Today, I’ve got a chance to introduce you to both Diane Van Deren and Radiolab. The later is, in my opinion, the best radio show being produced today. If you aren’t listening to Radiolab, you should be; they were profiled in last weeks New York Time’s magazine, so you can be part of a sudden increase in their already rabid fan-base.
The reason they are relevant is that last week they did a short-episode profiling Van Deren, an ultra-runner whom I first read about back in the February issue of Runner’s World. I was pretty excited that my favorite podcast was covering my favorite activity.
Diane runs 50 and 100 mile races, but that just makes her average in the ultra-community. Her claim to fame, and the focus of both the Runner’s World and Radiolab features, is that she took up running as a way to escape grand mal epileptic seizures: whenever she felt an attack coming on, she’d throw on her shoes and head out the door until the sensation receded. She’d run two, four, six hours at a time, and as long as she started running at the first sign of an attack, the seizure wouldn’t occur.
Eventually, however, her epilepsy became so severe that she had surgery to remove a chunk of her brain, and that’s when she became a renowned ultra-runner. The surgery that removed the part of her brain responsible for he seizures also removed her sense of time and distance. The advantage is that she can’t tell how long she’s been running, or how long she has to go; anyone who has run a marathon can tell you that one of the hardest hurdles is the psychological element, the “Oh my god, I’ve been running for 3 hours and I still need to run for another hour!” Now imagine a 12 or 24 hour race.
Then she entered her first trail race — a 50 miler — on a whim. And won. And so she became an ultrarunner.
The downside is that she can’t read a map or navigate; that might not hurt a road runner, but Diane does cross-country trail ultras, and sometimes gets lost. My favorite anecdote is where she comes to a fork in the trail, runs for an hour down the wrong path, realizes she’s off course, turns around, and having run for two hours on the wrong trail goes on to win the race.
But if you want “not normal,” there’s the Yukon Artic Ultra. Running a marathon in the Yukon in February is crazy enough. That you can also do it in 100 and 300 mile distances is crazier. But every 2 years, they hold a 420 mile distance, which Diane ran in 2009. At the start of the race, the temperatures dropped so low that all her water froze, so she ran the first 100 miles with no water. When she finished she was one of only 8 runners, and the only woman, to do so.