The World’s Fittest Humans

James Autio
Feb 13, 2016 · 57 min read

Chapter 11: Roger McLaughlin (Australia)

In a nutshell, an adaptive response is the “after” performance envelope minus the “before” performance envelope — that change defines the whole reason you train. ΔP and ΔS constitute the adaptive yield and can be thought of as a means to derate the organism for a specific stress profile. Biologically, the organism can now tolerate greater levels of stress by an increased capacity to produce the required combination of torque, power, and energy on demand. Tolerance to stress can also take on other forms like your skin getting darker in sunny environments and perspiring less in hot and humid environments. I needed to say that because there are a myriad of adaptive classes besides ones dealing with sports. In my work I have many classes of stressors to deal with and the concepts of survival envelopes and adaptive response apply equally to all stress and survival capacity relationships; they compose a central principle of biological systems — they define and provide the why of what makes an organism an organism.

— Roger McLaughlin

Roger was dropped off by a helicopter dispatched from US Air Force Special Operations Command in Afghanistan around 40 miles from the eastern border of Iran. His mission is to single-handedly rescue a captured Israeli intelligence officer held in a lightly-guarded compound about 20 miles into hostile territory. That is 60 miles as the crow flies. There is a high probability the captive will be held there for no more than 72 hours before being moved to a large urban military complex outside Tehran so speed is of the essence. The state-of-the-art Russian radar and early-warning air defenses on the Iranian border prevent any covert helicopter infiltration or any form of fixed-wing, high-altitude parachute drop so there is only one way to attempt this mission — on foot — but the speed required is impossible given the range, terrain, temperature, humidity, and pack weight. Except for Roger, Mr. Impossible. No one in any military force or, in fact, in the human race can do what Roger does for a living given the broad and extreme physical demands and skill set requirements. He is very successful because he champions the element of surprise by executing seemingly insane statistical tail-events with precision: no opposing military force can possibly play defensive chess on a board of unknown dimensions. Roger is a lone-wolf, human black swan with a cobra overbite — call-sign BOA.

Roger’s fate and fortune is intertwined with his expertise and ingenuity in wielding his principal tool of the assassination business: The Barrett MRAD sniper rifle chambered in .338 Lapau Magnum.

The intelligence report from the CIA with imaging data from a DoD satellite deciphered the patrol patterns of Iranian forces and Roger watched with only a slight delay behind real-time on his satellite-linked tablet. Most of Roger’s six-year career were missions with similar physical demands but with a mission objective of an assassination of a high-value target usually from a range of 400 to 600 meters using a suppressed Barrett MRAD sniper rifle chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum. In his other missions his physical demands were the same but he laser-painted drone strikes for a Reaper or Predator. On three very special missions he infiltrated from great distance to provide boots-on-the-ground intelligence followed by precise timing and targeting for laser-guided bombs from a stealth Lockheed F-22 Raptor fighter that waited in a holding pattern for his invitation.

Subsonic .556mm round with tungsten powder in epoxy casing. Photo: James Autio

But a hostage-rescue mission is a different critter because it features a much higher risk profile; he chose to bring along in addition to his MRAD .338 a suppressed Colt M4 assault carbine with a 14.5-inch barrel mounted with a FLIR thermal night scope. For ballistics he decided on subsonic .556mm NATO rounds with tungsten powder in epoxy casing in lieu of lead bullets to maximize the hydrodynamic shock wave and wound cavity volume for head shots. Basically he would reduce somebody’s brain to three pounds of pink, grey and white goo blended in a tungsten homogenate. The only thing you hear is the firing pin striking the shell casing primer but from from 100 meters even a paranoid rabbit would be none the wiser. Any rabbit would go ballistic with a .338 Lapau supersonic blast.

F-22 Raptor dropping a laser SDB (small diameter bomb). Photo: USAF

Roger had about a five minute window to kill two guards meandering around the perimeter and one guard in the tent babysitting the Israeli captive before the patrol would return. He methodically worms his way up to 80 meter range where he will have the angle to shoot the first guard head-on while the second guard has his back turned so he cannot see any muzzle flash. In less than 10 seconds both guards are taken out with perfectly placed head shots. “Leave no trace” is a rule in common both in camping and killing behind enemy lines so, being the good boy scout that he aspires to be, he kills two birds with one stone by picking up the two ejected shell casings. He moves in on the tent and takes the guard by surprise with a double tap to the head using his suppressed Heckler & Koch USP Tactical 9mm handgun. Roger quickly cut off the metal handcuffs and the nylon ankle angle ties from the ebullient, overjoyed hostage. Roger brought a pair of shoes for the captive in case the Iranians had hidden or trashed his boots — that would stop the mission in its tracks.

Roger professionally manages his sphere of contingencies: knowns and known unknowns. Only unknown unknowns stay hidden in the lethal swamp of uncertainty and for them he reflexively errors on the side of minimizing risk even if it means aborting the mission at the last second — he harbors no bravado, ego or wishful thinking. For every living hero there are nine others six-feet under; Roger, like General George Patton, believes “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country”. This mission, however, is going clean as a hound’s tooth. Now he had the difficult task of getting his new lifelong mate close enough to the border where a few ATV four-wheelers can whisk them away and sidestep an international incident. Satellite infrared thermography pinpointed the optimal escape GPS path — they are ghosts in the wind.

A professional military sniper from the UK examines the practical and psychological aspects of killing people, the art and science of sniping. 7 minute award winning short film.

However, if the Iranians attempt to capture them they are going to be in for a rude shock by suddenly morphing into sitting ducks: if they are approached by a single or pair of jeeps with four hostiles each Roger will pick them off one by one as target practice with his Barrett MRAD and, if the opportunity presents itself, do it for fun from over 1000 meters. At close range a .338 Lapau Magnum has close to the anti-materiel lethality of a .50 BMG, a classic long-distance sniper round that dates back to the Browning machine gun (BMG) from 1921. His armor-piercing ammo may not be able to disable the jeep’s engine block like a .50 can but it will go through the vehicle’s toy armor and kill you where you sit like a hot knife through butter. In other words, a jeep provides no cover against BOA’s wrath.

Even if the Iranians had a helicopter in pursuit that wouldn’t end any better; it would end up as a mysterious helicopter crash, probably due to some kind of “malfunction”. But Plans B and C were not to be. He knew beforehand there were no helicopters in-theater; his potential threat matrix was minimized through intelligent intelligence.

It was a moonless night and Roger operated under the cover of darkness with similar instinctual deft as a nocturnal raptor. They had plenty of time to get to safety before sunrise, no worries. Such is the life of a red zone operator, someone operating at the extreme right edge of the human performance envelope where rolling snake eyes means life or death — for somebody.

Roger was born in Cooktown, Queensland, Australia which is in the northeast part of the continent about 200 miles north of Cairns on the coast. This region is called Far North Queensland and is best known for its rainforests, natural habitats, sparse population, and home to some of the last truly primitive, indigenous peoples — the Australian Aborigines. It is one of the last remaining wilderness areas on Earth. The nearby town of Laura is famous for its rock art dating to 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. But Australia’s northeast peninsula is also home to perhaps the greatest diversity of poisonous and deadly creatures on earth including crocodiles, many species of venomous snakes, spiders, sharks, jellyfish, stingrays and scorpions. Roger learned to respect nature from his earliest memories and gained a sixth sense of how to co-exist in the wild by honing an extraordinary instinct for ensuing danger and opportunity. Crocodiles and pythons came to know Roger as just a fellow, deadly-predator peer and that it’s a smart move to give him a wide berth and not tread on him.

Roger can free climb at 5.10 d level.

He hiked and mountain biked extensively during his childhood and logged countless miles on extended trips in many different kinds of ecosystems. He learned the ropes of rock climbing and free climbing from some of the local climbing clubs and became very proficient even in technically challenging rock formations eventually achieving a free climbing grade of 5.10 d which is cat burglar talent. In his early teens he spent a lot of time in Australia’s Simpson desert region in western Queensland. The inland tribes inhabiting the deserts had remarkable tracking skills for wild game whereas the coastal tribes were remarkable fishermen and spearmen. He particularly took counsel from the Aboriginal elders; he gained an understanding of a radically different perspective on the meaning of life and death than Western belief systems. He learned their Way of hunting and gathering and these deep and early understandings formed the foundation for what was to come. His uncanny ability to survive in the wild knew no measure; chameleons upped their game by eagerly assimilating ingenious new means of camouflage from Roger.

