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Why Jenny Failed

Jenny Barringer leading the NCAA Championships. Photo:
Jenny Barringer leading the NCAA Championships. Photo:

Many observers think Jenny Barringer’s mind failed her in Monday’s NCAA Cross Country Championship. Actually, it was her brain.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

In his 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships preview, my colleague Sean McKeon wrote, “Why don’t we just give Jenny Barringer the trophy, spare the field the embarrassment and let the other women race for the lesser positions? All right, that may be an exaggeration, but in my mind it’s not a matter of if the Colorado senior is going to win, it’s by how much… If she doesn’t win it will be the biggest upset in NCAA history, bar none.”

Barringer finished 163rd in Monday’s race in Terre Haute, Ind. In his preview, McKeon intimated that only an “epic collapse” by Barringer would open the door for another woman to win, and an epic collapse is exactly what we saw.

As expected, Barringer, the 3000m steeplechase American record holder and a 2008 Olympian in that event, made her way to the front of the field quickly after the starting gun fired. Also not surprisingly, Florida State’s Susan Kuijken marked her closely. Roughly half a mile into the 6K race, the two women began to separate themselves from the rest, and thereafter their margin steadily expanded.

Barringer seemed determined to shake Kuijken, knowing that the latter is a middle-distance specialist with a fierce kick, but she held on gamely. Then, not long after they had passed the two-mile mark, Barringer suddenly pulled up as though she had just been shot by a sniper. She staggered a bit and then fell into a slow jogging rhythm as Kuijken raced away ahead of her.

Before long Barringer was being passed by dozens of other runners. Eventually she slowed to a walk that lasted all of three paces before she collapsed to the ground in a heap. Just as abruptly, however, she rose and resumed running. Bizarrely, she looked totally fine as she ran the closing stretch in stride with the inferior runners surrounding her.

Most observers were totally mystified by Barringer’s performance. Others were all too quick to pronounce that she had simply choked. To understand what really happened to Barringer, you must first understand a little about how the brain functions during intense running.

Traditionally, the body’s performance limits have been defined strictly in terms of physiological limits within the muscles themselves or within other systems such as the cardiovascular system. But within the past 15 years or so, sports scientists have learned that exercise performance is really governed by the brain.  When fatigue occurs, it is not because the muscles or cardiovascular system has run up against a hard functional limit.  Instead, it is because the brain has essentially voluntarily shut down the muscles before they hit a limit in order to prevent the body from suffering serious harm.

In stressful exercise events such as running races, the brain must balance the desire to complete the task as fast as possible with the need to protect the body from overexertion. In other words, it must pace the runner, and it manages this job through a mechanism that South African exercise physiologist Ross Tucker has labeled “anticipatory regulation.”

Here’s how anticipatory regulation works: Continuously throughout running races the brain subconsciously calculates the fastest pace that the runner can sustain over the remaining distance without causing serious self-harm and enforces its conclusion by controlling the amount of muscle activation it allows and by producing feelings of comfort and discomfort. The inputs for these calculations are explicit knowledge of the endpoint (that is, the finish line), feedback signals received from the body that tell the brain how the body is doing, and past training and racing experience, which gives the runner a good sense of how hard running should feel at any given point.

Every runner knows that racing is hard, but few ever think about why it entails such intense suffering. The brain produces these feelings to enforce sensible pacing. Suffering is not some disembodied epiphenomenon of intense exercise without practical utility; it is instead the key regulator of pacing and the primary cause of fatigue. Research has shown that there is no single physiological predictor of fatigue: blood lactate levels, muscle glycogen levels, heart rates, muscle pH levels, and so forth are all over the place at the point of exhaustion in different runners and even within the same runner in different situations. But in trained runners, the level of suffering almost always rises linearly throughout races and reaches the maximal tolerable level at the end of the race—or somewhat before the end in cases of bad pacing.

It’s not quite that simple, however. First, the maximal tolerable limit of suffering is variable, and can increase or decrease a bit from race to race depending on the runner’s level of motivation and other factors. Also, research by Carl Foster at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse has shown that the degree of suffering an athlete experiences at any given moment is a function of how he actually feels in relation to how he expected to feel. Hence, when you are halfway through a race and find yourself feeling a little better than expected, this very fact will make you feel even better. But the inverse is also true—and this brings us back to Jenny Barringer.

Sean McKeon is not the only person who predicted that Barringer would win the national cross-country championship easily. Everyone said it. And Barringer heard everyone saying it and undoubtedly started to believe it. So she very likely went into the race anticipating that she would not have to suffer quite as much as she had to win previous races in her career. This expectation set her up for disaster.

I am certain that Barringer was physically capable of winning the race. She just wasn’t capable of winning it easily. When she got a couple of kilometers into it, pressing the pace hard and unable to shake Susan Kuijkan, she discovered that she was suffering more than expected, and this made her feel worse—so much worse that her brain protectively shut down her muscles, causing the epic collapse that we all witnessed.

Barringer’s comments after the race are perfectly consistent with this explanation. “I definitely remember … all of a sudden going lightheaded and thinking, ‘I don’t know how to run anymore,’” she said. “I just lost my head and didn’t feel good.”

If Barringer had simply gone into the race expecting it to be extremely painful, and expecting her victory to come with great difficulty, she would have won. As her rebound at the end of the race demonstrated, there was nothing physically wrong with her. Yet her meltdown was not “all mental,” either. The subconscious brain is in the driver’s seat during races. When it decides to make you bonk, you bonk. A runner can no more overcome fatigue caused by the subconscious brain through “mind over matter” than a person could jump off a building a fly by overcoming gravity through mind over matter.

In my own career as a runner and triathlete I have set myself up for disaster many times in the same way Barringer did, although thankfully not on such a prominent stage. While I am ready to suffer as much as necessary whenever necessary, I occasionally make the mistake of expecting a certain performance to come more easily than is realistic. Once immersed in it I discover that it’s harder than expected, which makes it even harder and ensures that I have a very bad workout or race.

I’m sure you have had such experiences too. Now you know why. Let Jenny Barringer’s failure be a cautionary example to you: If a given run is probably going to really hurt, expect it to really hurt!