Buyer’s remorse. Sour grapes. Rationalization. Self-justification. How do we feel after we’ve made a decision that was hard and came with significant consequences ?
It was twilight when I got out of the car with Maya in the parking lot of a local grocery store. There was a woman standing in the shadows, slowly rocking side to side on her feet. I couldn’t see her face clearly but I knew instantly who she was.
I woke up just before 5:30 am yesterday. I had coffee, checked the news and email and was ready to get out for a long run. This has been a pale summer, a summer that has yet to get over the hangover of spring and it is already fast approaching its fall. The early morning was gloomy, the sun deciding to hide itself rather than light up such a sorry looking day. There were not many people on the streets and once I hit Stevens Creek Trail, I passed but a handful of early morning walkaholics and jogaholics. The creek itself is dry almost till you get to the bay. I saw a crane and a few pelicans. A flock of geese silently flew in formation. The tide was out, exposing the salts and there was a marshy smell as I ran by the waters of the bay at Shoreline Park. By the time I returned, an hour and 20 minutes later, Shanthala and Maya were up. Finally, after over almost 3 years, I did an early morning run.
Till about three years back, every Sunday morning, I got out for a long run, usually a half marathon. I’d leave early enough so that I’d be back just as Shanthala was waking. That way, I had exercise out of the way before our day together began and we could spend time together without brooding over when I could get a run in. My legs had gotten used to running a half marathon distance without feeling exhausted the rest of the day. My early morning runs got into endangered state after Maya was born when caring for her became the primary goal. Maya was not a happy camper if she awoke in the middle of her sleep and didn’t find me there. By the time she was consoled, Shanthala would have lost her sleep, making her even more sleep deprived. So, I gave up my early runs.
When I first started running long – greater than 8 miles – I encountered unfamiliar sensations. My nipples would be chafed to the point that they were sore and hurt if I wore loose shirts or the spray from the shower hit my chest. I started taping my chest with cotton and band aid to avoid the problem. My toes would be calloused and discolored, like the finger tips of a guitarist, despite wearing shoes that were relatively loose-fitting. Running long without having pooped first upset my stomach and bowels for the rest of the day. But nothing compared to the high that I got at the end of the run. I felt my face was aglow and I felt kind, loving and willing to be of service. I felt incredibly relaxed, especially if I hadn’t run hard.
Runners high is a well known phenomenon. The popular hypothesis for this euphoric feeling was that endurance exercise released endorphins, a neurotransmitter. Discovered by Solomon Snyder and Rabi Simantov in calves in 1974 and named by Eric Simon, endorphin means “morphine produced naturally in the body”. Just like morphine, they’re able to suppress pain, act as an analgesic and produce feelings of well-being.
Runners’ high may have evolved because of possibly adaptive benefits. According to a blogger, NeuroKuz: “A possible explanation for the “runner’s high,” a feeling of intense euphoria associated with going on a long run, is that our brains are stuck thinking that lots of exercise should be accompanied by a reward. Perhaps our ancestors who were able to achieve the runner’s high while hunting for food ran more often than those who could not achieve the high. These ‘high-achievers’ (no pun intended) would gather more food as a result of their enhanced motivation, and would be more fit to pass on their genes to the next generation.”
But runner’s high was also considered a myth, hard to prove. As the authors of a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, titled “Endocannabinoids and exercise” put it: “As is the case with all phenomena related to consciousness and its alterations, the runner’s high is a private experience, and the evidence for its existence rests predominantly on verbal report. Scientific inquiry into the phenomenon has been restricted even further because of its ephemeral nature. For example, the runner’s high is not experienced by all runners, and this experience does not occur consistently in runners who have experienced it previously. These observations have left laymen and scientists wondering why and under which conditions the runner’s high occurs, or whether or not it exists at all.”
Furthermore, they wrote: “In recent years, several prominent endorphin researchers—for example, Dr Huda Akil and Dr Solomon Snyder—have publicly criticised the hypothesis as being ‘‘overly simplistic’’, being ‘‘poorly supported by scientific evidence’’, and a ‘‘myth perpetrated by pop culture.’’
In that paper, the authors speculated that endurance exercise stimulated the endocannabinoid system that was responsible for the runners’ high, not endorphins. Using male student volunteers running on a treadmill or cycling for 50 minutes at 70-80% of maximum heart rate, they found dramatic increases in a neurotransmitter called anandamide in the blood plasma. This was back in 2004.