After high school he traveled to southeast Australia and enrolled at the University of Sydney to study exercise physiology with a special emphasis on environmental physiology: he was fascinated on how organisms adapt to their environments. He already had enormous real-world experience in these disciplines and now wanted to learn the theory and science to further augment his understanding of survival in the wild. He missed the remoteness of the outback while living in the city but deep down he knew that to follow his calling and earn a living in some way connected to nature he needed to become well-rounded; he needed to match his experience with education. But he really didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do as a career.

He met two blokes that were in the Australian Army and over a few Foster’s at the local pub they told him about some of the missions they did during the Iraq war. This piqued his interest. After getting his college degree in Exercise Physiology, Roger inquired further and joined officers training for the Australian Special Operations Command and consequently took courses in demolition, parachuting, survival, military roping, sniper training, and basic commando training. Most of this was already second-nature except now he integrated old school with new school creating an incredible tool and skill set for operating in the wild while under military or primeval hostile conditions.

He at first was assigned as a second lieutenant in the 2nd Commando Regiment but it wasn’t long before his unique skill set started to percolate and gel; he came to the realization that there is a huge difference between being overqualified or expert in performing his duty on a mission versus being able to do missions that do not exist because no one could do themexcept him. Australian Special Forces often performed missions in coalition with other nation’s Special Operators like the US Navy SEALs, US Army Delta Force, UK Special Forces, the Israeli Sayeret, and German Special Forces along with their respective intelligence agencies. All of these countries had trained operatives to do various forms of surveillance, assassinations, kidnappings and hostage-rescue of the vanilla variety but not with the added dimension of Roger’s hors catégorie fitness level. The niche that opened up for Roger were missions where advanced surveillance technology failed and there was no possibility of parasite-host style insertion of undercover operatives to address that deficiency; sophisticated adversaries knew how to exploit holes in technological capabilities coupled with zero opportunity for local intelligence access. Unfortunately for them, an era of success exploiting these vulnerabilities gave rise to dependency, complacency, and overconfidence from past success — this is an award-winning recipe for the element of surprise, a delicious skewer of blindside tactics cooked raw and rare — shock-and-awe style.

Roger got his start by doing assassinations for the CIA with forward support from the Navy SEALs. As Roger improved his marksmanship skills, physical conditioning, and knowledge of many of the new communications technologies, demand for his singular, unprecedented skill-set blossomed. After his first 15 kills of high-value targets, his reputation distilled down to “BOA Missions” or simply “BOA” in the upper-brass international special forces community. There were snipers with far more confirmed kills but nobody in military history lore had almost 60 kills of people that were news events at local, regional, national or even international scale. There was not a military officer or liaison anywhere on foreign soil out of BOA range: BOA + GPS = DOA.

Roger had outgrown the expertise of instruction at military special forces so he sought input from academics and practitioners in the vertical skill sets he needed to biohack: ultra-endurance conditioning; nutrition; small-arms ballistics; theories of risk management; rock and free climbing; and stretching and mobility. Unlike elite athletes who peak once or twice annually or have a season and offseason, Roger needed to be a red zone operator that was ever-ready with a go bag. That means right now, not 6-weeks from now — to do anything from: being a cat burgler; to running full-speed for several minutes with full gear; to moving faster than any other mammal over variable, unforgiving terrain for five days in bad weather conditions at a speed in-the-ballpark with an ultra-endurance athlete; to indefinite survival and living off the land or sea with no rescue prospects. To be at the level he needed to be — 365/7 — is a whole new ball game. He found he could manage about 85 to 90% of theoretical peak condition but not beyond that without crash and burn.

When Roger is in the wild he blends in. When Roger is not in the wild he blends in. His official job was no longer All-World Special Forces BlackOps Ninja Assassin or something like that, no, it was being a member of the Australian Institute of Emergency Services working as a volunteer member of Search & Rescue. In other words, no one has a clue about BOA, only Roger the humanitarian lifesaver. A couple of years ago he decided to train for the Hawaiian Ironman and met with some of the Aussie posse, some of the pro Ironman-distance triathletes from Australia that are top-15 caliber. He trained with some of them when their schedules allowed and learned valuable training tips from these mates along with tapping into the country’s braintrust at the Australian Institute of Sport a few hours drive south of Sydney.

Roger when he is home does single-arm kettlebell snatches with 28kg (61 lbs.) on the clock for reps military style. This is a superb single movement pattern that trains multiple dimensions of the fitness requirements for overall combat-readiness.

Last year he did the Hawaiian Ironman and finished 38th overall in just under 9 hours, a couple places behind fellow Aussie female world champion Mirinda Carfrae. He was leading her off the bike but her marathon abilities are supernatural with only a handful of elite male pros besting her run time of 2:50. At 5–11, 172 and 8.5% body fat, Roger is about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than world-class Ironman athletes but that difference is all muscle mass — not fat — and a lot of it is in the upper body. He hasn’t lifted weights much but he has acquired superb, functional upper-body strength from rock and free climbing, military training and a lunatic, orangutan-inspired calisthenics routine that he can do anywhere. When he is at home he does sets of single-arm kettlebell snatches with 28kg on the clock for reps and with a lighter kettlebell while standing on a Swiss ball for a severe balance-challenge while under an asymmetrical dynamic load, a movement he learned from a professional giant wave surfer.

Animals whilst in their niches have existential instincts for managing risks, the context-driven assessment of profitable behavior in light of perpetuating themselves and their kind given perceived costs and benefits: making advances for sex, food, and water must be weighed against exposure to opportunistic predators, rivals and other threats. On the surface, Roger appears to be a great risk taker that is either on a Vegas hot streak lasting for years or an addicted adrenaline junkie with a superman complex that plays chicken with the devil. In actuality, he is anything but that. He does not put much stock in statistics or probability theory; that approach is for armchair quarterbacks and academics, self-proclaimed propeller heads but with no skin in the game and no war stories to tell. In the real-world of vultures, anacondas, crocodiles, lions, deadfalls and booby traps, you cannot attach any probability value to an event occurrence unless you know all the possibilities — life is not a card game or dice where all possibilities are known, no, instead, life has open-ended possibilities that include unknown unknowns. The probability of an event x = x/y only if all possible events y and their exposures are known and they aren’t once you step outside the controlled environment of the lab: predicting the perils of the swamp cannot be treated like playing poker. So your mind must look elsewhere than science and calculation, the math doesn’t pencil out in your favor.

Unknown unknowns that have catastrophic outcomes are called black swans whereas grey swans are rare but known unknowns with equally disastrous consequences. Yes, known unknowns are a class of knowns because they are heard of, or, at least theoretically possible, but they also have a foot treading on unknown turf because you don’t know when or the contexts you can count on them to rear their ugly head. In other words, prediction is out of the question because it is out of the depth of calculation. If you are in a small plane and you strike a flock of Canadian geese in Alberta and your plane crashes that is a grey swan event (or at least it better be!) but if you are flamed by a dragon that is a black swan event. Now the next time a dragon flames a plane it is a grey swan event.

The crocodile is a metaphor for the hidden risk of fat-tail, lethal events such as gray swans.(Photo credit Tomás Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5) (source page)

Risk assessment must not only account for exposure to a whole spectrum of discrete, independent pitfalls but also for the weight of the consequences within the context of a mission as it transpires — managing risk is not a matter of static number crunching but is, instead, fluid and dynamic as the interaction of variables come and go, to and fro — a flow of contingencies that vary in impact from placid to turbulent. Decades of experience getting your hands dirty in your metaphorical swamp of choice is the only way to be a swamp master. There is always one more crocodile in some dark nook or cranny you haven’t accounted for and she is invariably going to be that century-old croc with one eye, half a fat tail, and storied scars from snout to arse: she is the venerable Einstein of reptilian brains and it behooves all aspiring red zone operators to become as crafty as she is, or BOA.

Thinking through a lens of risk assessment — or, more precisely, one-eyed croc logic — adds great clarity, reliability and veracity to the methods and outcomes of any training process; a higher, more pristine order of thought emerges when contemplating the weighing out of what matters from what does not. Judgement from this vantage point seldom leads one astray. Unfortunately, most souls are ignorant of its existence and pay with a pound of flesh.

Roger is a swamp master that counts cards but knows that only the paranoid survive and has the scars to prove it. There are fast drivers and there are old drivers but there are no old, fast drivers — not counting Roger. What’s his secret to longevity as a red zone operator?

