Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway

Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway
Why runners are very eager to forget the pain

Mile 23 of the New York City Marathon, mile 25 of the Ice Age Trail 50k, mile 19 of the Tupelo Marathon and for some reason, mile 22 of all three Chicago Marathons.

Those are the dots on the race map where everything began to fall apart.  As I crested the hilltops of the Kettle Moraine Nordic Loop just this past May, I distinctly remember reaching mile 25 and thinking, this is the part you always forget about running long distances.  This part right here, where everything hurts, where even a walking break feels like imminent collapse.  My legs hurt, my shoulders ache, I can’t seem to keep my head up and my stomach keeps sending acid bubbles into my throat.  Why, why do I run these events if there’s always a part where the fun stops and all I have left is a slow march to the end with a dead-eyed stare?

Hurting in Little Rock

Hurting in Little Rock

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.

My friend Jay after his first Leadville attempt, dead as can be

My friend Jay after his first Leadville attempt, not an ounce of energy left

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.

Mile 10 of the 2010 Miami HALF Marathon and I was already wishing for an easy out

Mile 10 of the 2010 Miami HALF Marathon and I was already wishing for an easy out

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.

After the New Orleans Marathon

After the New Orleans Marathon

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.

runskin Marine Corps Marathon car sticker

runskin Marine Corps Marathon car sticker

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?

runskin Chicago Marathon phone skin

runskin Chicago Marathon phone skin

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.

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

28 Responses to Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway

  1. Physiologically speaking, I no longer encounter the wall, meaning, because of how I fuel my race, I don’t ever hit that proverbial “wall” where my body shuts down. That doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. If I’m doing it right, I’m hurting, whether I’m on the back stretch of a half marathon or the last mile of a fifty. The creepiest thing though, for me, is that I crave that sort of “hurt”. It’s more soreness than it is pain, but it’s something I strive for and desire, which lends even more credence to the idea that we runners are a group of crazy people 🙂

    • Dan says:

      I envy your superhuman avoidance of the wall — I haven’t quite mastered my nutrition yet to keep those GI demons at bay, but I’m getting there. I will agree that some people might interpret your embrace of pain as a little odd, unhinged at worst, but I’m not fretting. It’s widely known that masochists aren’t the only people to welcome pain. Perhaps that should have been a sub-section of this article: is masochism inherent in marathon running?

      Perhaps that post will materialize one of these days because that willingness to suffer, or the acceptance of the inevitable bout of agony is definitely worth exploring.

      Thanks for adding your perspective, Sir Jeff.

  2. Dan, a lot here to comment on / comes to mind, like many of your posts.

    During the 2009 Chicago marathon I hit the wall around mile 25 and it was like my entire body shut down and started yelling at me to stop moving. But the story I tell when remembering it is a happy one relating to a moment of community and warmth among my pacing group. Most of the time i’m talking about the race with friends who have never run a marathon, and though I remember both stories equally, I like running, and the race was overall a great experience for me, so why not help people feel less intimidated and more open to the adventure? I think novices already think of marathons as daunting tasks and understand there will be pain and struggle – I like to help people understand the less obvious positive aspects of the experience.

    Also, on the science-y note, i’m sure you’ve seen this, but some research shows that people’s pain perception of some medical treatments is related to the peak intensity of the pain and the pain during the last few minutes of the treatment. I wonder if this holds for athletic events like marathons?

    Last thing – for me, the pain of a marathon isn’t necessarily “less worthy” than one without pain. When I was in elementary school, I read a lot for my age and liked words. I used to walk through our weekly spelling quizzes and accumulated a ton of those star stickers next to my name. But I remember talking to my father about how I felt very little pride or happiness in that accomplishment, because I hadn’t needed to study in the traditional way and it seemed like I was just born with that capacity. Had I been less naturally able to tackle spelling quizzes, realized this, committed to do well, focused/disciplined myself to create lists and study every day, executed that, and then walked through it, I would have felt proud (I think). So with running in mind, by analogy, if the lack of fierce pain is a function of one’s running discipline and execution, someone should feel very proud of that experience. One other example – when I took the LSAT, it was something I wasn’t naturally good at in a lot of ways, I sacrificed a ton of time/money and social experiences to study during the precious few summer months in Chicago, and still didn’t do very well. But that experience is something I take a lot of pride in.

