In Search of the Why and the How in Running: An Interview with Alex Hutchinson

“When you reach that point where you can’t go any further, or any faster, or maintain your pace for any longer, what is it that’s holding you back?”

That’s what renowned runner and science writer Alex Hutchinson set to find out in researching his latest book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, over nine years ago.

“What started out as a book about running ended up being more about the human condition,” he says. “My understanding of endurance broadened.”

Even before his decade of consulting over a thousand scientific studies and hundreds of researchers, Alex was no stranger to feats of endurance. He ran for Team Canada as a middle-distance runner at the World University Games, the World Cross Country Championships, and the World Mountain Running Championships. He also ran the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon in 2013, where he finished 53rd, all part of his research efforts.

“We often think of races as ‘painful,’ but physical pain is distinct from the sense of effort,” he wrote in his Runner’s World piece about psychologically preparing for that Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Alex’s brain was trained by University of Kent researcher Samuele Marcora, who defines effort as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.”

But that definition also captures both the physical and mental aspects of endurance, he writes in Endure’s first chapter. “What’s crucial is the need to override what your instincts are telling you to do (slow down, back off, give up), and the sense of elapsed time.”

Accepting that most limits are controlled by the brain allows runners to realize that the endurance needed for a marathon is similar to the endurance needed in other aspects of life.

“Whether it’s writing a book, studying for an exam, or staying up all night with a sick child,” says Alex. “You have to learn to be aware of your internal monologue and make sure it’s not holding you back.”

Turning negative “self-talk” into something more supportive helps people push a little harder without it feeling more difficult.

“What do you say to yourself in the middle of a marathon or any other stressful situation? If you say, ‘this is terrible, there’s no way you could keep this up,’ you’re influencing the way your brain interprets the signals from the rest of your body.”

Alex began a career in physics with a bachelor of science from McGill and a PhD from Cambridge. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in 2004 when he decided to switch to media, and he obtained his masters of journalism from Columbia the following year. As an Ottawa Citizen reporter in 2006, he wrote a National Newspaper Award-winning profile of Joseph Nderitu, who won the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon three years in a row. With his teens and twenties spent racing competitively and his science background, Alex says it seemed inevitable that the two would come together in his writing.

“There is a path to writing about running, like ‘who won the race,’ and I chose a different path, like why or how they won,” he says.

In 2017, as a columnist with Runner’s World, Alex was assigned to cover Nike’s top secret Breaking2 project.

Backed by Nike’s best scientific minds and tens of millions of dollars, Breaking2 aimed to push three elite runners — Olympic marathon gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge, world-record half-marathon holder Zersenay Tadese, and two-time Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa — to run 42 km under two hours. Of the three east African athletes, the Kenyan Kipchoge had the best time but came a mere 26 seconds short from breaking the two-hour marathon.

Alex describes the event as a watershed moment in the pursuit of human limits, and uses it as the perfect study of endurance’s elasticity.

“By then, I’d pretty much finished the book,” says Alex. “But the breaking2 project was such a perfect encapsulation of these ideas I decided that it was worth the effort to rewrite.”

On Saturday April 28, he’ll join Run Ottawa’s Mark Sutcliffe for an Ottawa Writers Festival event to discuss some of the surprises and lessons he learned along the way, and how some can be applied to the rest of our lives.