Roger learned the difference between science and the real world at a young age. Others, however, did not and paid for it with their lives and not because they craved being heroes but because they fell down the slippery slope originated by bad assumptions that cascaded to crippled belief systems which ultimately terminated with pathological judgement at crunch time. Roger learned about the meaning of “proof” and “truth” the hard way. Science does not prove anything: when someone says that something is “scientifically proven”…run! Or “Roger, this mission has a 99% chance of success”…run! In the purest, most black-and-white sense, imagine a bridge between theory (pure science) and practice (the real world) crossing a turbid river of experimentation, measurement, and validation. Where the boundaries are fuzzy is about the nature of “proof,” a nebulous, grayscale concept at best (we are not talking about mathematical proofs here).

Science seeks “truth” and defines its meaning of truth in terms predicated on the scientific method. The scientific method is a truth seeking process by trial and error, not a truth finding process. A scientific experiment is conducted in a very controlled environment (a lab) and is designed to measure the value of a proposition called a hypothesis. Results are quantifiable and are expressed statistically due to sampling, the potentially large distribution of results, and experimental error. The hypothesis poses a question that is either temporarily substantiated (but never proven!!) or falsified in the crucible of the scientific method. Absolute truth is an ideal which science can never offer; instead, science’s mission is to challenge a given hypothesis until it is proven false — never to prove it’s true. Another hypothesis will then take the place of the fallen one, and so on. So, again, science is about falsification, about discovering errors in theories, not about proving anything. Tattoo that.

So of what use is the scientific method in the messy real world? Once you set foot in the swamp your approach to life must change dramatically. Combining high performance, high reliability, and known, known unknown, and unknown unknown risk factors is business that should only be dared by professional red zone operators that fully understand the complexities and consequences of the game. For example, let’s just look at the meaning of “endurance capacity” in light of our new awareness of swamp perils. Roger must get within range of the target and have enough functional reserves to reliably execute the mission objective and escape unscathed. You can’t just barely get there, you have to get there fast and be ready to manhandle Murphy’s law under the gun. You need to have endurance capacity that greatly exceeds the minimum to do the job — it cannot be at your limit or else you will be toast if a risk factor forces you to exceed it. In other words, you can’t earn a living dodging bullets. Also, mentally you cannot be fried, you must be ready to make life or death decisions with precise timing right when you are most exhausted — your survivability long-term is predicated on your worst case performance, not your best. So, you can’t suffer performance decay due to fatigue because you were at the redline just to get there in the nick of time.

We need a dose of engineering. Engineers like to break things to establish real breaking points, then, based on this failure data, design things to demonstrate reliable behavior under duress beyond what a commercial application requires. In other words, once failure behavior under test conditions (like building a substantial endurance capacity reserve in training) is measured and stable, then derate (i.e. give it a fat safety margin) the use of the thing in commercial applications.

Now let’s bring science back into the discussion along with engineering as power tools in service of dealing with the swamp by using a beefy analogy. Let’s say a resistor in a circuit board melts down at 400 watts in the controlled scientific environment of the guys with the white lab coats and pencil protectors. Given that, you may derate it to 100 watts in the circuit-board swamp environment like in the Space Shuttle to increase reliability. That means it will last a long time at 100 watts, less at 200 watts, etc. So Roger needs to have ridiculous endurance capacity in training (i.e. he needs to be a 400 watt resistor in his running shorts) so that his actual swamp mission’s endurance capacity requirements are far less demanding (i.e. derated) than his melting down at 400 watts under scientific or controlled training environments. This is how you achieve reliable performance in the swamp.

This applies to everything, not just endurance capacity: marksmanship, knowledge of the terrain, functional strength, handling of nasty weather conditions and, of course, facing off with the cagey one-eyed croc on her turf. So you enhance your repertoire of skill sets in controlled settings relying on scientific testing methods to establish baselines in order to calibrate and execute mission objectives under uncontrolled swamp conditions. So what does “proven” mean, then? A scientific experiment with gold-standard, double-blind protocol and crossover design proves nothing of real-world importance — it cannot, ever, and get over it before such grave ignorance gets you killed. It is a starting point only, not the finish line. The closest you can ever get to proving anything is when something works under heinous swamp conditions (the opposite of single-variable, controlled, reductive science) in many different breeds of swamps and withstands the dual, truth tests of the unknown and time over years of inhumane abuse. Copious mission debrief accounts build trust, and it is trust — not lab data —that rules the roost with seasoned, red zone operators. To think otherwise is to become a big data sandwich for the one-eyed croc.

Roger heard about Phenomic Games from a master sergeant in US Delta Force on his way back from a mission in some jungle in Asia. A broad spectrum of events from Olympic lifting to mountain biking to a fast 12-hour hike/run with steep, forever hills…what’s not to like? This did not seem like a stretch, in fact it seemed more like business as usual than anything else. He saw what Lake and Ji did and realized he had his work cut out for him but he just pictured it as another breed of swamp and the one thing Roger had a knack for was draining swamps.

The first thing he did to get his ducks in order is meet with his commanding officer and tell him of his intention to go up against the fittest humans in the world at Phenomic Worlds in Whistler. From there the brass up the food chain contacted the Australian Institute of Sport to get the best coaches in Australia for Olympic weightlifting, sprint track cycling, and rowing. The Aussies never were world caliber in Olympic lifting but are perennially extraordinaire in track cycling and rowing. Australia almost has more velodromes than kangaroos and Roger was going to train at the Dunc Gray Velodrome in Sydney, the one used for the 2000 Olympic Games. After two very long meetings with the coaching staff, they got the drift that Roger not only was a volunteer in search and rescue but also in Special Forces with an extensive background in living in the wild from a young age. But there were no disclosures of his BOA curriculum vitae. The coaches came to the conclusion that this is a two-year project with the first year focusing on The Burn and The Erg with a foundation in Olympic lifting setting up a major emphasis in the Clean and Jerk in year two. In other words, manage the Clean and Jerk this year but focus on a strength program that will powerfully underwrite The Burn and The Erg. If Roger can become dangerous in The Burn then watch out below — there was excitement brewing on Team Roger. Roger agreed with the approach and rolled up his sleeves to begin draining the swamp.

Roger had never Olympic lifted or rowed so the first two months addressed technique and a custom-designed strength program to buttress his frontend shortcomings. Roger surprised them with his strength; with such an incredible backend it was hard to imagine such strength in basic movements. No, Ivan didn’t have to worry about his clean and jerk title but Roger could be the Phenomic dark horse this year. The contenders for the overall title may be in for a surprise — BOA style.

Seymour Morse, Roger’s head coach and cycling coach, spent most of his career training great track stars including three World Champions and one Olympic Champion. He worked mostly with sprinters, keirn, kilo riders and team pursuiters. He moved on to Australia’s junior development program five years ago and now he has Roger under his wing. Roger caught on fast in his track workouts and was able to tolerate an ungodly volume of interval training. Seymour realized that Roger had a lot of ultra-endurance training under his belt and progressed in a similar fashion to taking a road cyclist indoors and feeding him a steady diet of track intervals. His only weakness was the start and that is because a world-class kilo rider needs to be able to squat ass-to-grass at least 400 lbs. to overcome inertia in a big fixed gear to be competitive. You can lose a 60 second race in the first two pedal strokes if you lack raw torque; 4/10 of a second can separate gold from silver and even gold from bronze. His start will only improve as his squatting strength progresses the next couple years.

Seymour got an email requesting an interview with John Beasley, PhD, from the London Herald. Next Friday will work nicely. Roger is looking forward to it.

They decided to meet at the Dunc Gray Velodrome in Sydney and Roger met with John and Ralph Towers, John’s tech guy, out in the parking lot.

“Dr. Beasley, pleased to meet you, mate.”

“Call me John. This is Ralph Towers. He will get the audio and video set up.”

“Pleased to meet you, Roger. You want to do it inside, I reckon?”

“Certainly. The velodrome will add some really nice sound effects and a great back drop. Let me fetch Coach Morse, he has picked a good spot. In a half hour ok?”

“Works for us. See you inside.”

Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia (Source: Adam.J.W.C., Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


July 4, 2015

Emailed transcript to the LONDON HERALD for the weekly column:

Portraits of The World’s Fittest Humans: Preparing for The Phenomic Games

Roger McLaughlin, Hawaiian Ironman World Championship, 38th place overall in 2013

Dispatch from the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia

— — — — — — — —

by Dr. John Beasley, PhD

Scientific Journalist

My mission is to track down the leading contenders for next season’s Phenomic Games World Championship in Whistler, Canada and bring their dreams, beliefs, and training approaches directly to you every Saturday.