    • Dan says:

      Mr. Freeman, thanks for reading and participating. Before I begin, I must mention that an ex co-worker of mine took me out to lunch the other day and we got to talking about his daughter, who just finished freshman year of college at NU. In talking about Norris, he mentioned that she works there. I didn’t expect him to know the department, but without hesitating, he said the magic words, house staff. You can imagine how much I lost it at that point. Sad news though: Dover is no longer in Sleepy Hollow and neither is the Frozen Sombrero. What the hey?

      Anyway, thanks for pointing me to that article. I actually had not read that one but had instead picked up one about children and advantageous properties of selective memory: Both are worth a read and have their own relevant insight into the conversation.

      I can understand the comparison to academia. It’s not the same to ace a class where you have a higher than average aptitude than to earn a top grade by storming through books and study sessions in one where you are not at all versed. In that way, the marathon is truly the latter because very few of us are equipped to crush the distance on zero training. Those people do exist and frankly, they upset me. Like people born into bottomless affluence, they just cruise through it.

  3. kellybee322 says:

    I’m just getting into the real meat of training for my first full, so will have to report back on the wall come October, but I’m very familiar with this feeling from the handful of halfs I’ve run and blogged. I’ll document the hurt, spill it out in all it’s agonizing, glory…while simultaneously downplaying it and mentioning the good bits in contrast….and scouring the web for more races to enter. I’m not sure if it’s that I think I can train better/smarter/harder next time and just blaze through feeling fresh and awesome or if it just really truly is worth it.
    I actually cried crossing the finish line of two halfs and I can say that both times while the pain/exhaustion level was pretty huge and everything wanted me to stop, there’s something in my brain that once I pass that 12 mile mark or see/hear that finish line just clicks over and I will not stop. Even if I’m the only one at the race. No pacing buddies (I actually have yet to run any race with anyone I know….nobody I’m friends with runs and the few that do are way far away from my pace in one direction or the other) or spectators, when I cross the line and get my medal and look around and get to think “I JUST DID THAT”.
    I can be told I’m crazy on a daily basis and some small part of me knows it’s probably true, but I brush it off and lace up my shoes anyway. I think someone who has never experienced that wave of pride and relief and joy crossing the finish line after feeling like you have nothing left can’t imagine that part…they DO get hung up on that part where it hurts. They can’t see that the emotions at the end make it feel worth it. It might just be the cortisol and dehydration, but in my mind it’s a pretty amazing feeling to get to experience.

    Maybe it’s pride in pushing through the pain….being able to overcome something…not sure. What I do know is that I will continue running, no matter how bad it hurts because so far at least the pros outweigh the cons.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the detailed comment — I hope that my thoughts haven’t made you any less excited to tackle your first marathon and that all continues to go well. You mention a very important contrast: we, the crazy ones, selectively pick out the good parts of the marathon and in so doing justify signing up for another one. However, “everyone else” looks at the experience and selectively picks out the WORST parts to justify calling us crazy.

      So yes, this sorting out of marathon running into “pleasurable” and “painful” components is one that we all do, regardless of whether we’ve ever run a marathon in the first place. It’s like we’re making a list of pros and cons, but we write the pros with globs of paint and the cons with a dull pencil while everyone else does the opposite.

  4. trexrunner says:

    Like Jeff, I don’t really hit the “wall” anymore in the same way that many people do, but like he said, it still hurts. There have been many races where I think to myself “I’m never doing this again,” but as soon as I cross the finish line, I’m ready for the next one. I’m not really sure it’s selective memory so much as it is that the feeling of the accomplishment outweighs the pain that goes along with the training and the race itself. I remember all the bad parts of the races, they just aren’t as important to me as the good parts. I like to think that when I recount races on my blog, I include both the good and the bad parts. I don’t really ever sugar coat them because I can’t stand reading blogs that make running and marathons seem like a cake walk, because we all hurt during them. It’s just a question of how long it takes us to finish. Anyway, another great blog, and this is a cool company!

