Push it to the limit.

“When you go into a race, you’re thinking I’m winning. Then you take over the race early. Then you control it to the finish. Then you win it. You dominate the competition.”
These are Hendrick Ramaala’s instructions – decidedly simple, unquestionably challenging – for giving previously unattained records the gravity of your maximum effort.

The defining moment in the career of Ramaala, South Africa’s four-time Olympic marathon runner, came to life on 7 November 2004 while he waited nervously behind the starting gun on Staten Island in New York, and glanced around at his vested challengers shuffling around him. “You see the big names, but deep down you say, today, they are going to know who I am. I am going to punish them.”

Two hours, nine minutes and 28 milliseconds after the start gun fired, Ramaala was the first to cross the finish line in Central Park and win the New York Marathon.
“Nobody was going to beat me on that day,” he says. “I was in control of that race.” It’s a unique sensation of performance, says Ramaala. “The body responds well: you don’t get cramps, you feel light. Everything goes smoothly.”

For Ramaala, exceeding your limits in a race goes beyond simply being physically present. “I’m always in physical shape but when your state of mind, your body and your soul are together, that’s when you know,” he says. “Your body is telling you, now is the time. The mind is telling you the same thing. Inside, your soul is saying, this is it.”

“You can’t explain it,” he says. “Either it’s there or it isn’t there.”

Usually, it isn’t there. That’s why when these stubborn displays of exceptional athleticism do occur they’re called personal bests. “I’ve seen guys train and go into races and they don’t win or finish and I think, This guy was killing us in training, what happened? Possibly the mind or the body was not willing on the day.”

Every competitive sport is a cruel game of numbers, and the odds are especially distant and steep in marathons. In every New York Marathon, 36 999 runners don’t get to win it. “After a marathon you will see a lot of sad faces,” says Ramaala. “You have to deal with losing most of the time. I’ve run nearly 30 marathons, but you know what? I won two, and I’m one of the lucky few.”

When a runner crosses his starting line, he begins a losing battle against losing. You’re racing against the fickle figures of competitors’ personal bests, seemingly relentless distances and gushes of impatient time in which to finish.
These days – when everything goes just right – are rare. “Most of the time you wish them to be there. It doesn’t come often,” he admits. That’s the nature of personal records, they’re distant thresholds only attainable at legendary summits of effort. “We’re still waiting for those moments, still waiting for another good day,” says Ramaala.

ONE DAY SHORT OF SIX YEARS LATER,

South African triathlon upstart James Cunnama was not having a good day. He was up against 2 500 athletes in the Florida Ironman competition when a hissing puncture yanked the momentum from the bicycle beneath him. With 30km of the leg still to go – his hopes of victory were deflated and his bike was rendered a temporary unicycle.

The puncture had thrown him out of the lead group and set his time back by five minutes – an eon in Ironman terms. He felt the tiredness hit him. It was the last race of very long season. He’d won three consecutive races before this one and pushed himself to his limit. “I went to Florida not really sure if I had anything left in the tank,” he says. His recent hat-trick made him a favourite; a win from the 27-year-old wasn’t surmised, it was expected.

Dismounted but not disillusioned, Cunnama drew the energy for his impending exertion from one simple fact: the pressure on him to win amounted to the exact air pressure levels within his recently impaled tyre.

“I thought, you have a free swing – if you don’t win you can say you just had a puncture, it’s one of those things. But if you do win, everyone’s going to look at you as the hero because you overcame a puncture. It was one of those everything-to-win-and-nothing-to-lose situations where you can dig really deep and just let it flow.”
So he did.

He fixed the tyre and finished the cycling leg. Then, while running a 2:43 marathon, he overtook a dozen competitors in front of him and won the race. “It ended up being one of the best days I’ve had.”

Aside from the absence of pressure to win, Cunnama already had the confidence that he could take his body to prizewinning lengths. “I had run a 2.43 in the Ironman distances earlier, so I did have that mental belief that I could run a 2.43 if everything went well, and that I could, after my puncture, run down the 12 guys in front of me and beat them all.”

“That confidence in my own running ability – being able to believe that even when things go wrong, that you can go all the way – really got me through that marathon,” he says.

Contrast that with the experience of
powerlifter A.J. Roberts.

On the best day of his career, Roberts gave what might have been less than his absolute best performance. He’ll never know.

At a powerlifting meet in March last year, Roberts didn’t miss a single lift the entire day. In powerlifting you have three turns in each of the usually three contested lifts – squat, bench press and deadlift – and he completed all nine attempts. By the end of the day he had set personal records in each lift, and the sum of those lifts was a world record for the 140 kilogram weight class.

“It was a surreal feeling to go through the day hitting numbers and thinking, I wonder what I could do if I really pushed it? “Roberts says, “Maybe I limited myself.”
That’s the paradox of maximum effort, however you define it and however you pursue it: your best possible performance isn’t necessarily the one that brings home the trophy. And bringing home the trophy doesn’t necessarily mean you did the best you could have done.

The agony of victory

Let’s step away from these champions for a moment and talk about someone who matters more: you. Chances are, you aren’t a champion in anything more prestigious than the office Superbru log. Here’s a question: have you ever gone to your max? That is, have you trained for something specific, like strength or endurance, and reached what you thought was your body’s limit? If you work out for purely aesthetic reasons, have you ever been in the best possible shape you could achieve? You can expand the question to team sports: have you practiced and trained to the point where you thought you maxed out your ability in sport, and played it at the highest level you could?

It’s not really a simple question, is it? First, you have to distinguish between a personal record and a max performance. You can go out today and set a PR in anything, as long as it’s something you’ve never done before. If it’s something you have done, you can find a way to do it slightly harder, better or faster. Finish with one more rep, run one more block, pick up the pace on that final lap, and you have a PR.
A max performance is something else. It can only come from dedicated training toward a specific goal.