Who are the world’s fittest humans?

What do they do to prepare?

Why do they do it?


Roger McLaughlin

Phenomic Human Ranking: unranked

Age: 30

Height: 5–11 (1.80m)

Weight: 172 lbs. (78.0kg)

Birthplace: Cooktown, Queensland, Australia

Education: University of Sydney, B.S., Exercise Physiology

Occupation: Australian Institute of Emergency Services, Search & Rescue

Background: Ironman distance triathlon, extensive training in indigenous Australian environments including jungles, deserts, caves and aquatic; multi-day search & rescue; rock climbing and free climbing (grade 5.10 d)

Started training for The Phenomic Games in 2014

Favorite event: Nemesis

Most challenging event: Clean & Jerk

Favorite exercise: velodrome track intervals

Coach: Seymour Morse

Diet: omnivore

Favorite food: kangaroo loin shish kabob

Status: single

Children: none

Current residence: Sydney, Australia

Nickname: none


Dr. John Beasley: Hello, today I am in the Dunc Gray Velodrome in Sydney, Australia, the site for track cycling during the 2000 Olympic Games. With me is Roger McLaughlin, Ironman triathlete, rock climber, and a member of the Australian Institute of Emergency Services for search and rescue operations. Sitting next to him is his head coach Seymour Morse. Roger, in your background profile you mention your extended treks in the jungles and deserts with Australian Aborigines. I imagine this greatly helps in performing rescues in the outback and other environments. How have these experiences with indigenous peoples enhanced your life?

Roger McLaughlin: On a superficial level they taught me ancient, tried-and-true means to survive under any conditions. But on a deeper level you discover that the more you connect to your surroundings the more you realize who you really are and how you fit in; this is the true meaning of fitness as opposed to the sterile idea of “physical training” relating to fitness level. True fitness is becoming one with your surroundings while experiencing a much more diverse stream of perceptions than living in urban, closed spaces. The openness of the outback creates openings in sensory awareness that are difficult to achieve by other means. To call it spiritual is shortchanging its profundity. As thought fades into the background there is a dawning of a different way of being. All of the different Australian Aboriginal tribes I have been with see the world through these different eyes. Westerners baffle them.

Dr. John Beasley: In several previous interviews the idea that humans are a migratory species has come up, particularly in regards to the significance of Nemesis. You have firsthand experience with this, what do you think?

Roger McLaughlin: There is no doubt about it, what is sad and strange is that first-world civilizations are sedentary and imprisoned in artificial boxes most of their lives and only move between their refrigerators and cars. An Ironman is viewed as extreme endurance. For exercise you go to the gym and acts of physical movement are so separated from the fabric of our lives that it gets its own little labeled box in our brain. We have become lost souls. In indigenous peoples, having a lot of physical possessions is viewed as a curse. All they do is weigh you down like putting a Hope diamond necklace on a seagull. Our values and goals are perversely distorted. I can only clear my head after being out in the wild for several days. So, to answer your question, yes, we are built to move long distances over diverse terrain our entire lifespan. That is the locus of any measure or definition of human fitness. Home is not “home”, home is walking. In a sense — for indigenous peoples — home is everywhere. Modern man doesn’t know where home is and the cost of that is immeasurable because we lost the essence of being human. It is an imperial fraud. John Muir said it best back in 1901: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.”

Dr. John Beasley: Roger, so given that, what do you think of Nemesis in the context of Phenomic Games’ assessment of ultimate human fitness?

Roger McLaughlin: To answer that I have to give you some background on my lifelong exposure to experiences of endurance. In my early years out in nature I would spend weeks at a time on treks in diverse ecosystems. It was not about speed, it was about moving at a steady pace for many hours a day and doing it day after day. It was not exercise or a race, it was just life, no different than sleeping or peeing. Later on, in a search and rescue role, speed became paramount. Sometimes I had the responsibility of covering two squares in a search grid and I had to do it fast because somebody’s life depends upon my tracking ability and speed. I want to save a life, not find a corpse. Going fast for 3 or 4 days is a different challenge than either going at a moderate pace for 3 weeks or doing an Ironman which, in this context, is extreme speed, the opposite of extreme endurance. A healthy sense of the wide range of human perspective is mandated here; it is easy to see why city dwellers think an Ironman is ultra-endurance because their calibration for endurance is radically different than an Aborigine’s. But let’s be clear, the Aborigines’ view of endurance is correct and modern man’s view is dead wrong. We are Aborigines in three-piece suits. For me, Nemesis is a race that requires an urgency of speed but the vertical element makes it tough. Not having to carry a pack, on the other hand, helps a lot.

Dr. John Beasley: Janu, the Nepalese Sherpa, said something similar but in his own way. For him he had to remind himself to go faster because he doesn’t have to do it tomorrow. So in a way you are saying that the deeper meaning of endurance implies a fractal and maybe a logarithmic nature. The Climb is 2 hours, Nemesis is 12 hours and then there is 4 days and then 3 weeks, etc. Each of these time spans really has different obstacles and so each zone will have athletes genetically and environmentally tuned to excel in a specific endurance niche. In other words, a 12-hour guy may not even be competitive with the best 4-day guy. Is this a validate argument?

Roger McLaughlin: Yes, it is. I am better suited for a 4-day race rather than an Ironman. Janu and I have similar life demands in regards to endurance capacity and duration spans of weeks to months and having to bear loads in hazardous conditions — we are both red zone operators. He differs from me because he does it in high-altitude, alpine environments whereas I have flatter terrain at sea level but with tremendous horizontal distances to traverse so time and distance are not the only dimensions of endurance. I am no stranger to going vertical but his is a different vertical. So he has an advantage with the extensive vertical but if it is hot I have an environmental advantage with hydration issues. Every serious, experienced endurance athlete has an acute awareness of the influence of environmental energy on performance and I am not referring to the gross effects of terrain or weather — the feeling of this energy can play a big role in survival in the wild and impacts the outcome of long races. When it comes to assessing true human fitness, that is, in terms of biological anthropology, it matters. I look forward to competing with him on Nemesis. He poses an awesome challenge.

The analogue of Nemesis in car racing is the endurance race The 24 Hours of Le Mans. You must have speed but the dominant technical obstacle is reliability.

For people like us, Nemesis is a race with a significant speed component because we are capable of going for so much longer. It is hard for normal people to relate to 12 hours being a very short race and also they cannot relate to how fast we will be traveling for that long going vertical. It is the vertical that makes it a whole qualitative level more difficult than an equivalent 12-hour horizontal race. Just like endurance car racing such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is about the balance of polar opposites: speed and reliability. You can have one or the other, but not both. The car and team with the best approach to the trade-offs wins. Janu and I, just like at Le Mans, will push each other past the redline for hours until something cracks. With us, I doubt it will be a mental failure. Phenomic Games has two events that deal with this quandary: The Climb and Nemesis. Then — in the the big picture — you have the other polarity: strength and endurance.

Dr. John Beasley: Yes, Le Mans is a superb parallel in car racing to Nemesis. Long-term, sustainable high-performance is a very perplexing technical obstacle.

Roger McLaughlin: John, I need to ask you, why did you choose to interview me? I am an amateur Ironman competitor who is a pretty good rock climber. I am not a world champion of anything.

Dr. John Beasley: I wanted to interview someone from Australia and when I contacted the government they said Roger is the face of Australia for Phenomic Games. Given all the great athletes down under, that is a strong endorsement and good enough for me.

Roger McLaughlin: Wow, I am shocked. I was just hoping to give it a whorl and perhaps give the women a run for their money. But Airi and Jōtara might smoke my ass.

Dr. John Beasley: Those two are going to beat a lot of wannabe action heroes. No shame to lose to them. What have you learned from your years in search and rescue? I am sure there are nuggets of wisdom to distill from your experiences.

Roger McLaughlin: Yes, there are some vital life lessons and your audience may find them surprising. The biggest lesson is to learn from failure, not success. The annals of business obituaries are full of wannabe Steve Jobs long before Steve Jobs created the iPod because they had close to the right idea for a portable music player too early and the obituaries will now overflow with future emulators of Steve Jobs. Of course, there were lessons to learn from the real Jobs but there is much more to learn from everyone who tried to be the next Jobs. He was at the right place at the right time with the right idea and this is the nature with tail events like black swans — the stars have to perfectly align. Jobs is a positive black swan and all black swans are unpredictable but, after the fact, even a imbecile can lucidly explain or write books or make movies on how Jobs was successful. It’s just that you will not be successful doing what he did. The thundercloud is gone and with it, its lightning — and it doesn’t strike twice in the same place unless you just happen to be a rainmaker.