    • Dan says:

      You do describe yourself as being straightforward and honest with your thoughts, both on and off the racing circuit, so I’m glad to see you add your thoughts to this post. I’m drawn to your use of “sugar coat” because I feel like that’s exactly what I do in my head with the hard parts. I think back to them with a resting heart rate and think “I could have probably pushed harder” when really, no, I couldn’t have. There’s a reason that I finished x:xx:xx and not faster — because I gave it all I had and earned that time, not a second faster.

      But weeks later I’ll be thinking back to it thinking, nah, I’m sure it wasn’t THAT bad. It’s almost as if I have a strange happy filter in my head that takes painful memories and molds them into less awful versions of themselves. It’s not until I’m back at that same point that I realize how delusional I am when sitting at a desk, wondering how I wasn’t able to “just push it” during those bonks.

  5. Marla says:

    I have yet to conquer the marathon distance but have still felt pain on more than a handful of runs. I feel that running is a great metaphor for life in general: it’s not supposed to be easy. Instead, the pain and difficulty hold valuable lessons if you know how to dig for them. Just as in life, running has its tough moments, it also has moments of happiness and triumph. You could choose to avoid the pain, but doing so would also lessen the joy. To misquote an old cliche, a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.

    I often think of loved ones when I’m suffering on a run or in a race and the thought of others who struggle on a daily basis will jolt me back to reality as I realize how lucky I am to have the good fortune to willingly put myself in a place of far more fleeting discomfort.

    • Dan says:

      There are definitely many sayings that relate to your second paragraph — I think the most recent of which was in this month’s Runner’s World. There’s definitely something to be said about finding the right inspiration during those tough moments. I find myself very frequently thinking of people who, for many reasons, some out of their control, cannot simply go out for a run. Even if the weather sucks of if I’m feeling out of shape, I can still just lace up and hit the path.

      Some of us face the inevitability of pain in odd ways — I seem to face it dead on, assuming that in a week or two I will forget all about it. There are anesthetic procedures out there that kill your short-term memory instead of numbing the pain, so you just forget about how much things hurt. I wonder if we secrete some of that naturally or if we’re just nuts. Maybe both.

  6. glenn says:

    I was so preoccupied with hitting the wall in my first marathon that when it happened, I didn’t recognize it. I just remember thinking how everyone around me looked liked extras from The Walking Dead. Even to this day, I can recall minute details about miles 1-20, but 21-24 are hazy at best. Someone was handing out donuts, I think.

    When I completed Flying Pig this past May, miles 21-25 seemed like torture at the time. I was in such a foul mood, and I kept questioning why I was running 26.2 again. I’d already done it once, so what did I have to prove? But as soon as I crested the last hill and saw the finish line, all the agony was gone in an instant and replaced with triumph and joy.

    And that, for me, is what long-distance running is about. Having a goal in mind that seems both mentally and physically unobtainable, and then crushing it. We often say the last few miles of a marathon are all mental, but that’s not completely true. As runners, we have to go through physical anguish so that we can appreciate the mental struggle as well. It’s complete victory over everything that stands in our way.

    That’s why we run.

    • Dan says:

      Ha — on more than one occasion, as I’ve hit that dreaded wall, I have come back to that so-called saying that running is 90% mental, or that the last 10k is all mental. As I slog through those last miles, I want to punch whomever made that phrase up in the first place. Because if it’s all mental, then why do my legs feel like they’re being pulverized?

      But like you said, you can easily recall the highlights but somehow blacked out most of the depths. Maybe this is what they mean by the whole thing being a mental game — your mind plays a part in getting you through it by killing out external stimuli and getting you to just focus on the primordial urge to reach the finish. It might not be the magical “it’s all just in your head” moment that you were expecting, but it’s there nonetheless.

      Thanks for the comment, Glender’s Game. Hope your summer training is going well!

