July 8, 2013 27 Comments
Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway
Why runners are very eager to forget the pain
But then two weeks after the race, as I related the story of the race to a co-worker, I found myself saying only good things. I talked about how beautiful the weather was, how the forest felt completely alive all around me. I mentioned that running on pine straw was like gliding over clouds and that it felt liberating to hear nothing except the soft landing of my shoes on dirt. All talk about the moment where you feel like you’re dragging a cart full of sand behind you was summarized with a pithy remark about how “it was tough towards the end,” an aside that amounted to very little over the course of my eulogy. I even found myself talking about how much fun it was and even considered doing it again next year.
At that point, the homunculus of my short-term memory dug his fingers into my shoulders and shook me while asking what the hell was wrong with me. In that bizarre moment of reflection, confronted by the inescapable fact that long-distance races are seldom easy, I came to a subtle realization.
It’s not that I forget those moments of hardship, I willfully block them out. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m not the only one. In fact, it’s a predictable pattern amongst marathon runners, made most apparent in those, like me, who decide to write about their experiences. I’ve read countless stories about enthusiastic runners beat down to a quivering pulp at mile 22, who find a way to harness what’s left of their humanity and make it to the finish line. They celebrate their accomplishment, douse cold water on their salt quarry legs and hang up their racing shoes for a scant couple of weeks before looking ahead to the next racing season.
An anthropologist from Mars would look at this and ask itself, did these myopic athletes already forget the paragraphs they just wrote devoted to the latter miles and how much they hurt?
I would put a reassuring hand on my extra-planetary colleague’s shoulder and explain that long distance runners make up an odd collection of athletic protoplasm that doesn’t always line up with the tenets of reason and moderation. They sign up for events knowing they will be challenging, and though they prepare for them accordingly, often find themselves at a point during the big event where, to put it in scientific terms, everything just blows. Virtually none of them get paid to do it, so it must be for personal enjoyment or accomplishment. But in those last miles, with searing leg muscles and choked lungs, a marathoner’s pallid grimace doesn’t quite brim with elation.
But the more time passes, the more we remember things differently. The farther removed we are from the event itself, the less tied we are to the all-encompassing, visceral experience of pain. As I sat under the white tent at the Ice Age finishing area, my mind was on my legs, my stomach and my head. As I held a forkful of sausage to my chin, I realized that I was in a mixed state of exhaustion and delirium. I was so caught up in a state of near shock that I couldn’t eat or relax. But far away from that place, in the comfort of an air conditioned office, I was choosing to ignore the pain in favor of bigger and better challenges.
We parse through the experience and pick out the good, sorting out the crippling muscle fatigue and tossing it in the mental waste basket. Even those of us who write about it attempt to merely remember what it was like and put that experience to paper. But it’s simply that: a representation, an approximation that doesn’t truly remind us of what it was like. Plus, many of us would rather use those struggling moments as precursors to the forthcoming, often inevitable wave of triumph. And yet, perhaps our willingness to move on or the tendency to expurgate our recollection of the race is crucial for the active participation in the sport.
This toying with our memory is something that non-runners can relate to as well. While I can’t handle any sort of heat in my food, I know many people who relish in eating the culinary equivalent of napalm. They most likely regret it during (and after) the meal, but it won’t stop them from returning to Jake Melnick’s for another plate of their XXX Hot Wings. Similarly, bungee jumping or extreme roller coasters produce very intense, often uncomfortable feelings in the pit of our stomachs. But I’m pressed to find anyone who stopped riding Top Thrill Dragster because they actively remember what it felt like for their stomach to drop. This doesn’t even have to be a physical reaction: many of us have faced emotionally draining breakups and have still found a way to get back out there and meet new people. I’ll even go ahead and say that childbirth fits into this scheme. A friend of mine wrote to me recently about selective memory, noting that “that’s how [his wife] is with these pregnancies. She’s always talking about the next one and downplaying how sick she was weeks 5-18.” That is an actual quote from a real friend of mine.
We all have an idea, a phantom memory of what these experiences felt like. But it’s not until we’re back in the hot seat that it all hits home. This tendency to play around with our selective memory is interesting because it affects how we behave within the sport. But outside of it, I believe it’s a strange but essential part of being human.
Imagine if you remembered everything as it happened, with every excruciating detail available for instant access and replay. You’d go insane. A few years ago I read the autobiography of Jill Price, a woman with “the most remarkable memory known to science.” Though not a perfect book, I was fascinated by the fact that she could recall, word-for-word, every conversation from her life, down to the date and facial expressions of her interlocutors. While our first impression is to think of all the powers we’d have and how many arguments we’d win, it’s soon clear that her amazing skill has been a heavy burden on her, not only causing many arguments in her younger years, but also providing an endless cavalcade of painful memories faithfully recreated down to the last detail.
She specifically notes that once she remembers an event or an exchange, the entire recollection rushes into her like a flood and she is almost powerless to escape it. If she were a marathoner, she’d probably want to stop the recall just before the bonk. I know I probably would.
