Why Take the Risk – The Cheltenham Science Festival

June 8, 2015 RAAM 2015
Posted by The Sporting Brain on Saturday, 6 June 2015, reproduced here – please check out The Sporting Brain.


Facing Future Pain. What makes people go the extra mile? What kinds of people do it? I met two last night at Cheltenham Science Festival where we discussed risk and decision making, in The Parabola Arts Centre. Fran Brown  is World Para Climbing Champion, and Shu Pillinger is an ultra distance athlete.

Fran is an incomplete tetraplegic who climbs at a level that leaves standing those bulging bicep boulder boys at your local climbing centre. Fran has goals outside climbing, too. Some iron man events are about to be smelted by her. Shu is getting ready for the Race Across America (RAAM). That’s 3000 miles (oops, sorry, Shu, 3005 miles!) of cycling over 12 days and 21 hours, climbing a total of 170,000 feet (think Everest x 5 and then some). Shu aims to become the first British woman ever to finish it (50% of people who enter, fail to finish this race).

What I learned from them is that for some events, being able to deal with pain isn’t the (only) hard part. It’s the anticipation of certain pain. Shu, for example, knows that she faces 12 days of sleep deprivation, hallucinations (Shu has previously fought off Goblins), paranoia (she sometimes believes her team are lying to her) and draining physicality that’ll require her to find a way of taking in 8-9K calories, while riding a bike. Dealing with pain and fear in the hope or knowledge that it will stop is one thing, but to walk towards it is something else. On stage at Cheltenham Science, we were joined by Greg Davies (@GregBDavies, Head of Behavioural Finance at Barclays), and Nick Chater (Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School). Now that’s a lot of IQ points to have on one stage, but Shu and Fran didn’t fit into anything we three Kings knew about behaviour and decision making. People like to do things that make them comfortable? Not Shu and Fran. People overestimate their abilities? Not Shu and Fran – they’ve both driven their bodies and minds further than anyone would have thought possible. They’re driven by peer pressure? Nope, they’re peerless. They’re nuts? No, they are modest, funny, interesting, more-fun-than-normal people to hang out with. They want to prove something? Not to you, mate. Adrenaline junkies? Not much adrenaline in the RAAM.

So what is it? I think two things. First, they are great examples of why, when trying to understand elite athletes, we sometimes have to concede that laboratory studies of people who are not elite athletes, cannot help us predict the performance or motives of the best. Second, the motives of those pushing the limits of human performance in sport may be the same as the motives of any other elite – an artist or musician, for example. They are occupying a problem space that is unique to them, and we have to understand it by treating them as special cases. They don’t know it’s special (they would be more likely to overestimate others’ abilities than their own), they are just trying to work out the next problem. They don’t even think that what they do is particularly interesting: Shu and Fran were both more interested in listening to each other than talking and neither thought what they do warrants an autobiography (because fighting Goblins and climbing 7C or doing a triathlon without using your legs is an everyday event). They didn’t arrive from the womb with the mental skills to face and endure extreme effort, they built it up (and sometimes it falls down and they have to build it up all over again). My impression was that Shu and Fran don’t dig deeper for special occasions, they dig deeper every day, in planning, in training, in anticipation, and in commitment (both hold full time jobs and both train in excess of 30 hours a week).

The RAAM starts on 16th June. If it makes you think “what’s the point” then you’re missing the point. It’s about discovering the limits of your physical and mental abilities, and not many have the courage to go there.