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How to Make The Miles Go Faster


One of the toughest mental training hurdles for aspiring marathoners to fight through is the dreaded “long run” each weekend. Most plans cap off a week of shorter runs with an increasingly longer jaunt ranging from 10 to 22 miles prior to race day. By breaking through not only physical but also mental barriers, the runner learns how to deal with fatigue and talk back to his or her body to get them over the inevitable psychological wall during the race.

In fact, our brains can offer us too much information during those lonely hours on the road, telling us too early that we’ve run enough miles for that day. What if you could turn your brain off and just deal with the current moment; no looking back or forward? This is something Diane Van Deren lives with every day.

One of the world’s best ultra-runners (as in races of 50 miles or more), Van Deren puts in more miles on her feet during a week than many cyclists do in the saddle. She is a veteran and champion of some of the world’s toughest 50 mile, 100 kilometer and 100 mile races.

Apparently, even those distances are not enough. On May 10th, Van Deren set off to break another record, running the entire length of the 930 mile Mountain to Sea Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains in 21 days. By averaging about 45 miles per day, she would beat the best current time by three full days. She passed the halfway mark on May 24th, right on schedule.

But Van Deren fights her own personal battle every day. In 1997, after suffering for years from epileptic seizures, she made the tough decision to undergo a lobectomy. By isolating and removing a damaged kiwi-size portion of the right temporal lobe of her brain, the seizures stopped but so did significant pieces of her short term memory. Beyond just embarrassing lapses of names and faces, Van Deren would lose keys, directions, and experiences before they could be filed away into her long-term memory archive.

During her struggles with seizures, the former pro tennis player would escape to running in the foothills of the Rockies as this would ward off an oncoming episode. Now, she no longer runs from the attacks and instead runs for the joy of competition against the best in the world. Yet, her new battle is navigation and making her way home since any recollection of her path is gone after a few more strides. She uses a system of “bread crumbs” and clues to find her way back.

The fascinating aspect of her new memory condition is the lack of awareness of distance traveled and distance to go. There are no pre-planned workout distances that she dutifully fulfils until she’s reached that day’s goal. Of course, a GPS or pedometer could tell her how far she has gone, but she prefers the blissful ignorance of running only to the sound of her feet on the ground.

“It’s a kinesthetic melody that she hits,” Don Gerber, a clinical neuropsychologist, said in a New York Times piece. “And when she hits it, she knows she’s running well.”

But does her lack of memory provide some type of advantage to her perception of fatigue? If you were on a 20-mile run, but did not know how far you had gone or how far you had to go, would your brain sense the same fatigue signals from your muscles?

“It’s like candy to a child,” Van Deren told the MST blog of the freedom her condition provides. “You hear your feet, your rhythm, your breathing, but not the noise of society,” she says. “It’s healing. It’s very comforting to me.”

Still, imagine your peace if you were able to tune out the constant jabber of your inner voice telling you how you should feel based on objective data like miles or hours endured. Without that data, you’re left to just your body’s messages about how you feel.

To get a sense of that peace, ESPN caught up with Van Deren last year for an award-winning short documentary. What we can all learn from her story is that sometimes we need to turn off the iPod and leave the GPS watch at home. Enjoying the run may just fool your brain and make the miles go by faster.

Dan Peterson reports on the latest cognitive performance research for athletes at Axon Sports, an Elite Performance Partner of Athletes’ Performance. Axon develops cutting edge tools that protect and train the athletic brain. Follow Axon Sports on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: Running, Focus, Attitude, Energy