Athletes push limits

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
11:12
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
And it can get ugly.

Man, oh man.

Honestly, don't read the rest of this. You can't handle this truth.

In the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, David Fleming digs deep into one of sports' final taboos.

And that is: Crapping your pants while competing.

(Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Fleming illustrates that more than a few athletes have done just this, including great Ironman triathlete Julie Moss, just shy of the finish line.
We can exhaustively ­explore every aspect of athletic life -- victory, defeat, violence, racism, drugs, brain damage, paralysis, death -- but nothing reveals as much about the physiology, psychology and sociology of sport as the excretory experience of athletes.

Of course, such is the sacredness of our relationship with our bowels that we're all programmed to pretend no one ever poops (or writes about it), despite the fact that every day on this planet, we humans produce 1.5 billion pounds of the stuff. The plain truth is, we all poop. Even athletes. Especially athletes. One of the sports world's last unspoken dirty little secrets is that this perfectly normal bodily function has a profound effect on all levels of competition. And the more you understand the way exercise impacts the intestinal tract, the more you'll wonder how any athlete ever manages to hold it in. In fact, a lot of times, they don't. A survey by the Oklahoma Foundation for Digestive Research, released in 2000, found that 72 percent of conditioned athletes have suffered from lower-intestine distress.

In other words, athletes poop their pants (or shorts) far more often than you realize. And once we kick open the stall of shame and secrecy that surrounds the topic, it turns out most of them have a poop story (or two) to tell. "It sounds crazy and gross, but I think a lot of athletes will read this and go, 'Oh, god, yes, I know that feeling,'" Moss says. "They'll understand that in my situation it really was a simple, even an easy, choice for me. Yes, I was willing to s--- my pants rather than stop."

Fleming explains the whole darned mechanism, and has more anecdotes than you could imagine. Paula Radcliffe made a very bold calculation at one point, in setting a marathon record, for instance. And there's a reason the Seahawks offensive line smelled so offensive ...
The ability to deflect signals from the brain that say, "We're tired, this is dangerous, we should stop," is a common trait among elite athletes. In a rather cruel twist of fate, though, that same quality also makes them more susceptible to crapping their pants. Jocks are taught to ignore pain and fight through fatigue, and they often mistake the rectum's initial accommodation response as a sign of total control over the area. But when the rectum fills to a certain point, for a certain amount of time, there's nothing anyone can do to hold it back.

In an act of superhuman subabdominal strength, Moss willed her sphincter closed for almost 10 miles -- 16,000 desperate strides. But then the sphincter made the decision for her. Moss didn't poop her pants; her exquisitely named pudendal nerve did. "The real miracle is that this doesn't happen more often with athletes," Dobson says. "A giant lineman in the NFL strains as hard as he does to hold back a 300-pound pass-rusher for an entire game, and 99.9 percent of the time his sphincter works properly and holds back all that pressure."

Meet Robbie Tobeck, the other 0.1 percent.

Read that whole article, and you'll be more convinced than ever that athletes face a real risk of crapping their pants mid-competition. And, you'll forgive Deron Williams if he sits out a preseason game or two owing to his current condition.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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