running is good for your brain, and your soul

Just ask Diane Van Deren, one of the premier ultrarunners in the world.  I read a great article about her in yesterday’s New York Times.

Until twelve years ago, she had been plagued by epileptic seizures.  She feared driving, or even taking a bath.  Grand mal seizures began to occur when she was pregnant with her third child.  She would be rendered helpless – “a rigid woman .. convulsing uncontrollably … Eyes rolled back”.

Often when she would feel a seizure coming on, she would grab her running shoes and head out the door.  Apparently she never had a seizure when running.  Running served as an “antidote”.

Examination found a black mark on her temporal lobe, localizing the cause of her previously unexplained seizures.  Doctors told her that they might be able to relieve the seizures with a procedure called a Lobectomy, removal of a portion of the right temporal lobe in her brain. 

Since then, she has been seizure-free, but that did come at a cost.  She has lost part of her memory and organizational skills.  She can no longer read maps, remember names, organize her belongings when going on a trip.  She often does not even remember how long she’s been running.  Her husband places mementos around their house to remind Diane of family milestones.  Her 21 year-old daughter feels that she lost part of her mother with the surgery.

This is how life works sometimes.  We face choices in which the best option is really the lesser of all evils.  The important thing to do is to figure out the best way to cope. 

Diane works extensively with Don Gerber, a clinical neuropsychologist at Craig Hospital in Englewood Colorado.  Dr. Gerber has helped her form habits which cue memory for her.  She always puts her keys in the same place.  She marks trail forks with rocks or sticks, so she knows where to turn on the way back.  She sends text messages to her family, letting them know where she plans to head as she leaves for a long run.

This is the name of the game when adapting to a brain injury or to cognitive changes.  Rather than moping over what you’ve lost, you need to figure out how to help yourself remap those neural pathways, or adjust to using the ones that remain.  For Diane, this took a period of years to do, as the changes were significant, and the adjustments difficult.

The inspiring thing is that she’s done this, and also does her best to enjoy life.  She won the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 last year, and became the first woman to complete a 430 mile version of the run this year.  On Saturday, she will line up at the start of the Hardrock 100 in Colorado.  Over the course of the run, nearly half the field will drop out, while attempting to ascend 33,000 feet along the way. 

That’s amazing.  And Diane is amazing too.  She’s overcome her brain injury with grace and tenacity.  Definitely an inspiration.

From the New York Times article, printed 8 July 2009 :


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