The Thinking Runner

TIM NOAKES – THE QUIET MAVERICK -by Daryl Ilbury (Review)


It has been my honour and privilege to have met Tim Noakes in 1982.

That was the day he first put me on a treadmill, and ‘doubted’ my comment that i would lose 1kg in the time it took him to take me to exhaustion in a VO2max test.
It was one-nil to my advantage by the end of the test, but that loss of a kilo in sweat was well outstripped by the mass of knowledge I walked away from my first Two Oceans weekend with – thanks to Tim.

Our paths crossed again during the 1984 London to Paris triathlon, which saw Tim and Bruce Fordyce (Alan van Heerden and Alisdair Hadfield) gave their time to manage and assist our quartet of triathletes take on and beat teams from around the world in a 160km run from central London to Dover, swim the 50km of the English channel, and cycle in relay from Calais to Paris:
Three highly competitive days with the leading minds and specialists in their fields in endurance sports, under the overview of the insightful doctor, and a massive learning curve in my early sporting career!

It was a time when Tim, Bruce and the team had committed to a high carbohydrate diets, carbo-loading, and targeting 60% carbohydrates each day. A daunting challenge for the most dedicated endurance athletes!

That year Professor Tim Noakes published the Lore or Running: we corresponded: my experience at 100 miles to 1000km and beyond told me High Carbs would, and did, make me nauseous. ‘Test it’ said Tim – so he did: sticking me on a treadmill and taking muscle and breath samples over 18 hours and 103 miles (166km) on a treadmill.

I was ‘supa-impressed’ (as social media would have it), by the commitment of time and effort from the good Prof, who willingly slept on a Durban Gymnasium floor for the remaining 3-4 hours before launching his book to the media the following morning.

Tim determined that I was ‘an outlier’ – I had run utilizing fat – not carbs – but as an experiment of ONE (who else would run 100 miles on a treadmill) – it was a world record at the time, but I should remember that ‘normal’ people used carbohydrates!
[That was the thinking and simply an (incorrect) extrapolation of the correct research data at the time.]

Fast-forward 3 decades, and the tables turn: those 166km were proven to be the ‘norm.’

Although correct (two-nil) I was no longer exceptional, but (plunged to) ‘average’ as everyone was proven to metabolize fats into carbohydrate when running long (ultra) distances, or any low intensity exercise and that the high fat low carb diet, (as used, and promoted, by Arthur Newton in 1924), would come to the fore as THE lifestyle to adopt.

These 180-degrees of turn in belief would be seen as an Achilles Heel for those who found Tim’s questioning of norms unacceptable.

It wasn’t simply the questioning, but the impact on beliefs, statements, commerce and the exposure of how marketing and spin, was being employed to ‘distort’ the popular perceptions for industrial and commercial gain.

One simple, but now well publicized tweet in Februay 2014, put Tim, his family, his reputation, and all he stood for, on the line and into a tail-dive.

His ‘oppressors’ underestimated the character of the man, and his determination as a lifelong endurance athlete.

It was not to be a swift race to success, but an ultra-marathon challenge, and one that those who have had the fortune of following him, had no doubt that he would be shown to be correct.

Over the years I have been in zero-doubt that THE single most defining and apparent uniqueness of the Professor Tim Noakes that I had came to know, was his integrity and adherence to honesty, and his ability to review, adjust, and change view when further research or investigation put his earlier beliefs in doubt.

A need for honesty based on his current appraisal and understanding, is foremost. He is undoubtedly, and visibly, uncomfortable with anything less than sharing the very best of his knowledge and understanding.

This, as readers of this book will find, is a long stretch from the oft-hidden weave of spin, deception, half-truths, and manipulation that enshrouds so much of the research, and claims around medical, health and ‘innovations’ that it makes Tim Noakes one of a very limited number of beacons of hope for the layman who puts his or her trust in research, academia and those who claim the ‘magical’ white coat of authority!

That long white coat, is often utilized by professors, medics, and academia to intimidate those who fear to question and challenge. I don’t think I have ever seen Tim in a white coat: he doesn’t need one – his approach and style is one of listening, not lecturing, and learning questioning and shifting, not one of convention.

Although the book relates to Tim Noakes in its title, it is as much about our appreciation of the pressures, and influences of the modern day establishment to recruit our acceptance of what we read, and what and how it is presented, (and by whom), as it is about a man who is willing to stand up and challenge the ‘establishment.’

Importantly this book neither an autobiography, nor a biased recount of Tim Noakes fight with the ‘establishment.’ It is the outcome of an investigative and questioning analysis of both an incident and the life of a controversial scientist, by author Daryl Ilbury.

My introduction to Daryl, was like many through his time with Radio Port Natal.

Not only had I been entertained by his quick humour on air, but in mid and late 80’s i had joined him in the studio to provide a weekly athletics report. It was then I was exposed to a side of his intellect that is not necessarily exhibited over the airwaves.

With the toolbox of clinical psychology enhanced by education and practice as a scientific journalist, Daryl’s approach provides an insight and offers perceptions, that few may have found obvious.
His writing style is a far walk from his on-air banter, and will surprise many with the depth of consideration, punctuated by a dry, possibly easily missed humour.

While explaining his motivation for writing the book and investigating the background he exposes the uniqueness of the Tim Noakes character.

The respect and accolades from ultra distance polar swimmer Lewis Pugh and former springbok (and world cup) rugby coach Jake White, came as no surprise, but were rather an instantly recognizable depiction aligned with my experience three decades ago.

I had met White while working with Scotland and Springbok hooker, John Allan where we presented a statistical analysis system during Nick Mallet’s 1998 end of season tour to Edinburgh. White was not (then) necessarily the greatest rugby man, but he is an excellent analyst, and he was well aware that success did not come from your knowledge but through the ‘team’ of experts that surround the players.
Pugh and White’s testimonies on Noakes confirm the stature and commitment I had seen as that relay team thrashed our way over the English channel in 1984.

If three aspects stood out above all else, and made ANY Tim Noakes statement worthy of attention, it is his honesty and integrity to tell it as it is, his belief and commitment to what he is doing and saying, and above all a fearlessness to admit he was (previously) incorrect.

In preparation of The Quiet Maverick, Ilbury took little time in realizing this was something of a special characteristic in this arena and current climate.

There are many reasons and influences that make such a posture relatively unique in the scientific and medical environment and these, and their reasons are well explored and debated in this 200-page book.

I can but recommend to all to read this book for so many reasons: It will have you reviewing the illogical information that has been served up as ‘logical’ in the world of nutrition; it will see you viewing and reviewing science and research in the way that will bring enlightenment, albeit with a fair dollop of cynicism; it will give you an appreciation for the power and benefit of social media as a truth finder; and, amongst many others, it will give you an easy read and insight to perhaps one of the unique and special products of an inquisitive mind – Professor Tim Noakes, a product and gem of South Africa, and one of the few for whom there is no unfair question or unchallengeable status quo.

Listen here to Daryl Ilbury on his book: Tim Noakes The quiet Maverick.
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Listen to Tim Noakes – why social media will ensure the honesty in research and medical matters, and the new book:
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