I came. I saw. I blew.
But first, which door?
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to a short, blonde woman, after having just entered the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Trask Coliseum. “Which way to the UNCW Human Performance Lab?” She smiles and points: “Through those double doors. Second door on the left.” I’m late to this appointment and tired. I’ve had no lunch and all I’ve had to drink is a Coke. I have running shoes and shorts in one hand, and a grey, tropical-weight Brooks Brothers suit in the other.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I ask myself.
Then I remember: I’m the one who gleefully signed up for this back one cold December day, when Dr. Wayland Tseh, associate professor at UNCW’s School of Health and Applied Human Sciences and director of UNCW’s Human Performance Laboratory, e-mailed asking if I wanted to be “tested at The Lab.”
The Lab is unremarkable with a white-brown speckled floor, cream-colored walls with large windows, and a row of lonely treadmills. Maybe I was expecting more – equipment with colored lights and guys named Magnus Magnusson with crew cuts and heart monitors. Its Spartan nature reinforces my present reality: Appearance has little meaning here.
I’ve never met Tseh but somehow I already trust him with my life, trusting him enough to abbreviate his name like we’re old college roommates or battle buddies. “Hello, Mr. Frederiksen, and welcome to the Lab,” says a man behind me. Without turning, I know it’s Tseh. He has the same formal, respectful tone in person as he does in email. He is short and buff and uses a stern knife-hand to point to the people and equipment in front of me. I’m here for Volume of Oxygen, or VO2 max testing, which will measure my level of cardiovascular fitness. VO2 is a measure of the oxygen used by your body to convert the food you eat into the energy molecules.
And to someone who runs 50-mile ultra marathon races – yah, that’s me – engine size is everything.
Here’s how it’ll work: I’ll run on a specially equipped treadmill hooked to a computer for 14 minutes, the speed and incline of that treadmill gradually increasing until my heart rate reaches between 170 and 180 beats per minute. Headgear with a mask, including a stove pipe-sized tube stuffed in my mouth for breathing, will produce metabolic gas measurements. From this, my VO2 max number will be determined.
I change into shorts, a mesh sleeveless t-shirt and a visor—standard ultramarthoning gear. I’ve put this on a thousand times. No sweat. I don the mask, a lab assistant pinches my nose closed with a clip, and I take the pipe into my mouth. The treadmill starts its high-pitched whining wheeze. My feet are no longer mine. They’re running me at 7:15 minute mile —not blistering by any means, but you have to keep your head in the game. You have to focus. The incline increases.
I feel the difference. A slight quickening of the heart, then a leveling off. I talk myself through it. People watch. The headgear is distracting and hangs unevenly on my head; it gags me. Numbers fill a screen on a wall in front of me— they represent my body’s response to the physical stress. I see them from the corner of my eye. Faster. More incline. I’m aching, bad. Ten minutes pass. Then twelve. Then thirteen.
“Look, his pupils are huge,” someone says. Then I recall Tseh’s last instructions to me: “When all you have is one more minute in you, hold up your right pointer finger.”
I want to hold it up, but I don’t want to. The moment I’ve waited nearly a year for is here. How much harder do I push? Endure, and I will hurt. Pop that finger up, and I’ll regret it.
My finger reluctantly, but somehow effortlessly, goes up. It is almost 14 minutes. Two guys catch me as I pancake slide off the treadmill like Daffy Duck in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
I catch my breath and walk around The Lab shaking my head.
Or, maybe that’s only me.