Never racing again? How our shady memories of pain turn us into liars
We’ve all said it. How many times have you finished a race and claimed it was your ‘last one’? Feet covered in oozing blisters, muscles trembling from exhaustion and knees caked in dirt and blood, you’ve sworn up and down to friends, family and anyone who might listen that you were officially retiring from the sport. One blogger calls this ‘Serial Race Dementia’, which she defines as “the strong and irrational urge to sign up for a race after you swore that you’d never run again because it chewed you up and spit you back out as a shapeless clump of pain and self-pity the last time you ran it.” Spot on.
This year, on the finish line of Tor des Geants, I surveyed my swollen and bruised body and I knew I was done with the race. I didn’t just think it – I felt it. I told my friends, my family, and even members of VDA Trailers, which is the organization that puts on Tor. The more people I told, the more certain I was that I would stick to my conviction this time. I was done.
“Honey, that is what you say after every race, and then you sign up again,” said my mom, desperately wishing she could believe me.
“I don’t believe you for a second,” said my friend Leah. “But please do us all a favour and give us a break? I can’t survive watching you do another Tor next year,” she joked.
“You’re finished with Tor? Sure. See you next year on the start line,” said another.
I shook my head, trying to find the words to make them understand I meant business. Why didn’t anyone believe me? No part of me thought that doing this race again was a good idea. Too much suffering, too much pain, too much drama. Nope nope nope.
Well, you all know where this is going. Just three weeks after the end of Tor and there I was back in Courmayeur, grabbing one of key people in the race organization by the shirt and begging for a chance to come back next year. “Pleeeeeeeease, I didn’t mean it when I said I was done!” My pleading reeked of breakup remorse, bordering on cringe-
worthy. “I want to come back. Take me back!” [Context: this was at the end of the Arrancabirra, which is an 18km mountain race in costume that the organizers of Tor also put on…with six beer checkpoints throughout. I believe I was on beer 8 by that point].
I really don’t get it. I suppose I should have expected this, but I really don’t understand how our brains work this way. How can we be utterly broken and at the height of suffering one minute and then desperate to do it all again the next? Is this really a form of dementia??
I started looking into the science of memory and pain and here’s what I learned….
On a very basic level, we remember pain in order to avoid repeating things that cause us harm. If, for example, you burn yourself on the stove, the pain ensures that you will be less likely to do it again. It’s our mind’s way of protecting our body I suppose. However, not all pain is the result of doing something that is inherently harmful, and therefore not something we should necessarily avoid repeating. The simplest example would be childbirth (and perhaps ultramarathons?). It would make sense that in these instances, since we don’t really need to be protected from the pain, it is easier for us to forget it.
I found some interesting studies to support this theory. One study looked at how women recalled pain after different forms of childbirth. Women were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of pain, as well as their emotional state, right after childbirth, and then asked to recall the pain and emotions 3-6 months later. The study found that the level of recalled pain depended on how the childbirth played out. Those who had a vaginal delivery underestimated the pain they had experienced a few months later (and overestimated how positively they felt about the experience at the time). Conversely, those who had gynaecological surgery as a result of childbirth later overestimated the pain they had experienced (and underestimated how positively they felt about it). Women who had caesareans accurately recalled their pain months later. Based on these results, researchers concluded that the overall meaning of an event – and the emotions we attribute to it – may influence how we remember pain. The idea is that while vaginal delivery may be painful, it is generally considered to be a positive and successful event, and so over time, the memories of pain decrease and the positive emotions increase. Conversely, gynaecological surgery is universally considered to be a negative event and something to be avoided, so the memories of pain increase and the positive emotions decrease. Caesareans fall somewhere in between the two.
Another study, which reviewed a wealth of literature on women’s ability and accuracy in recalling labour pain, concluded that while memories of labour pain can bring out negative reactions in some women, they were “more likely to give rise to positive consequences related to coping, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.” So while women wouldn’t necessarily forget the pain, they seemed to concentrate on how they overcame it, which led to positive feelings.
I couldn’t think but help that this sounded familiar. If we are going to draw a rather awkward analogy, running an ultra is like a vaginal delivery. A few days, weeks or months after a painful ultra, the memory of the pain is still there, but it doesn’t seem to be nearly as bad as it was at the time. Furthermore, the memory of the race overall seems much more ‘rosy’ with the passage of time. At the finish line of Tor, I really felt terrible this year. Relieved, but my universe was defined by pain – it was everywhere I looked. I almost couldn’t even be happy about my performance because my physical sensations dominated everything. But now? Looking back? I’m so proud of what I was able to push through. The pain is remembered through a soft focus lens.
Indeed, a study that specifically looked at how pain was remembered by marathon runners found that both the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain they experienced during the race was underestimated six months later. The researcher noted the similarities between the marathon study and the study of women and childbirth:
[R]unning a marathon shares an important feature with post-partum pain, i.e., both types of acute pain are harbingers of a happy event (having a child or completing a marathon) and are emotionally positive experiences.
I find this just fascinating. Our Serial Race Dementia really seems like it could be a thing. I still have a lot of questions. Is the memory loss effect just as strong when we DNF (when our race is not necessarily viewed as an emotionally positive experience)? In other words, is a DNF like gynaecological surgery (hahaha, this is getting more awkward by the second)? More importantly, how do we make it stop?? When someone has an answer to that, I’d love to know. Until then, it’ll be a never-ending cycle of ultrarunning groundhog day for me, and repeated failed attempts to retire from this crazy sport. I just hope if I ever have a kid that I’ll remember pain a bit better, otherwise knowing me, I’ll wind up as the next Octomom (oh god no!).
If anyone would like to see the full studies mentioned above, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! Disclaimer: I am not a scientist and obviously this isn’t a comprehensive review… sharing just as food for thought! If you have any thoughts or expertise in this area, please comment below!
Categories: Musings about life