I made it. And now I’ve got a whole new set of possibilities in my head.



  2. If you’re into science podcasts, I’d highly recommend “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” ( They talk a lot of science, and while the “we don’t believe in religion and we’re right and you’re wrong” attitude can be a little overwhelming at times, they put together a very good show!

    I think I’ll add Radiolab to my MP3 player – I need something new to listen to anyway!

  3. Wow…that video is both awful and inspiring at the same time. I’m already starting to see how much further I can push myself this year if I take my mind out of the equation. It’s amazing what the human body is capable of.

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