People with woeful physical conditioning and zero understanding of the complexities of nature recklessly venture off into some of the most treacherous places on earth in the Australian wilderness never to return or, if they are fortunate, someone like me finds them before they die from one of many likely causes they will not see coming. These events are inverse Jobs or negative black swans, tragedies because someone is at the wrong place or the wrong time with the wrong skills or wrong equipment. Now, I ask you, if someone such as this were to venture into these lands and luckily live to tell about it would you be foolish enough to listen and echo his footsteps? Or would you be smarter to find out why someone died and learn from his mistake? This is called survivorship bias: we listen to those who survive because dead men tell no tales but the most valuable lessons to take to heart are those of dead men. I am not saying to ignore all survivors just like Jobs most certainly had some good general business advice but there is always much more value learning from failure than success on the crooked road to survival.

Dr. John Beasley: I have heard of survivorship bias but your Jobs analogy puts a finger on the pulse. What you are saying is that intelligent behavior is best achieved by the process of elimination, reduce your problem space as much as possible and then weigh out the surviving options, a form of mental Dawinism. Doesn’t this conflict with models based on simple rules or heuristics? Or is it that the heuristic algorithm you refer to includes an unconscious process of elimination that is integral to the decision process?

Roger McLaughlin: Yes, it is called by some negative knowledge. We often mix up “information”, “knowledge”, and “wisdom” — they have different value because of the richness of context. Information you get from a book, knowledge requires information with tacit understanding of the circumstances and range of its use acquired hands-on, and wisdom is mastery of knowledge over decades of broad experience of situations where specific knowledge is applicable. You cannot Google knowledge or wisdom and if you must Google it then you do not know and you are not wise.

Now I believe part of the decision process under extreme duress is a concept I call subtractive intelligence which is an über-process that is a cognitive layer that sits above your knowledge base of negative knowledge. In order for subtractive intelligence to reign supreme as a decision process, you must have a vast database of failed tactics — negative knowledge — to subtract that have been acquired by trial-and-error, tinkering, and random play; when this set of experiences is massive then I believe you have become wise, a true master of your craft.

Dr. John Beasley: That will instruct you what not to do but what about what to do?

Roger McLaughlin: This approach is totally context driven while hands-on; mind and body are engaged in a learning process. In this kind of learning process there is no distinction of “don’t do this” from “do this”, your perception and action are intertwined. In normal classroom settings there is an emphasis on rote learning of positive knowledge. It is neocortex-symbolic, abstract stuff. In competition or in life-or-death situations, you have to understand that formal cognitive decision making is not on the table and what you want is to have physically performed an action so many times under pressure situations over long periods of time that you do it on autopilot as a default behavior.

Let’s bring in the concept of an instinct, which some call a fixed action pattern. I do not wish to debate on whether an instinct is a behavior that is purely genetic with no learning component or not. That is a hotly debated subject with no clear definitive answer. What I want to do is approach “instinct” from a learning approach to both perceptual and motor function looking at these independently and then integrating them so the end result is as close as humans can get to programmable instincts, or PIs. A PI differs from garden-variety consolidation because it encompasses complex pattern recognition capability as in situational awareness with complex, sequenced motor patterns. It places a consolidated executive layer over motor consolidated programs queued by sensory pattern recognition. It doesn’t matter whether they are called instincts or not, what matters is that humans through proper mental training can develop very complex behavior patterns — PIs — that become sufficiently hard-wired that they are immune to emotionally-driven panic response.

A great application for PI development is in American football, the NFL. Experienced quarterbacks and linebackers have tapped into this capability by playing for years under red zone conditions: they have acquired a lot of negative knowledge that increases their odds of success. Reading defenses and responding with extremely complex consolidated motor patterns to complex environmental situations with minimal or no reliance on higher cognition is proof of human PI capability as I am proof. A talent for this ability may be the dominant factor separating the great from the very good quarterbacks late in their careers as physical prowess declines. IQ is not mission critical because it is not a red zone asset; PIQ is. They just haven’t made an engineering discipline of PI development yet because there is no published theoretical model like I am briefly talking about here. But in my system I also address the training required to defuse the panic response so the end result is that I acquire a library of PIs that I can depend on under life-threatening red zone circumstances.

You ideally have robust consolidation of a very tightly-linked perception to motor control connection that does not need or want the delays that would occur if the conscious mind is in the loop. The database of negative knowledge factors applies here and what I am saying is these memories are unconsciously and immediately accessible under stressful circumstances. An old, battle-hardened tiger will destroy a young, naive tiger of equal physical ability and I epitomize the competition-proven battle-tested tiger — I train and live to mentally simulate being a human tiger.

Jaguar in the role of a red zone operator: In this superb video of a big cat versus crocodile you see the integration of complex environmental pattern recognition (“cognitive planning”) with precise execution (“motor control”) of a textbook blindside ambush. Roger trains to have this level of cognition, execution and control on autopilot while in the red zone. He calls learned behavior at this level of complexity a programmable instinct or PI.

Cats have such abilities and do not have self-awareness or an autobiographical memory so I believe my approach — my theory — holds water in terms of evolutionary neurobiology. In a nutshell, when I am at work in the red zone executing PIs, I am subhuman in good ways and suprahuman in a good way. The suprahuman capability emerges when you have developed a sufficiently large library of relevant PIs that you can operate on nearly a continuous basis under red zone conditions with minimal need of higher brain function. When you have achieved this, you are operating as close to your potential as possible; you have tapped into and developed your latent feline brain function — you can shred decisively on cue, you never miss the jugular.

A tiger focuses its entire being into decisive and effective execution with zero possibility of distraction: zero defects means business — this is a different means of achieving quality control. When you look at the business end of the eye of the tiger, what you see are the senses connected to motor control and motors — nerves and muscles — with ideally-suited brain parts in-between selected from evolution’s cognitive creations to compose a very adaptable survival machine in the jungle. Being a tiger is a daddy-sized leap up in cognitive evolution, way above the limitations of the reptilian brain but without the crippling baggage Homo sapiens have when they are panicked in fight, flight or freeze mode since they lack our neocortex structure. The neocortex is a shotgun wedding between a blessing and a curse.

More info on this book.

Dr. John Beasley: I see what you are saying. You are saying that it true that cats can learn the consequences of complex environmental circumstances and perform successful behavioral actions accordingly when they are recognized in the future. The battle-hardened cat has an impressive inventory of failed-tactical experiences at the tips of her claws and fangs on a “fooled-me-once…” basis. They basically build PIs over their lifespan. So what you do is train the feline neuroanatomy that is a subset of the human neuroanatomy. In Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain Theory you are talking about the paleomammalian brain which evolved after the reptilian brain and before the modern primate brain. The cat parts are the limbic system, the seat of our emotion…

[Roger cuts him off]

Roger McLaughlin: Correction. The Triune Brain Theory is obsolete, the brain we have is much more integrated and if you treat it that way it is highly trainable. I am panic-proof but not because cats don’t panic; they can panic just like us because their visual, auditory, and haptic [Ed. tactile] sensory inputs run through the thalamus, prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala can trigger an overwhelming dose of fear chemistry [Ed. “adrenaline”] but is subject to feedback control. Also like us, if a tiger is panicked but turns out to be a false alarm it will not panic in the future because after a few episodes of like stimulus, memories from the prefrontal cortex will extinguish the alarm response. The hippocampus acts as a contextual processor <also>. These memories are contextual in nature, not just sensory. They are beyond the value of information; they are in the knowledge class and, if you have acquired enough of these memories over the years and constructed PIs, you will have achieved wisdom at the organism level in this crucial capacity for survival. They are implicit memories meaning they fly below the radar of conscious mind. If fear or the extinction of fearful response are on the table, then this system comes into play. It is a regulatory system that can be trained because I train it religiously.

I have trained myself to associate a mental command image to cause the extinction of just about any fearful stimulus, that is, when I feel an initial perception of fear I shut it down. If I were to hear gunfire or the roar of a bear I would use my command image to override an alarm response thus down-regulating my amygdala so it won’t go apeshit. The result is I do not have a narrowing of sensory bandwidth like most people and do not freeze like a deer in the headlights. I recognize previous dangerous situations and execute in beast mode, with decisiveness, control, and efficiency because of my PI library. If you are in the red zone and your beast mode is highly developed then you can operate at close to your theoretical potential. Conscious mind is not in this loop so you do not shoot yourself in the foot. And when in beast mode you have a blank foreground mind but thought can enter into the foreground, perform some executive function, and then exit, kind of like calling a computer subroutine while in the background you are running a PI pedal-to-the-metal. Development of PIs is state-of-the-art for red zone operators in mental training and theory for the physiology of the deadly encounter. The limit of what is possible with this approach to mental training is unknown.

