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The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.
‘‘By the third day, we are Jure’s software,’’ says Lt. Miran Stanovnik, Robic’s crew chief. ‘‘He is the hardware, going down the road.’’
‘‘That is our method,’’ Stanovnik says. ‘‘When Jure cannot go any more, he can still go. We must motivate him sometimes, but he goes.’’
In this dual-brain system, Robic’s mental breakdowns are not an unwanted side effect, but rather an integral part of the process: welcome proof that the other limiting factors have been eliminated and that maximum stress has been placed firmly on the final link, Robic’s mind. While his long-term memory appears unaffected (he can recall route landmarks from year to year), his short-term memory evaporates. Robic will repeat the same question 10 times in five minutes. His mind exists completely in the present.
From the time of Hippocrates, the limits of human exertion were thought to reside in the muscles themselves ...
‘‘It was as if the brain was playing a trick on the body, to save it,’’ says Timothy Noakes, head of the Cape Town group. ‘‘Which makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. In fatigue, it only feels like we’re going to die. The actual physiological risks that fatigue represents are essentially trivial.’’
Fatigue, the researchers argue, is less an objective event than a subjective emotion — the brain’s clever, self-interested attempt to scare you into stopping. The way past fatigue, then, is to return the favor: to fool the brain by lying to it, distracting it or even provoking it.