Given such the power to instantly remember what it felt like at mile 23 of my first marathon, it would have taken a lot more courage to sign up for another one. But the farther away I was from it, the more I was left with just the pleasant details: seeing Steph and my mom at the finish line, my smile reflected on every volunteer, the fleece sweater that I wore all day as a finisher’s prize. And so it goes for every race I’ve run since.
Does that make us natural optimists? Do we insist that each marathon was worth it, no matter how crookedly we finished or how badly we hurt the day after? There is definitely something to be said about the boundless positivity that characterizes the running community. Aside from the occasional running snob, nobody will ever mock or actively downplay anyone’s finishing time or dissuade others from joining in the fun. Is it possible that this zeal is contagious enough to affect our memories?
In fact, there might be an actual physiological reason for all of this. After all, many scientists have noted that “marathon running is one of the most stressful activities in which normal, neurologically intact humans engage.” Many have anecdotally noted that the body reacts to running a marathon in the same way it would after getting hit by a car. So maybe running long distances has a legitimate effect on our cognitive abilities. Is it possible that we’re not just willfully omitting the ugly parts but actually forgetting them?
A 2009 Columbia University study suggested that marathoning may have a negative effect on explicit memory. During a marathon, runners produce a large amount of the hormone cortisol, which is usually seen in cases of heightened stress. Studies have shown that high amounts of cortisol can lead to deficits in explicit memory or quick, short-term recall. The results of the Columbia experiment suggested many things, but among them that marathoners had lower command over their explicit memory after the race than the non-marathon control group did. They were less able to repeat short lists and exhibited some trouble with word recollection. I found myself thinking of my own marathon experiences especially as a blogger. While running each event, I have to make a very conscious effort to remember key details for my write-up. Without a notepad or a recorder, I have to rely strictly on memory, which isn’t as easy as simply recalling what I did over the weekend. The increased amount of cortisol might be responsible for that.
Regardless, we keep running and signing up for events knowing full well they will not always treat us like a lady. No matter how ebulliently we recall our most recent marathons, there were undoubtedly moments during the race where we wished it were over. Even T-Rex Runner, a self-proclaimed fun runner who makes the most out of every marathon by truly enjoying each mile, often wishes that the standard marathon distance were shortened to 22 miles. Everyone, from the teeth-gritting diehard to the recreational back-of-the-packer eventually reaches a point where everything just hurts.
And yet we keep going, see the finishing banner like a beacon and pull ourselves over the line. Some of us shake it off, others limp and a select few even collapse. But the vast majority of us will find ourselves favoring the good parts of the event when it comes time to sign up for the next one. Some of us may choose to forget parts of the course deliberately, write them out of the story altogether, bowdlerizing our memory to just the nice parts that made it such a source of confidence in the first place. And that’s perfectly fine – it would be far too grueling to contemplate new challenges if all we think about is the inevitable hardship.
That said, there is plenty of room to recognize and even fondly remember that hardship. You can’t reach the peak without climbing the mountain first and just like we’ve seen on countless signs held by loving supporters, if it were easy, everybody would do it. And so, though it might not be the focal point of our experiences, we must remember every part of the race, the good and the bad, in order to truly respect and pay tribute to the jagged peaks that loom ahead.
This brings me to the giveaway. I was contacted by the owner of the Austin-based company runskin for a giveaway. Their product line includes apparel, decals, stickers and iPhone cases, all with a running theme. There are plenty of companies out there making running apparel, but what separates runskin is that their product line is primarily focused on the design of actual race courses. Their products feature both famous marathon coursers (Chicago, New York, Boston) and lesser known ones (Portland, Napa Valley, Twin Cities) drawn with a straight line like they would be on official course maps. As someone who loves to study race layouts and can identify several of them on geometry alone, I was instantly a fan.
I loved the idea as soon as I saw it. What better way to remember every single part of a marathon – the highs and the lows – than with the physical bread crumb trail drawn out?
I was thrilled that my most recent post (“Are We Running in a Bubble?”) generated a lot of detailed and substantial comments, so I’d like to invite all readers to participate in this post as well, but this time with a bonus. In ten days I will draw a random number based on the number of comments received and that commenter will receive a code worth $40 in runskin products. Additionally, if you comment and tweet / repost / share this article with others, you will be in the running for one of five codes for $20 in merchandise.
And with that, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What goes through your mind as you hit that dreaded wall? What do you think gets lost in translation when it comes time to remember the experience? Is a marathon without that fierce pain “less worthy” than an easy one? Do you think marathoners (or people in general) benefit from having this selective memory?
A few rules and disclaimers:
1. I am not being paid for this. The guys at runskin reached out to me to help spread the word about a great product and I decided to help out.
2. Please include your email address or website when posting so I know how to reach you.
3. Ideally, I’d like comments to include relevant thoughts on this post.
4. I will count additional comments from the same author as long as they further the discussion.
5. Though you are eligible for both giveaways, you can only win one prize. If the winner of the larger code is also chosen for one of the five codes earned by sharing this post, I will choose the comment immediately following as the winner of the latter.
6. If the number drawn is a comment I authored, the winner will be the commenter to whom I was responding.