Dr. John Beasley: So can anyone learn to be tigerman in the PI zone?

Roger McLaughlin: My position on that is yes, but with certain conditions. Mastering beast mode is about organizing your life to optimize implicit memories, meaning being on autopilot under stressful circumstances. With motor control it is like walking; your conscious mind is not involved with coordinating your legs and balance. If you play tennis, the same happens when hitting a forehand, you don’t think about how you grip the racquet or track the ball if you are a pro. Now with PIs, movement patterns and body control can become even more complex than that and still be under involuntary control as implicit memories. Then you have an entirely different class of implicit memories from the prefrontal cortex-amgydala-hippocampus-thalamus system I described earlier which deals with complex, environmentally dangerous scenarios. That is the other component of a PI and is about sensory pattern recognition. While in PI training mode you train your mind with your neocortex’s conscious focus and other faculties as cerebral tools so that you can later control your body in beast mode independently of higher cognitive function. It is so easy a caveman can do it!

[everyone laughs]

Dr. John Beasley: Yeah, funny. What you are saying reminds me much of what Janu said when he is climbing an 8000 meter peak. He often has little recollection of anything that happened from dawn to dusk — he was in the zone, an empty mind. Is he talking about the same thing?

Roger McLaughlin: He may describe it differently because his means of getting to peak performance by using his mind is going to be a different approach than mine but it leads to the same place. Your mind must be in this state of awareness to perform at such an extreme level for so long without fading. It becomes a bullet-proof endurance mind when highly trained but is really our indigenous, default survival mind when viewed from an evolutionary perspective. What I do is optimize my survival mind.

Dr. John Beasley: Janu also mentioned feeling danger before it arrived…

Roger McLaughlin: Of course, you do what we do long enough you learn to recognize the danger signs really fast or else you die. In the wild you develop a sixth sense even without recalling past failures— you just know. Most people would find it unimaginable to be able to sense what we do but all we are doing is accessing those latent functions that all mammals have, humans included. The key to developing these mental capabilities is that you become one with the environments you need to operate in: swamps, jungles, desert, high-altitude, whatever. I have spent years in the wild, it is my home. I see what you cannot. You are only in a position to give good advice when you can recite tomes on what doesn’t work from your personal experience and that of copious others. In other words, we know far less about nature than we think we do or the scientist priests preach. You will only realize this is true if you can fathom the infinite possibilities, combinations, and contingencies at nature’s command to bring you to your knees in the blink of an eye. You will never arrive at that bold truth sitting behind a desk or in the belvedere of the ivory tower or in a lab collecting big data on mice.

Dr. John Beasley: Roger, would you expand on that please?

Roger McLaughlin: Sure. Let me approach it from a different angle: science versus nature, lab versus swamp. In modern society there is something magical attached to being able to place a number on something. It gives a false sense of security and control as if measuring something grants command akin to Yertle’s hubris-fueled false belief that his kingdom is only limited by what he can see. The act of measuring alone is harmless but when you extrapolate scientific findings into the real world and act on them then this is when hell comes to roost like Yertle found out when his vision over-reached beyond the pond. In the lab you have experimental and control groups and controlled environments featuring a single test variable. In nature everything is part of the experimental group and is changing on the fly and the number of variables is unknown. The findings you have in the lab that you are so certain will translate to nature will, instead, lead to over-confidence, over-reaching, and hubris and, one day, Murphy’s law strikes in that inevitable Yertle moment — you crash and burn and become king of the mud. Immanuel Kant said “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” In treacherous conditions there is a grave difference between science and wisdom. The old, one-eyed croc is wise. I respect her.

Dr. John Beasley: So the artificial, contrived simplicity of the lab is not a proving ground but is merely training wheels in a sandbox to learn basic principles about the function of one part in a limited role within a stripped down whole.

Peter Corning is masterful with the utility of synergies and how they underwrite evolution. (More info on this book.)

Roger McLaughlin: Well said, John. That brings into play the concept of synergy. We have been using the terms “contingency” and “complexity” but let’s deconstruct that looking at synergy, nonlinear effects, and emergence. Synergy is often stated to be “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” but that is not quite right, synergy is really “the whole is different than the sum of the parts” meaning you not only have positive synergies but negative ones as well. Stated differently, 2 + 2 = 5 and 2 + 2 = 3 are synergisms. Jobs is a positive synergy, a positive perfect storm or opportunity, whereas Yertle is a negative synergy, a negative perfect storm or disaster — Jobs becomes king with 2 + 2 = 1,000 and Yertle becomes king of the mud with 2 + 2 = 0. Even though they are polar opposites, they have fiendishly asymmetrical frequencies of occurrence. In other words, if you repeat what Jobs did you will not repeat his outcome, however, if you repeat what Yertle did you will repeat his outcome. If a positive synergy is being lucky and a negative synergy is being unlucky, then it is to easy to exploit unluckiness but nearly impossible to exploit luckiness! Ergo, as I said earlier, you will learn more about studying Yertle than Jobs and you have the added luxury that Yertles outnumber Jobs a googol to one!

[everybody laughs]

Dr. John Beasley: Roger, good one! Your whole narrative reduces an incredible amount of complex stuff down into a very effective and memorable story.

This portrays Roger’s perspective of survivability in the real-world swamp when operating at the outer fringes of the human performance envelope as a Red Zone Operator which overlaps with the perils of a professional Phenomics Games competitor. (Art by Arthur Rackham published in 1907 from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

Roger McLaughlin: I thought you would like that. But let’s lift the hood some more. The significance of synergies are the dynamic interaction of the parts which causes the whole to transform on the fly and these relationships more often than not have significant nonlinear effects that are sudden and unexpected. This is emergence — totally unpredictable — seemingly popping out of the ether. If you are walking in a valley along a riverbed and it starts to rain in a short time there could be a flash flood that has the force to wash you away and drown you. In my experience out in the wild I have witnessed many strange events like this from the cruel intersection of climate and terrain — and the biggest reason people get in trouble in nature, besides felony ignorance, is due to unexpected, high-impact, negative synergies. Negative synergies are the confluence of multi-dimensional, interacting variables that harbor hidden systemic risk that can suddenly cause severe damage to the whole, but, particularly, at the most vulnerable point of attack: a lethal surprise at your weakest link. This can kill and often does without explanation because of ignorance of negative synergies which define the backbone of black and gray swan anatomy, or the eye of the perfect hurricane that only Mother nature can love.

Like the Aborigines, I have a sixth sense of imminent danger because I have a large database my unconscious mind can tap into to execute subtractive intelligence. Subtractive intelligence happens in the background, there is no thought or mental slide rules. My bulging tiger brain filters out all the Yertles leaving me with my best possible action given my present circumstances and I then do it without hesitation or permission from my neocortex. I feel it coming and take action before I see or think its coming.

More info on this book.

Dr. John Beasley: Yes, I am familiar with this form of fast decision making which are simple heuristic rules of thumb that run in our mental background. Daniel Kahneman wrote a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow and Gerd Gigerenzer wrote Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. In artificial intelligence research like deep neural networks, much effort goes into reducing the problem space and that dovetails with your idea of subtractive intelligence. Your observations corroborate with these fields of research when it comes to fast decision making. What you are adding to the discussion is the focusing on Yertles and not Jobs; this is extremely counterintuitive and you will be criticized for political incorrectness but you are right. Nassim Taleb has addressed the value of negative knowledge extensively in The Black Swan and Antifragile. Dietrich Dörner, a professor at the Institute of Theoretical Psychology at the Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany, wrote The Logic of Failure which is an in-depth study of negative synergies in complex systems and is not about quick decision making. Studying failure is the best course of action to success in many contexts because being lucky is not repeatable whereas failure is. The human mind has a blindside built-in to these kind of asymmetries. Studying reproducible success for 2 + 2 = 4 outcomes is what you go to school to learn but if want 2 + 2 = 5 while avoiding 2 + 2 = 3 or 0, then you study failures.

More info on this book.