  7. tootallfritz says:

    You definitely win the prize for best quote of the day, “everything just blows”. LOL! Heck yeah! That’s pretty much how I feel about all marathons. Now why I signed up for Chicago AGAIN and why I signed up for Dopey, I haven’t a clue. Okay, I do have a clue. I get caught up in the moment, the registration hype, the fact that I NEED something big on my calendar staring me down to get me out the door when I just want to crawl under the covers and hide. It helps me drink less alcohol knowing I have a killer training schedule. It helps me be a better mom because the workouts energize me and keep me motivated to do fun things with the kids. It helps me focus on what’s important in life and “cut the crap” because really if you train hard, there isn’t time for the BS that doesn’t count. So yes, everything about the marathon blows in my opinion but it’s what the training gives to me in return that I cherish.

    • Dan says:

      Ha — this might be the first time that I read someone say that the marathon is the anti-prize for a season of hard training. Most people look at it as the reward for months of waking up early, eschewing beers and cutting down on fried foods. But you throw it in there because you WANT the training, and the event itself isn’t the true reward.

      Which begs the question — why bother running the race at all? Surely there’s something about it that you like, otherwise you would just sign up, do the training, and then stay at home on race day. You did the training, so you got what you wanted — why put yourself through “everything [that] blows” if you’ve already the benefits? There’s something there that you want, body-grinding pain and all, and you keep coming back to it.

      Who’s fault is it that you find yourself signing up for these events over and over again? It’s the question I had when I started writing, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to reaching the answer yet. But, like marathon training, it’s the journey that matters.

  8. runninginnj says:

    Ha, before you got to the part about childbirth I was thinking that was a perfect example. Not only the pregnancy part, but the actual birth part too. Based on my experience being there for the first, I have no idea how she made the decision to do it again, and she still wants more (for the record I’ve had enough so that’s not happening – I guess the “false” memory of the experience doesn’t extend that far).

    • Dan says:

      Ha, glad to see my friend wasn’t the only one thinking that far ahead. I wrote in an earlier comment that the selection process when it comes to memories good and bad might work in opposite ways depending on who you are. Perhaps your wife played up the good parts of the pregnancy and birth while you actively focused on the negatives, or at least remember them more vividly. I don’t think that’s the case, because it is a shared experience, even if she is doing the majority of the work. Alas, an interesting perspective nonetheless.

      Thanks for reading and contributing!

  9. Mike says:

    Another excellent post by a talented writer – solid syntax, smart choice of font, and wow you look great in those photos… thanks for letting me share my highly relevant comment! Now then, when’s that drawing?

    Re: marathons, I haven’t hit the wall since marathon #1 in Long Beach. I took that experience to heart, and since then have targeted my training to ensure I don’t reach the wall under normal marathon circumstances (emphasis on “normal”). Studies suggest that the brain regulates the body by “anticipating” the stressors to come and adjusting performance accordingly. In this way the brain forces the body to always hold something in reserve, which is why even as we feel like death warmed over late in a race, we still have the ability to push ourselves to speed up in the last kilometer or so, once that finish line comes into view.

    With this in mind, my long runs for marathon training take me out to 30 miles and beyond, and I approach each marathon as a 30-mile race… that way I set the expectation that I’ll hit the wall at around, say, 26.2 miles. I’m amazed at how many multi-marathoners have never run beyond 26.2 miles. Yet in times of extreme duress, for instance during the Mount Diablo 50K last year with its 8,000ft of elevation gain and temperatures in the 90s, my training only takes me so far, and I cross the finish line thinking “Never, ever, EVER again.” Then, yes, I quickly go out and do it again, for reasons I don’t entirely grasp. I don’t chase the pain and I don’t need it to justify my running existence, but at the same time I’m not averse to it and I understand its role in the process.

    Why selective memory? That’s a tough one, especially given the fact that so little of our behavior is controlled by our conscious mind. For me as a scientist, one of the most fascinating aspects of running is the interplay of psychology and physiology. Running isn’t just what we do as highly evolved biomechanical machines – it’s entrained by our psychology and ingrained in our physiology. “Born to run” has become the most exhausted catch phrase of the past five years, in part because it’s true. How many times have you heard someone talk about how much better they felt after a run? And remember how irritable you felt the last time you didn’t run for several days in a row?

