Written by Simon Bright

This isn’t a book about ultra running or about sport in particular, but about people coping in very extreme environments; for example cave diving, mountaineering and space travel.  I think, however, that it may be useful to ultra runners because a lot of the issues it covers are also relevant to long distance running (especially trail and mountain running).

The book describes the challenges created by extreme environments.  It summaries the scientific research on these challenges and is also filled with case studies of how individuals have coped with these problems (or failed to cope with catastrophic results).   The book is, however, very easy to read and covers a huge amount of material in a short space.  Many of the subjects it covers in a single page have taken up entire books (for example, the many well documented examples of explorers and mountaineers hallucinating the appearance of imaginary companions).  It doesn’t provide a “how to” guide to cope with extreme environments, but does include examples of coping strategies.

So what does the book cover which is of interest to ultra runners?  A lot of the issues it covers are directly relevant.  This includes coping with sleep deprivation and the most effective way to deal with this – suggesting that 10-20 minute naps are very beneficial but longer naps can cause “sleep inertia” i.e. feeling groggy when waking (probably a bad thing in a race involving navigation!).  The book also suggests there is a direct link between willpower and blood glucose levels, with the ability to persist in a difficult task declining if the latter drops (so presumably one strategy if you feel you want to drop out of race is to take something sugary on board).

The book focuses on is how important it is to meet the mental challenges created by extreme environments – with surviving and thriving in these circumstances being “…largely a mind game” (both authors are psychologists)For example it points out the importance of planning for every last detail – with disasters being caused by an accumulation of little events rather than one major catastrophe.  It explains that people tend to underestimate both the time required to complete a project and the number of problems that will be encountered.  As a result, the authors suggest a “crystal ball” technique for planning e.g. imagining telling a crystal ball how you predict an event will end and asking the ball for possible alternative (and negative) outcomes.  This approach can help identify possible dangers and develop strategies to deal with them (or in NASA speak “rehearsing for catastrophe”).

Where the book gets especially interesting is in covering mental states associated with coping with extreme environments – including “flow”,where individuals become fully immersed in the task.  The authors argue that explorers (and possibly ultra runners as well?) have successfully used meditation to help focus on the tasks they need to complete while working in an extreme environment.  This mediation could take the form of either focussing on a single point or object, or on “mindfulness” e.g. focussing on the present.  I’ve seen similar ideas suggested in some of the writing about ultra running and extreme sport, suggesting that this book may include material that is of interest to these communities.  The authors also make the point that, although the examples they use relate to very unusual environments, the skills and attributes required to survive in these areas are also useful in everyday life e.g. ability to stick to challenging tasks.  

This book doesn’t try to be a user’s manual on how to survive in dangerous environments.  What I think it does provide is a pick n mix of new ideas.  Each chapter includes several approaches to addressing extreme challenges. It probably wouldn’t be practical to try to learn from all of them, but they do definitely provide an opportunity to learn from others’ experience.  Possibly my best choice so far for my reading over this Christmas break.