Then in 2008, German researchers at the University of Bonn led by a Dr. Henning Boecker had used PET scans on 10 runners before and after a run to show that indeed endorphins were very likely produced during running and that they were attaching themselves to areas of the brain such as the limbic and prefrontal areas. According to the NYT article that reported the news: “The limbic and prefrontal areas, Dr. Boecker said, are activated when people are involved in romantic love affairs or, he said, ‘when you hear music that gives you a chill of euphoria, like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.’ The greater the euphoria the runners reported, the more endorphins in their brain.”
The NYT article includes quotes the same two researchers, Dr. Huda Akil and Dr. Solomon Snyder, quoted in the British paper. According to NYT:
“Impressive,” said Dr. Solomon Snyder, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins and a discoverer of endorphins in the 1970’s.
“I like it,” said Huda Akil, a professor of neurosciences at the University of Michigan. “This is the first time someone took this head on. It wasn’t that the idea was not the right idea. It was that the evidence was not there.”
Naturally produced morphine or cannabis, I can attest to experiencing what I thought of as runners’ high several times during my running life. Today morning was no exception.
P.S: All this study was triggered by an entry last week at the blog, Addiction Inbox, titled ‘Cannabis Receptors and the “Runners High”‘.
On Thursday last, I decided to run ten miles, my longest in a long time. The last time I ran ten miles was over a year and a half ago. I found it appealing to aim for a distance that has two digits. The last time I had run anything close to that distance was back in January, when I ran eight miles, once.
My running has been heading downhill for a long time. The stress of parenting is the most recent excuse. Before that, it was Kitty’s death. But the sudden loss of interest, a runners’ equivalent of a writer’s block, began before Kitty’s death. Its origins remain murky.
Some people find Jesus as they approach middle age. I found running. Unable to conceive a child, we followed a doctor’s advice that I stop biking, not that I biked much. Worried more about gaining weight more than losing shape, I took to the unused treadmill that lay in a room frequented only by Kitty to relieve himself. A couple of months later or so, I ran the first 10K of my life. A few days later, Shanthala told me of a friend of hers who was looking for company in her pain as she trained for a marathon. Shanthala asked me if I wanted to volunteer. I said yes. I don’t know why I said yes. Maybe it was the euphoria of having run a distance that had double digits. Or maybe it was because I was dropped on my head when I was a baby.
To me, running a marathon is akin to climbing a peak. I knew somewhere deep down that I’d never attempt a mountain, at least not one with ice axe, ropes and crampons. I don’t have a death wish. But I did have some deep desire to push myself physically. Marathon provided an out for that desire.
Less than a year later, I had run two marathons, one of them (Big Sur Marathon) considered one of the toughest marathons in the US. I had finished in the top 10% of my age group and in the top 12% overall. A year more and my running resume read as follows: best mile time – 5:40, best 5K – 20 mins, best 10K – 40 mins, 10 miles under 70 minutes and half marathon in 92 minutes. For over two years, I ran a half marathon every weekend. Once, for two weeks, I ran a half marathon every other day. But when it came to running the 10 miles on Thursday, my mind was filled with dread.
Thursday dawned cool and a little cloudy. The nanny was coming and so I was free to run alone. I took my time getting ready to run. I returned phone calls that could have waited. I checked email more times than usual. I did everything possible to delay the inevitable. The strategy had worked well in the past. I would look up at the clock in mock horror, decide that it was too late to run long, run four miles on the treadmill and postpone knowing that I couldn’t really run ten miles, at least not in eighty minutes. But, I had asked the nanny to come early and so even after one more phone call, the clock still showed 10:30. The sun continued to hide. Out of reasons and time, I booted up and headed out the door.
A free application on the iPhone, RunKeeper, showed me the distance, instantaneous speed, average speed and calories burned as I ran. It also tracked my run using Google Maps and produced a final map of my run. I had only the estimated distance of the path I covered during my runs. Now, I would finally know the distances accurately and know what my actual pace had been over so many of the long runs that I had done over this path.
My heart lurched when I hit what I thought was the 1.5 mile mark. The iPhone said that I had only covered about 1.25 miles. And when I hit what I thought was the 2 mile mark, the iPhone said 1.7 miles. So, all this time when I had thought that I had run some really fast paces on this track, they were wrong (my best times at various distances didn’t change as they were run on a different track). Since the trail has mile markers every half mile, I decided to check if the iPhone was accurate. At the real 2 mile mark, the elapsed time was 16 minutes. I winced inwardly. That meant a pace of 8 minutes to a mile. I felt like I was running a decent pace and I had internally hoped that the pace would be just a little faster than the 8 minute pace. I worried that I couldn’t complete ten miles at this pace. As I crossed the next half mile marker, I checked the iPhone. It was measuring the distance correctly. I couldn’t doubt its clock. I was face to face with the primary reason I had avoided running this distance.
