Can You Psych Yourself Into Running A 4-Minute Mile?

Jun 23, 2016
Originally published on June 23, 2016 7:57 pm

Mike Marsella was a really competitive guy, a champion cross-country runner in high school. He got a running scholarship to college. Then a car hit him while he was riding a moped. He was left in a coma, with brain damage. And when his mind changed, his running changed, too.

Would he ever be Mike Marsella again? And would he ever run a four-minute mile?

Editors' note: Invisibilia's back! Each Friday NPR's health blog, Shots, will feature an excerpt from the latest episode of the NPR podcast and program, which is broadcast on participating public radio stations.

This week, Alix Spiegel dives into the science of personality, and talks to a convicted sex offender who says he's no longer the person who committed the crime.

We're also creating original features for Shots that explore the Invisibilia theme of the week. This week we examine behavioral therapy programs in prisons, which ask prisoners to reframe how they think about themselves.

And those personality tests you take to get a job, or maybe just for fun? Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality, says they're about as useful as a Tarot card reading. But we still love them.

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NPR's show that examines human behavior "Invisibilia" has returned with a new season of stories. This week, they're exploring the idea of personality. And it turns out a lot of research suggests that it is far less stable than you might think. And today we have co-host Lulu Miller to talk more. Hey there, Lulu.

CORNISH: Hello, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. You got a story about a young runner - right? - who basically thought he had it in him to break the four-minute mile which is a big deal until a potential change in personality makes him question that. What happens?

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: All right so our young runner - his name is Mike Marsella He's from Rhode Island.

CORNISH: OK. Hold on. I have an idea. So how about in the spirit of athletic competition, you tell this story in under four minutes?

MILLER: Oh, but I actually can't really because it involves many characters. It takes place over many years.

CORNISH: OK. But what if I only give you four minutes and you do the best you can?

MILLER: All right.

CORNISH: Ready, set, go.

MILLER: OK. OK. So Mike Marsella grew up in Rhode Island, and he's always been really, really competitive.

MIKE MARSELLA: Like any board game I play with my family, I couldn't lose without flipping the board.

MILLER: So you were that kid? Like...

MARSELLA: Yeah, I was that kid that everyone's like, oh, crap.

MILLER: He got into running his freshman year of high school. And by his junior year of high school that kid had almost already broken the four-minute mile.

MARSELLA: Four minutes and nine seconds.


MARSELLA: I remember like sitting there, and I'd count to nine seconds. Nine seconds - what's nine seconds? One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine.

MILLER: And yeah. He just skips seven.


MILLER: Yeah. We'll get to that.

MARSELLA: I'll count again. One, two...

MILLER: So he keeps running. He gets a running scholarship to college.

MARSELLA: The University of Virginia.

MILLER: He buys a moped.

MARSELLA: It's a little red Yamaha.

MILLER: And one night...

MARSELLA: Just driving down the hill over the bridge and (imitates sound of crash).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There was a lot of blood.

MILLER: This is his dad.

KELLY MARSELLA: Please let him live. Please let him live.

MILLER: And his mom who came to the hospital to find Mike in a coma after being hit by a car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The impact was so great that it actually knocked his helmet off...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...Of his head.

MILLER: He was unconscious for four days, and then...

KELLY MARSELLA: The first time he woke up, he didn't recognize us. Michael, it's your mother. I'm here. I love you. And he turned around, and he screamed the F word at me. And he said you never loved me.

MILLER: He had suffered brain damage. He had problems with his speech, with his memory...

MARSELLA: They say remember four, six, two, nine and I jumbled the letter - the numbers up or just not even say the right numbers at all and...

KELLY MARSELLA: I was afraid that now he would be not him.

MILLER: But Mike at that point didn't think the accident had changed him. As soon as he was healthy enough to run, he was back on a starting line.

MARSELLA: The gun went off, and I kind of slid in the middle of the pack. First two laps we run around in two minutes - 2:01 which is...


MARSELLA: Yeah which is like right around four-minute pace. But 50 meters later everything blew up right in my face.

MILLER: He totally ran out of steam, finished nowhere near a four-minute mile.

MARSELLA: I mean, I was obviously very disappointed after that. I slapped the bleachers. Mike, you suck.

MILLER: He said that all of a sudden his mind was flooded with doubt about who he was.

MARSELLA: You're not Mike Marsella anymore.

MILLER: And when his mind changed, his running changed. All around the country he ran race after race but...

MARSELLA: Couldn't do it.

MILLER: And then comes a race near his hometown. So his parents come out, his childhood friends.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's go, Mike.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Let's go, Tom (ph).

MILLER: All the people who knew the Mike he used to be. He said the pain was horrible.

MARSELLA: You're not Mike Marsella anymore. Finally, with a lap to go...

MILLER: He hit the point.

MARSELLA: There's a point in almost every race where you hit this moment where you could give in to the pain or push through it. And once you almost break through that initial pain, you honestly feel better once you get to the other side, but it's that moment where you just need to decide. What do you want this for?

MILLER: And then he pictured something, something he worried he had lost in the accident. And...


MILLER: On January 31, 2015 Mike Marsella became the 427th American to ever break the four-minute mile.

KELLY MARSELLA: The whole thing stadium was goes yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: He did it. He did it.

MILLER: And Mike standing there staring at the scoreboard...

MARSELLA: Three minutes, 59 seconds point 97.

MILLER: ...Saw what he had reached for.

MARSELLA: A sign that I was still, still me.

CORNISH: And at three minutes, 59 seconds Lulu, you did it.

MILLER: Yes. And Mike Marsella - we are happy to report has made a full recovery. He will be graduating from UVA shortly with a degree in sociology and has since won first team All-American and ACC champ.

CORNISH: Nice. Lulu Miller, thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And thanks also to David Nyman for composing the music for that story. Now, on the next "Invisibilia" out tomorrow, you'll hear Lulu and Elise Spiegel explore how frighteningly unstable personality is for us all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.