I’ve been making a very big deal about completing an 8K race in early March. Reaching that little goal (roughly a 5 mile run) was exhilarating, at least for me. But get a load of this story…
I recently learned about an endurance runner named Diane Van Deren. She’s a 53-year-old mother of three who lives in Colorado.
You may remember that I was gloating after running 47 minutes without stopping.
Well, Diane can run for 28 HOURS with no sleep, and she does so on a regular basis when competing in (and often winning) ultra distance races.
In case you’re not familiar with ultras, these events range in length from 50 to 100 miles or more. Here are just a few of Diane’s “what I did on my summer vacation” results:
- In 2008, she won the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 (yes, 300 miles) in Canada, towing a 50-pound sled of supplies through temperatures dipping to fifty below zero.
- In 2009, that same Yukon Arctic race was 430 miles long. Diane placed first among the women and fourth overall.
- In 2012, she completed the nearly 1,000-mile Mountains to Sea Trail Endurance Run, crossing all of North Carolina in 22 days. She set a record doing it.
I’m just giving a few highlights. She does a whole slew of ultra races each year, as you can see on her North Face-sponsored athlete’s page.
Running From Seizures
Diane had always been athletic, even playing in the European pro tennis circuit for a while. But she only started running when she was around 30, and epilepsy struck.
I’m not sure how she came up with the idea, but at the first sign of pre-seizure symptoms (similar to a pre-migraine aura), she would lace up her shoes and run from her house into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Running stopped the seizure in its tracks.
Eventually, though, the seizures intensified and came without warning. Diane could no longer outrun them. With three young children to care for, the situation was desperate.
Her medical team was finally able to use MRI brain scans to pinpoint where the seizures were originating.
They sliced out a kiwi-sized chunk of her temporal lobe, the part of the brain that regulates memory, spatial reasoning, and our sense of time.
The seizures stopped, but in the process a few things were thrown out like a baby with the bathwater:
- Her short-term memory was shot.
- She could no longer read maps.
- She lost her awareness of time passing.
Taking Mindfulness A Little Too Far
A year after her surgery, Diane signed up for her first ultra race, a little old 50-miler that now sounds short in comparison to the monster events to come.
But how to navigate these stretches when you can’t read a map?
She carries pieces of ribbon with her, dropping one when she comes to a fork in the path. If she realizes she’s gone the wrong way, she runs back to the ribbon and adjusts course.
In that 2008 Yukon Arctic Race, she was lost for two hours and still won the race.
The spatial and memory disabilities are clearly a hindrance during a race (and even more so in her daily life). But what about the third loss — her sense of time?
Because she’s missing that piece of her brain, Diane lives perpetually in the present moment.
That means that when she’s running, with no sense of time, she can neither look back nor look forward. She doesn’t know how long she’s been running. She doesn’t know how tired she’s supposed to be.
She simply goes by the rhythm of her body, both her breathing and the sound of her feet. Two breaths in, two breaths out, synchronized with the sound of her feet hitting the trail.
“That’s the music, that’s the flow,” she said in an interview with NPR’s Radio Lab.
In my own tiny tiny tiny race, I was fine until my running partner said we had passed the four mile marker. Since that was farther than I would normally run, I was pulled out of the present moment and into the past, redefining how tired I should be by that point. I suddenly felt exhausted.
Weird, huh? But so indicative of the degree to which we’re at the mercy of our brain blather.
Although I’m a big proponent of mindful living and present moment awareness, I wouldn’t want to be in Diane’s shoes (she went through 10 pairs of them on that 1,000-mile run, by the way).
It’s hard to imagine the full scope of her challenges. She never knows where she parked her car (I guess my kids would accuse me of that too). She doesn’t remember people she met only hours before. She and her children grieve over lost memories.
But it does make you wonder:
- What could the rest of us accomplish if we didn’t know that we were supposed to be tired?
- Or we didn’t remember how far we had run?
- Or we weren’t quite so focused on how long it should take to reach the finish line?
- And why do we need a map, anyway?
If you want to read more about my new hero, Diane Van Deren, check out these articles:
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