team spirit

It’s about 2am and I’m sitting on a fold-up chair in a field nibbling pretzels and drinking coffee. It’s my turn to run next and I’ve got less than half an hour to rev myself up. I haven’t slept a wink, my warm-up routine has been reduced to a stiff-legged shuffle over to the portaloos, I have a blister, and my stomach is refusing any more energy gels. All this, and yet I’m having the time of my life.

I’d given no real thought to what it would be like to run as part of a team when I signed up for the  24-hour Ultra Endurance Run, along with six club mates.  I figured it would be a bit of fun, a lot of running and very little sleep. I was right on all counts but what I hadn’t considered is what a bonding and, yes, emotional experience it would be. There were to be mud, sweat and tears before the finish line.

Intriguing research from the Netherlands suggests that oxytocin, (known as the ‘bonding hormone’ due to the release of large amounts during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding) may play a role in fostering team cohesion and creating successful sports performance. The study authors believe the hormone may help create a convergence of mood and emotions among team members – a sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ solidarity.

It rings true. Twenty-four hours is a long time to hang out in a field – especially when the stiffest drink to pass your lips is a full-fat coke – but gradually, we feel more like a team and less like a group of individual runners. We learn more about each other as we pass the time between our stints in the gazebo. We talk about running, of course, but also about our jobs, our families, music, art and food, as we stretch, refuel and take turns on the foam roller.  We discuss our ‘favourite bits’ of the 2.1-mile lap we’ve been running since 2pm, and complain about ‘the hill’. And as we clock up the miles, we get to know the gnarled tree roots underfoot, the curve of that sharp bend, the lakeside bench as intimately as our well-trodden routes close to home.

Teammate Ben reappears after a snooze in his tent, walking gingerly. His legs have got so stiff he appears to have planks of wood down his tights. ‘I don’t think I can run again,’ he announces. We all look sympathetic. ‘You’ll be alright,’ someone says, reassuringly. ‘See how you feel after a warm-up.’ He goes on to blast out another blistering lap. The adrenaline simply kicks in as soon as you don the timing chip – and after a few steps, you throw off the stiffness and pains.

Remarkably, research from the University of Oxford suggests that you can handle more pain when you are part of a team than you can when you’re exercising solo. In the study, rowers were able to tolerate twice as much physical discomfort after training together compared to when they trained alone. Why? Study author Dr Emma Cohen puts it down to a rush of endorphins, which can mask pain, enhance mood and create a sense of belonging. ‘The results suggest that endorphin release is significantly greater in group training than in individual training even when power output, or physical exertion, remains constant,’ she writes.

By dawn, sleeplessness, fatigue and caffeine overload are taking their toll. We’ve all been through some kind of private hell – cramp, vomiting, blisters, seized muscles or sheer fatigue – but still we buoy each other up and cheer each other on. There’s a lot at stake: we are in second place now – and with the possibility of victory comes the burden of responsibility hanging heavy over all of us – each runner determined not to let the team down with a lacklustre performance.

Such self-inflicted pressure may not be such a bad thing, according to the findings of a recent study from the University of Bangor. The researchers found that in an endurance handgrip test, people performed better when they were pitted against each other in teams of two or four, rather than as individuals. While anxiety increased, so did enjoyment, and individuals put more effort in when they had teammates. I can totally relate to that. I’m not sure I could have cajoled my legs into that final lap, had I not had a team to represent, and to spur me on. And I believe that each of us went out and ran as hard as we could each time we wore the communal timing chip, regardless of whether it was our fastest lap, or our slowest.

It’s funny. I would never have described myself as a team player. Just look at my life choices – I’m a self-employed writer and coach who spends most of her days home alone. Even my sport of choice is, for the most part, a solitary pursuit. And yet when my teammate Ryan took the final lap – the rest of us spread out along the route to cheer him home – my voice cracked as I called his name, and tears began to spill as I shuffled stiffly to the finish line for group hugs and photos. I don’t know why I was so overcome with emotion, but as a committed loner, I suspect it may be down to a new realization that a team can be greater than the sum of its parts.