    Well, them’s the hormones talking. Testosterone, which fuels aggression and competition. Endorphins, which among other things contribute to the well-documented feeling of “runner’s high”. Dopamine, which controls reward-motivated behavior. Serotonin, which produces feelings of pleasure and well-being. Adrenaline and norepinephrine, which together underlie the body’s “fight or flight” response. These hormones/neurotransmitters and others interact to generate their physiological effects in ways we’re only beginning to understand… and like it or not, we’re all more or less puppets controlled by our hormonal strings and dancing foolishly based on the whims of our biochemical masters. Modulate the levels of these chemicals even slightly, and you cause dramatic transformations in behavior. The complex and nuanced interactions among our many masters and the wars they wage in vivo shape our behavior and lend each of us our own unique motivation for doing… well, whatever it is we do.

    No matter how much (or how little, depending on who you believe) free will we may have as the highest rung on the evolutionary totem pole, we’re still biological machines driven by electrical impulses and chemical reactions. Although admittedly this way of thinking is overly reductionist, our selective memory as runners is the collective output of these diverse impulses and reactions. If every moment of every run from start to finish were miserable and offered no physiological advantage, or if the pain from the end of each race carried over to the next, we simply wouldn’t do it. This argument may fly in the face of the typical “We are runners, hear us roar” mindset, but at the risk of channeling Richard Dawkins here, you may have said it best yourself with your choice use of the word “protoplasm.”

    So why selective memory? Because “No pain, no gain” isn’t just a war cry thrown out by chiseled athletes sporting Ironman tattoos – it’s a biological imperative. Oh, and the medals don’t suck, either.

    Another compelling post, Dan.

    • Dan says:

      I can’t say it’s that surprising that this post was just one or two tangents away from becoming a meditation on free will, especially when you frame it in terms of biology and physiology. As I was writing this post, I wanted to venture out into evolutionary biology and speculate as to what advantage we would earn by mastering the skill of whitewashing or overtly tampering with our memory.

      Would sugarcoating a close call with a potential meal make us more or less likely to play it safe during the next hunt? Would downplaying a particularly harsh winter make us more or less likely to prepare more diligently for the next one? Or would it be a disadvantage? Would we be jeopardizing our survival if we were just to remember the times we successfully snagged a gazelle and not when we came home bruised and empty handed?

      I’m not qualified enough to delve too deeply into those questions so I’ll leave them for the big boys. That said, it’s worth investigating, especially since every day it seems that the relationship between marathoning and our ancestral past seems to grow more intertwined.

      Your insight is always appreciated, Mike. Thanks for chiming in.

  10. Laura says:

    I completely agree with Marla’s comment that our tough runs mirror the tough situations in life beyond running– either our own challenges or those faced by others. As a Peace Corps Volunteer who trained for & ran a full marathon during my service, I know there are many parallels to be drawn between races and our service. You sign up for 26ish miles or 26ish months without REALLY know what you’re getting into, you eat a lot of carbs & sweat a lot, you develop gross foot/skin issues, and you might poop yourself. But the rollercoaster of highs and lows adds up to the “toughest job you’ll ever love.” You discover strength that you didn’t know you had– because, despite the amazing support you’ll receive, you’re the only one who can keep putting one foot in front of the other. And given that I’m going on three hours in a bank line and want to punch everyone in the face, yes, I think selective editing of our memories is important. But isn’t life pretty great overall? And shouldn’t we be thrilled at the health, time and support that allows us to run a marathon, no matter how we feel at mile 23? Pessimists are often called “realists” but isn’t their view just as skewed as the crazy “optimists?” And we get to be happy up until that moment when “everything blows,” rather than missing the good moments in anticipation of when it all goes south. I’ve always had that philosophy, and it definitely holds true for me now as I near the finish line of my service!

