August 15 2018
We spoke with 22-year-old ultrarunner Lucy Bartholomew just days before she began racing the 2018 TransRockies Run on August 14.
After a phone call from Asics requesting she come to “an event,” Deena Kastor hopped on a plane to London without any further details. Kastor is the American women’s marathon record holder, an Olympic bronze medalist and has been sponsored by Asics since 2001. “I always say yes to them,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I got there that I really understood what was going on.”
Kastor arrived at “the event,” which was taking place at a warehouse in South London, on June 5. Inside, it was pitch black except for a light shining on Asics’ new Gel-Kayano 25 shoe. Deep, dramatic music played as she was given her kit, stripped of any technology she had with her and briefed on what she was about to do.
“The design philosophy behind the Kayano is actually to provide the ultimate comfort and stability, so runners and racers can be completely free of distraction themselves,” says Fiona Berwick, Asics’ global strategic planner. For the launch of the 25th edition of their flagship shoe, Berwick and her colleagues wanted to bring this philosophy to life by creating an experience for runners involving only the mind, body and shoe. Enter the blackout track.
Asics worked with sports scientists, psychologists and mind trainer Chevy Rough to come up with the perfect conditions for testing the power of the human mind. Based on a popular Japanese trend from the 1990s, where runners would run monotonous loops to focus their thoughts, they came up with the ideal lap size of 150 meters to test runners in 5K and 10K scenarios. The only light was on the runner, and white noise played in the background to eliminate all outside noises. There was no finish line and no indicator of distance.
The experiment measured the time it took to complete a 5K in blackout conditions versus the time it took to complete a 5K in light, with music playing, crowds cheering and access to the amount of distance covered. The test ran four days, from June 5 through June 8. On day one, Asics had three people—including Kastor—run a 10K on the blackout track for pre-testing. The actual experiment occurred on the second day, when 10 runners—including fitness influencer Emily Abbate, basketball player Chase Tan and endurance runner Susie Chan—ran a 5K on both the blackout track and the lit track for time comparison. On the third and fourth days, 20 more runners ran for 25 minutes solely in blackout conditions while Asics tracked the number of laps they completed in that given time.
The results from the controlled experiment conducted on the second day revealed that runners’ 5K times averaged 60 seconds slower on the blackout track. Though Asics was expecting differences in running times, the feeling the runners from all four days had coming off the blackout track was unexpected.
“What I think we weren’t expecting so much was this euphoria that they got out of it,” Berwick says. “Once they got used to the environment that they were in, they all found this elevated state in being on their own and being able to be with their thoughts.”
Kastor’s feelings were no different from the rest of the runners. “I was completely surprised that time seemed to pass without any acknowledgement of it passing quickly or slowly,” Kastor says. “I was just running at this nice pace that was creating a breeze and that made me feel really strong. It was such a strange experience because I thought there would be a lot going on in my head and there wasn’t. I think I completely embraced the fact that I could just run without any distractions at all.”
Berwick admits that we should all have goals and chase after the things we want to accomplish, but this experiment showed that taking time to unplug and disconnect from our personal drive and the outside world is actually healthy. “I think that the mind and body connection is in [Asics’] DNA,” Berwick says. (“ASICS” is an acronym for “anima sana in corpore sano,” which is Latin for a sound mind in a sound body.) “I think we really want to remind everyone to step back and take time for themselves.”
Kastor is no stranger to the power of the mind—in fact, she just wrote a book on thinking her way to success called Let Your Mind Run. “A lot of ambitious runners are searching for that next fix that’s going to make them a little faster and a little stronger. We tend to ignore what’s going to make it the most enjoyable,” Kastor says. “I think sometimes people find that they stop enjoying the process, and this was a great reminder to just enjoy the simple act of running.”