Three years back, I added biking to my workout and started biking extensively. But my prowess at running didn’t transfer to my biking. While hardly anybody overtakes me while I’m running, just about everybody overtakes me when I bike. Biking in addition to running tired my legs and one day, I woke up to find that running even a mile exhausted me. I had overtrained. I cut back on my biking and running.
I was running alone all this time. Occasionally, someone would join me for a short run, but that was rare. At home, I ran the same trail because I didn’t want to use the car to get anywhere to run. With no specific goals to aim for and my running having levelled off, crunching down the same path thrice a week, alone, probably began to demotivate me. Then, Kitty died. Nine months later, Maya was born. And my running never recovered. I had internally set myself a pace of 8 minute mile as an indicator of my fitness level. If I ran slower than that, mentally I considered myself finished. I began to fear running distances that showed me that I was finished.
As I continued my run on Thursday, the day continued to remain cool. There are a few highway overpasses and underpasses on the trail, but the trail is flat otherwise (RunKeeper says that the total elevation gain for the distance is 217 feet). As I approached the three mile marker, I saw the clock register 23 minutes and felt a little better. What I had thought of as the 3.5 mile mark was only the 3.2 mile mark. So, all this time when I thought that I was running 7 miles, I was actually running only 6.4. I typically do an out and back run and so deciding the midpoint was important. I began to have doubts if I’d complete 10 miles. I didn’t want to run 5 miles one way only to find that I had to walk (or worse limp) at the end.
At my peak, I’d run three, sometimes four, times a week. One run was what was called threshold training, one was interval training and one was a long run. When I threw biking into the mix, I couldn’t sustain the three runs and bike. So, I began to cut back my running. I figured that I’d let biking pick up a bit before I went back to my running regimen. But, not only had I overtrained, I had also upset my training rhythm.
I had been a couch potato till I married and even after then, my exercise was limited to hiking on weekends. When I started running regularly, I had to force myself out the door for a long time. I had to fight hard to overcome my old habits. Running a marathon was a simple and straight goal and so pursuing it was easy. But, running for the sake of running, especially given the monotony of the track was hard to sustain, especially since I had spent thirty five years of my life not bothering to do anything physically more strenuous than turning the page of a book or type on a keyboard. Furthermore, I had no company or support.
How long does it take to form a habit that becomes natural, that doesn’t require a ridiculous amount of willpower to sustain ? A popular answer is 21 days. Back in 1960, a cosmetic surgeon called Maxwell Maltz published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics (considered the trendsetter in the current self-help movement) in which he declared that it took 21 days to form a new habit. His answer was based on his discovery that it took 21 days for amputees to lose the sensation called phantom limb.
Last year, a paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology revised the answer to 66 days. According to PsyBlog, which is where I learned of this study: “What this study reveals is that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10 minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit. And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.” The study also found that some people seemed more habit-resistant and that not all habits are equal: some take much longer to form.
To make matters worse, old habits die hard. In 2005, MIT published a study that found that the neural pathways triggered by the old habits don’t disappear, but just go dormant. Once the old contexts are reasserted, the old habits come roaring back. According to Ann Graybiel, the principal researcher of the study: “”It is as though, somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back”.
While I had formed the habit of running regularly, once the rhythm was upset, the old habit of not exercising reasserted itself and I was back to fighting to lace up each time I decided to run. And as time elapsed, this became more stronger than the relatively newer habit of running regularly. Like an unused muscle, the neural pathway associated with running atrophied.
As I neared the four mile mark, I told myself that I’d turn back and add two additional miles by running the half mile loop around the park near our house. But, I passed the four mile mark and kept going. Another half mile to make the distance nine miles, I told myself. As I neared the 4.5 mile mark, I told myself that the place I had originally thought of as the 5 mile mark was looming close and so I’d run upto there before turning back. As I got closer to that mark, I berated myself for being so attached to times and paces and not just enjoying the damn run. Suddenly, it was like a curtain being pulled back. I felt light and relaxed and told myself that I’d turn back once the iPhone said that I had run 5 miles. If that meant, I’d have to walk the last mile or so, so be it. When I turned back at the 5 mile mark, the clock registered 38 minutes. I was under my eight minute mile barrier!
Slow down or you’ll regret it, I told myself. But I couldn’t. Just another mile at this pace, I said. I skipped stopping at the water outlets along the way. The clouds had mostly cleared, but the heat hadn’t picked up yet. The old joy of running had come back. I felt at peace as I kept running. My legs felt good and my breathing was normal. I measured my strides and found that I was sticking to the 90 steps per foot that is considered a secret to running with minimal impact and thereby avoiding injury. I was going to finish ten miles and to hell with the pace.