    • Dan says:

      I love comments like these — those that offer a completely fresh perspective on the topic, referencing experiences that I would not have thought fit so perfectly with the theme. Your experience in east Africa is a perfect parallel to the marathon and the fact that your months to miles ratio is 1:1 is a delightful coincidence. It’s also a fitting complement to the adage that running is a metaphor for life (which Marla quote above) — despite your mental fortitude, I’m sure you would have lost your mind early in the process had you only been able to focus on the hardship and not the good you were doing.

      Can’t believe you’re almost back in the States. Safe travels!

  11. john says:

    Coming into this with a sample size of one, but here goes…
    I think that we all focus on two things when completing any sort of activity, and they’re polar opposites – the sense of completion/finishing, (shared by most excellent blogging these days) and the “I messed up on ________”. When you talk with others, you emphasize the accomplishment side of the equation, but in training you focus on the things to fix for next time. Things don’t get so much lost in translation as submerged in the overall experience – you have to submerge the pain and hurt in order to move forward (extended life metaphor).
    The greatest sort of pressure is that which you put upon yourself.

    (“you might poop yourself” is my favorite blog phrase for 2013 so far)

    • Dan says:

      That’s a good way to look at it – one that I had not considered before as a blogger. It’s in the training that we really grunt out the hardship and focus on the pain or suffering that it takes to hit our numbers, reach our time goals and prepare for the big day. The race itself is the prize, the cake that we get to eat at the party we’ve been planning for months. So perhaps it’s only natural that we focus on the positive side because we’ve been battling the negative (or, with a more positive spin, the challenges) for the last 3-6 months.

      Thanks for your perspective, John.

  12. Judy F. says:

    I have not hit the dreaded wall, while running my marathons….as said above, my nutrition and hydration has been good. I have been at that place where it’s hard, but then I let my mind take over!! I know I can do it and I remember that feeling I have when I finish, the accomplishment!! My favorite distance is the full marathon, my body feels so good when I am done, I enjoy it so much more than the training runs! I feel that running into the wall is more of a mind of body, and as long as your mind know you can do it, your all good!!

    • Dan says:

      I’m definitely envious of those who say they’ve never hit the wall. Although I haven’t encountered the wall in ALL of my marathons (just in 8 out of 15), I know the feeling very well. Knowing how to avoid it and doing so consistently is very, very impressive.

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  14. Laszlo says:

    I am still training to run my first Marathon, but I was successful in hitting the wall through my Half Marathon runs, thanks to my “strategy” of always starting out strong. Maybe I just simply like to suffer in public. 🙂 Nevertheless every time I hit that wall despite of the blurry vision OR hearing constant noise instead of clear sounds around me OR despite constantly wanting to stop, just kept on pushing: remained focused on keep moving forward.
    In my case I do not think I forget about the suffering and the pain, but try to use it as a source of motivation thinking that despite of all the pain, I still managed to push through and finish strong at the end.
    Maybe long distance running brings out our long forgotten inner child. Kids tend to cry in one minute about something, but be the happiest in the next moment, seemingly completely not remembering that they were crying just a few seconds ago. As we finish a long run, by crossing the real or imaginary finish line, through those two-three steps, we transform from a struggling runner who was ready to give up into the proudest and happiest person on Earth. That might be a transformation only kids and long distance runners are capable of. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Thank you so much for the completely new angle, Laszlo. I knew this topic had many facets to it, many potential discussion topics, but I would have never guessed that we would be comparing long distance running to becoming a child again. But your point is very interesting — we do turn on a dime from exhausted, vengeful runners into euphoric champions. When we find our second (or third or fourth) wind, we instantly forget our woes and soldier onward, very much like children who fall and scrape their knee. Cries become squeals of delight in mere seconds.

      They do say that running is basically play in a very basic form. Running stops being fun for kids when it stops being play and becomes training, or punishment, or a duty that has to be done to avoid love handles. But really, it’s supposed to be fun, entertaining, playful. There is definitely a lot to discuss there, and I might elaborate on it for a future post. Thanks for nudging me in this direction!

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