Roger McLaughlin: John, you cannot survive in the wild long if you depend on book learning, lab data, and your five senses to make life or death decisions. You must act, not react or overact. In my world, the pursuit of 2 + 2 = 5 is not the objective; the objective is to avoid 2 + 2 =0 at all costs because failure means death. The cemetery is filled with fools like Yertle that tried to be Jobs and pursed 2 + 2 = 5 but were blindsided by 2 + 2 =0 instead. If all you do is study success then you will fail; if you learn from others’ failures you have a good chance to succeed. But there are no guarantees. That is why indigenous peoples place so much value on elders whereas societies dependent on technology place so little and marginalize them when their age is no longer fashionable even though their acumen of negative knowledge is peaking. Green, ambitious Yertles with groomed faces and weighty sheep skins take the C-suite prematurely from the silverbacks and are given full rein to overconfidently pursue Icarian 2 + 2 = 5 illusions of grandeur while having no clue of the nefariously camouflaged 2 + 2 = 0 world that awaits to exploit their textbook naïveté.

Dr. John Beasley: Thanks for that. Cool. I agree with you 100%. In business you live to tell about expensive lessons but in the swamp you are eaten alive. I have a better understanding of the gravity of risk assessment in search and rescue operations. You really opened my eyes and mind. Roger, since you have such acute awareness of risks and their consequences, I bet you carry it over to all dimensions of your life.

Roger McLaughlin: I’m afraid that vigilance is a way of life for me. I can assure you I have more harrowing stories to tell than you have time to hear. As far as training is concerned, in my line of work and also for preparing for Phenomic Games, my approach is forged in the crucible of risk assessment while methodically factoring in the impact of positive and negative synergies. Coach Morse and his team have put together a training plan based on positive synergies.

Seymour Morse: Straight away we knew we didn’t have to worry about Roger’s backend so the focus was on the front three. It was clear that his greatest weakness was the clean and jerk. Rather than purely focus on Olympic lifting we decided to assemble a strength training program that will benefit the front three to gain big chunks of ΔP [Ed. delta P, the change in performance] in all three and even the backend. Australia has world-class coaching for the kilometer, BMX and rowing so we got to work on technique right out of the gate. Roger will make big jumps in the clean and jerk this season but there will be a big shift to it next year. The synergy of the strength training program will augment all five events with strong emphasis on the front three.

Roger McLaughlin: I really like the plan; I have learned a lot about periodization, something I struggled with in the past mostly because of my crazy schedule and travel commitments. Now that I have a big block of uninterrupted time I have made great strides. Recovery is now tightly coupled with my training loads. The coordination makes such a huge difference to maximize positive synergies and adaptive yield.

Seymour Morse: We think we can have Roger be extremely competitive in The Burn this season. He reminds me so much of taking a road time trialist off the street and then training them for the hour record or pursuit. Once they do their standing half lap and sit down there is no fatigue even going wide open throttle. As opposed to sprinters, anaerobic glycolysis and lactic acid production is not a factor, it is such a wild thing to see.

Roger McLaughlin: Yeah, but sure would be nice to have more top end for The Burn, mate. But I will get there, no worries.

Dr. John Beasley: Coach, what are your thought on Phenomic Games as a means of assessing human fitness?

Seymour Morse: It is probably impossible to achieve high performance across the board; everybody has strengths and weaknesses metabolically, psychologically, and biomechanically. There is a monster negative synergy metabolically and in terms of motor control with having to be long and strong. I think the winner is someone who is the closest to being balanced across the spectrum. This is no easy task but Roger could get pretty close to that feat in a couple years. He has surprising strength given his athletic background. I like his chances going forward. Lake was balanced last year and he won. Airi was not as balanced but had a strong Burn which was unexpected. Roger is capable of a performance distribution across the human power continuum like Airi this year.

Roger McLaughlin: Lake did set a high bar. I agree that balance is the key to winning. As more world-class athletes show up, balance will become more important. You cannot afford a single poor performance. A big negative synergy is the risk of injury, a type of synergy called “synergy minus one”. It’s where you have a positive synergy and then remove one of the tent poles and the tent collapses. It has a huge cost. But balance extends beyond the Phenomic 5 and includes stretching and mobility work.

Dr. John Beasley: What value do you place on stretching? Many coaches and competitors agree with you.

Roger McLaughlin: I can tell you first hand. How important is stretching to sustainable function in the wild? A mammal breathes, drinks water, moves, pees, sleeps, shits, stretches and eats — in that order of importance. Same applies for the Phenomic 5. It is right there with eating, it is essential movement. Doing an 80 minute daily stretching program becomes like brushing your teeth, on automatic pilot. Mammals don’t have To Do lists with “crap today” or “stretch today” on it.

Dr. John Beasley: It sounds like search and rescue has a lot in common with Phenomic Games for fitness requirements. You need to be long and strong but not as much in the VO2 max zone. Do you think they overlap a lot?

Roger McLaughlin: What is in common is that both push the limits of the human performance envelope. But let me backup here a minute here, John. We hear the term “pushing the envelope” so much without really defining what that means; it has become a toothless concept. The term comes from aeronautics and defines the region of safe operation given air speed, altitude, and load factor [Ed. load factor = lift/weight] and this region is the flight envelope. If you bump up against the boundary you are pushing the envelope and you may crash and burn.

Now if you apply the concept of a safe operating envelope to biological systems you have to imagine you are the organism, that is, a view from the inside out. You plot stress S on the x-axis and performance P on the y-axis. From the organism’s perspective, survivability, fitness or performance mean the same thing: how well can the body withstand shocks to homeodynamics and still have the means to restructure, to adapt? What I am saying is the performance envelope from our external, observational perspective is really the survivability envelope from the organism’s perspective.

The y-axis represents performance like in sports but simultaneously represents survival capacity as a function of your potential for a given stress profile. So you really are looking at how well an organism performs given a stress profile which includes: metabolic demands that redline the four metabolic gears; structural demands like tension on your muscles and joints and cardiovascular stress; environmental demands like temperature, humidity, altitude, wind, and precipitation; and psychological demands. The organism perceives all these demands and the output is measured in properties of physics: torque, power and energy. If you cannot produce a sufficient quantity of torque, power and energy for the clean and jerk or Nemesis or anything in-between, you lose. If you cannot produce a sufficient quantity of torque, power, and energy to remain alive, you die — and there are lots of ways to die. Only the devil has seen more ways to die than I.

Dr. John Beasley: That is fascinating — what triggered something in me is looking at stress versus survival capacity or potential really is an awesome map for phenotypes in the human phenome. Some people will have potential phenotypes with extremely high survival capacity to handle large stresses like, say, the frontend of the Phenomic 5 and others will be the mirror image for the backend. But the world’s fittest human is someone with large survival capacity for all or four of the five events. Bottom line, the winner of Phenomic Games has the biggest survival envelope because they express a phenotype that can accommodate all the stress profiles of the events at high performance levels. Someone with superpowers would need to have a phenotype capable of producing such an elite performance. Is such a phenotype in the human phenome? That’s the big question. It could produce the most dominant, alpha combinations of torque, power, and energy production relative to the competition.

Roger, so in your career in search and rescue you dig deep into this facet of biology, the physics of organisms and the biology of stress?

Roger McLaughlin: Absolutely. I was a disciple of Hans Selye’s The Stress of Life. In my job I have all of this in play and in the Phenomic 5 you are testing all of these physical properties to their limits — your performance envelope has the shit beaten out of it from stem to stern. The performance envelope for organisms is a parabolic curve with max performance — P max — at the apex and the right edge beyond this point defines the boundary of the performance envelope. The left edge is “pulling the envelope” but that is another discussion; it addresses the physiology of strategic undertraining.

Ok. When the stress gets high enough you achieve P max and then as S continues past P max then P declines and this is where you are pushing the envelope and trouble begins. Your performance past the apex is called the right face of the envelope which declines at a different rate depending on your state of conditioning and how far out there you are from P max. If you go too far you collapse or die — performance can and will decline catastrophically. P = 0 means death. That is why measures of survivability, fitness, performance, or a percentage of your phenotypic potential mean the same thing from the view of how an organism perceives and responds to stress — it is a threat to homeodynamic integrity and survivability and, therefore, you adapt to stress or perish. Training is a small set of stressors given the organism’s complete laundry list of stressors. All of these dynamics interact in the face of survival. Remember what I said earlier that risk management is about assessing a flow of contingencies, a panoply of threats that are dynamically in flux? Stress and its impact on homeodynamics is ground zero for survival in the wild and for performance in Phenomic Games, particularly The Climb and Nemesis but is in play for The Erg and even The Burn, as well. If you include mental anomalies like choking — analysis via paralysis — throw in the clean and jerk. Choking is the death knell of beast mode.