All the knowledge about how important it is to be fit didn’t help me return to running as smoothly as I had hoped. My mother’s mother suffered from severe arthritis as does my mother. Many studies have shown that runners have a lower chance of contracting arthritis compared to couch potatoes. My father, like many of his generation, suffers from diabetes. Physical fitness helps fight diabetes (diet is critical too). A friend of mine joked about my running, “Everyone falls ill and dies and all this running means squat”. And then I ran across the theory of compressed morbidity. Proposed by a Stanford University Professor, James Fries, and validated by many studies, this theory states that if you’re physically fit and have a healthy lifestyle, your death will involve a lot less suffering and you’ll die quicker than those who’re not physically fit or have had healthy lifestyles. I ran across various articles that sang paeans to running and its benefits, especially if done well. I read how we evolved to run and how running is in our genes. But, my running regimen continued to deteriorate. I put up a picture of a runner with the sign: “The only way to be a good runner is to run”. I still didn’t return to my old regimen.
When I passed the 7 mile mark, I saw that only 52:30 minutes had elapsed. I was at a 7:30 minutes per mile pace. If I could even do 8 miles with this pace, I’d be thrilled, I told myself. I could walk the rest of the distance, for all I cared. As I neared the 8 mile mark, I willed myself to run just a little faster to reach it just under the hour mark. I sailed past the 8 mile mark when the elapsed time was 59:30. I was ecstatic. I slowed down because my legs felt a little tired. I slowed down a lot. I ran the ninth mile at a comparatively slow pace of 8:40. My legs felt good again and I picked up the pace. I wanted to finish a little better than 80 minutes, my self-imposed fitness limit.
When I crossed the ten mile mark, the clock said 1:15. I had averaged 7:30 minute miles for 10 miles. This was beyond my wildest dreams. I was so thrilled, I couldn’t walk straight (though the cramping and soreness that began shortly after had probably something more to do with this). I felt like my running life had been resurrected. I have started dreaming that one day, I’ll run an ultra-marathon, a distance greater than the marathon. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday by running 50 miles.
Maya had just emerged out of Shanthala’s belly. Slippery and covered with blood and bodily fluids, she lay on the operating table, her umbilical cord still connected to Shanthala. “Hi Sunshine”, I said. Immediately, Maya raised her head (she could hold her head up for a few seconds even immediately after birth) and looked directly at me. I was stunned. The place was noisy, filled with the chatter of the operating staff, clutter of surgical instruments and such. How could her brain cut through all that stuff and focus on that one voice ? How could she know that she was being addressed ?
It is well established now that babies remember what the sounds they heard while still in the womb, especially in their final trimester. For example, it is well researched and accepted that babies prefer their mother’s voice to a stranger’s voice even at birth. Maya may not have understood that she was being spoken to, and with her still immature vision, I may have been too far away for her to really see me, but she most likely recognized my voice. Unlike vision, a baby is born with the ability to listen to quite complex sounds and prefer music or highly intonated sounds, like the way a caregiver speaks to her, in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. However, current research seems to indicate that a baby prefer’s her mother’s voice to a stranger’s, but she cannot distinguish between her father’s voice and that of any strange male’s. Babies also prefer female voices to male voices. Sigh. Talk about gender discrimination beginning at birth.
Last week, I came across a fascinating piece of news. In the current edition of Current Biology, four researchers from Germany and France report that a baby’s cry follows the melody contour of its mother tongue. Studying the cry of 30 French babies and 30 German babies, the researchers say that the cry of French babies has a rising melody contour and that of the German babies has a falling melody contour, a replication of the patterns of the sound of French and German languages. Melody is also known as a tune, such as the arresting tune of the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A melody contour is a drawing that captures the rising and falling of the pitch of a melody. The contour is also visualizable when listening to the sounds. For example, in my mother tongue, Kannada, questions have a rising intonation at the end. Languages such as English and German don’t have as different a melody contour as French and German.
What is astonishing about this new discovery is that the sounds infants hear affects their ability to produce sounds much earlier than has been believed so far. As one of the scientists, Toben Mintz of USC, commented on the finding: “But what is really novel about this study is showing that they can actually produce these patterns in their cries. Crying is not linguistic, yet they seem to be echoing the acoustic patterns that they’ve heard either in utero or very early on, very early exposure, right after birth.”
The paper’s authors speculate that the reason for the baby to do this is because it wants to attrack and bond with the mother. By producing sounds with a similar melody contour to her speech, the baby is saying “I’m yours”.
As Kathleen Wermke, one of the authors of the paper says: “I think we should be more aware that crying is a language itself, and the baby is really trying to communicate with us by its first sounds already.”
Powered by ScribeFire.