Dr. John Beasley: All of that makes perfect sense. So what about adaptive response?

Roger McLaughlin: Good question. I wasn’t sure how far you wanted to go with this. Adaptation is the logical next step. Let’s look at a positive adaptive response. Adaptation occurs in both dimensions with ΔS being a positive adaptation in tolerance to stress represented by the right face of the envelope being extended to accommodate greater levels of stress before you blow up. The other adaptation is ΔP which we have heard so much about which is an increase in peak performance or survival capacity and is represented by a move on the vertical axis on the performance envelope curve. So adaptations take the form of ΔP and ΔS: positive adaptive response is up and to the right. When you are a beginner the curve is a baby parabola shoved all the way to the left: P max is poor and tolerance to S is pitiful. The winner of Phenomic Games’ curve is extremely tall and extends way over to the right for a radically broad spectrum of stress profiles which are the Phenomic 5. As you get into better shape the shape of the curve moves to the right, increases in area under the curve and gets much taller.

In a nutshell, an adaptive response is the “after” performance envelope minus the “before” performance envelope — that change defines the whole reason you train. ΔP and ΔS constitute the adaptive yield and can be thought of as a means to derate the organism for a specific stress profile. Biologically, the organism can now tolerate greater levels of stress by an increased capacity to produce the required combination of torque, power, and energy on demand. Tolerance to stress can also take on other forms like your skin getting darker in sunny environments and perspiring less in hot and humid environments. I needed to say that because there are a myriad of adaptive classes besides ones dealing with sports. In my work I have many classes of stressors to deal with and the concepts of survival envelopes and adaptive response apply equally to all stress and survival capacity relationships; they compose a central principle of biological systems — they define and provide the why of what makes an organism an organism.

Roger mentally and physically trains to mirror the performance of a Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in beast mode. The world’s largest cat, a male can weigh close to 700 pounds. Image source

Out in the wild I am interested in increases in ΔP and ΔS because they increase my chances of survivability under uncontrolled hostile physiological and psychological conditions — they provide a margin of error like what is required to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans consistently. I want to clarify this: ΔP and ΔS — that is, adaptive response — is not limited to physical properties but include the mind as well and forms the bedrock of PI development. Mental training for my job and for Phenomic Games is about: risk management and the acquisition of negative knowledge; knowledge of positive and negative synergies; building implicit memories of consolidated motor function; and mastery of panic-tolerant, tiger-level cognition while in beast mode. Perfecting these capabilities improves mental performance P and mental tolerance to stress S yielding mental adaptations — ΔP and ΔS. If you do this you will be able to shred on command like an alpha Siberian tiger.

I don’t have the luxury of limiting or designing stress to sub-P max levels like you do in training and the greater exposure I have beyond P max increases survival risk. My major goal is extending the safety margin of my survival envelope which means for a given level of output P, I am functioning at a much lower percentage of P max and my tolerance of stress is increased which provides a much deeper “crush depth” in Navy submarine lingo. At a lower percentage of P max I am derated; the biological equivalent of an engineer's concept of derating is within the scope of homeodynamics; if the organism perceives low levels of internal disruption due to high levels of adaptive response through training or some environmental stress, then the tolerance to that stress is great and your survival — your capacity to remain alive — is not threatened. However, if the disruption is great enough to torpedo internal integrity, then there is a biological response triggered by a pattern of signals, mostly electrical and chemical in nature.

The outcome of this process is adaptive response reflected by ΔS and ΔP. That might be a bit much for your audience to swallow at one sitting but that defines what training and adaptation are really about because organisms interpret workouts and sports performance in terms of S and P and adaptive response in terms of ΔS and ΔP. Organism’s source code at the bottom of the rabbit hole is solely in terms of mass, energy and information. Period.

Dr. John Beasley: No, Roger, that is great stuff. How does it apply to Phenomic Games?

Roger McLaughlin: Ok, for Phenomic Games, if you are highly conditioned for ultra-endurance like Nemesis, then the body will interpret the stress of going as fast as possible for a 12-hour distance as not a big deal. Survivability is not threatened so the organism is fit for this stress profile. However, if someone is not conditioned, this will be life threatening. The disruption to homeodynamic integrity is great so P will quickly nose dive in steep decline. Fatigue, collapse, death. As an example compare what is going on from the organism’s perspective between Janu going up a steep grade at 10 minutes per mile and you are doing the same. Janu is way under his P max and cruising and you are close to your P max and are going to blow up quickly and feed the scavengers. Where the coordinates (S, P) are located on his and your respective survival envelopes are vastly different. If you fail on Nemesis you are picked up and go to the hospital whereas in the outback unless I come and rescue you you are going to be food. In the wild, you are either fit or being digested by something that is.

For each of the Phenomic 5 I can name a stress profile you could encounter in the wild with parallels to the one I gave for Nemesis. For example, having to escape a big cat, lift a log or run down game for dinner. They each target specific performance criteria of critical interaction of torque, power and energy that a human organism will need to comprehensively output given the multi-dimensional challenges of the swamp. We all have four metabolic gears and specific biomechanical movement patterns we need to master and Phenomic Games measures the degree of mastery on absolute and relative terms.

Seymour Morse: The ATP [Ed. Adjunctive Tool Pool] fills in every possible training nuance like a grand master painter and his palette. If you have a weakness there is a tool and a practice to address it. The coaching staff just has to be able to recognize the problem and then apply the solution. We have a broad background in many different training systems so this increases the efficiency of the training process.

Roger McLaughlin: The ATP is a great help to me at work. I am always looking for novel, force-multiplying tools to add to my war chest. When I move now, no matter what I do, any movement in any plane of movement feels totally connected like a nexus of steel cables. And when there is a high or increasing rate of marginal return of P then you know you are tapping into positive synergies, when there is a negative rate of marginal return then you know you are encountering negative synergies, you are in decline, you know it and feel it. Dealing with functional decline just at the boundary of the human survival envelope — experiencing vanishing and then negative ΔP as a function of S — is really at the forefront of training technology, a realm ideally suited for systems biology. Many diverse subsystems are dynamically interacting there at the physical limit where something is about to break and you’re not sure what. To study this phenomena there are contributions from: R&D laboratory input; theory; modeling and simulation; and old-fashioned tinkering. There are no cut-and-dry answers to the biggest challenges of Phenomic Games. This is a new frontier and I like being a pioneer facing these kinds of fascinating challenges because I love addressing what is immediately beyond the known.

Dr. John Beasley: I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us your theory of mental training for beast mode and preparation as a red zone operator. And also for the importance of risk assessment in search and rescue operations and its application to your training for Phenomic Games. Roger, Seymour, see you in Whistler!

<end transcript>

The World’s Fittest Humans ©2015 James Autio. All rights reserved.


John is now on his way to Moscow to interview Karina…

Karina was the sole survivor of an all-women’s attempt of Annapurna alpine-style without supplemental oxygen in 2013 and in John’s interview she has a harrowing survival story to tell that faces deep aspects of death and dying. A special guest at the interview is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Karina was born in Siberia and is currently in the Russian Army and was stationed near the Arctic Circle for survival training. A Silver Medalist at the 201o Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in 30km Nordic skiing, she also has summited Annapurna, Mount Everest, and Lhotse. Of all the Phenomic Games competitors converging on World’s in Whistler, no one has more powerful endurance credentials than Karina. Her coaching staff for the frontend are world class and her head strength coach is David Rigert, one of the finest strength athletes of all time. After facing down death she harbors no fear — no fear of her competitors — male or female — and no fear of the Phenomic 5.

Karina may be a Phenomic Games rookie but she is no rookie when it comes to matters of life and death. To her, Nemesis is only a speed bump.


PHENOMIC GAMES and PHENOMIC 5 are trademarks of James Autio.

James Autio |

James Autio in the 1990s developed the most powerful micronutritional system in the world for equine athletes based on principles of network theory and embodied cognition.
Poseidon and I. (Summer of 2014)


The World’s Fittest Humans

Exploring the Limits of Physical and Mental Performance, Training, and Potential

James Autio

Written by

How do mind⇔body, East⇔West, strength⇔endurance, stress⇔adaptation and evolutionary forces affect human performance and fitness?

The World’s Fittest Humans

Exploring the Limits of Physical and Mental Performance, Training, and Potential

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