It’s the details…a scent, a sound, a distinct memory…
The other day I went for a run. A rare road run. I try to steer clear of the concrete since breaking my foot, however when lacking motivation, it is too easy to lace up the runners and run out of the door…no hesitation, no excuses. This was the first actual run that my partner and I were going to go on together. We had already hiked together, climbed the Grind and gone to the gym, but we had not run together. For any runner, this is a potentially stressful endeavour, especially with your significant other. What if I was too slow? What if I was too fast? What if I couldn’t make it up the hill? What if I tripped over my own feet and fell into him sending him into oncoming traffic? I definitely have a propensity for worst-case scenario or catastrophizing!
I have a love/hate relationship with the run. I love the beginning and the end… it’s the middle that I’m not a fan of. I hate getting started. Figuring out what to wear is often the most challenging part. If I can get past that and actually put on running gear, then the battle is won as far as I’m concerned. I run hot. Even on the coldest day. After one or maybe two kilometers, regardless of temperature, I’m too hot. Not to mention the rain. The rain can be unpredictable, making being prepared for a 6 km run a challenge. However, on this particular day, running gear was donned and we were out the door. It was grey, but not raining. It was cool, but not cold. As close to a perfect balance one could get.
After a quick scan of the apartment and making sure my activity tracker was ready to go, we descended the elevator and stepped out onto the city streets for our inaugural together run.
There was something about the greyness of the sky, the route that we took, perhaps even the run tracker’s voice from his iPhone, that reminded me of runs of the past. My memory of road running goes instantly back to the day I broke my foot. An innocent, “taper” run, the day before my first ever trail race. It was going to be a simple, short and sweet run on the Seawall. Nothing fancy, nothing fast, nothing intense, just stretch my legs and work out the kinks. That is until less than 2 kms in, my foot snapped. There was no missed step, there was no trip, there was no stumble even, just a pop and pain. Pain that halted my run and an immediate, internal knowledge that this was not a sprain, strain or quick healing injury. At first I tried to ignore it, but my foot knew that was coming and intensified the pain and discomfort enough to render that tactic impossible. Limping back to my car, I felt profoundly emotional. My identity was linked to being a runner, but also to being “super fit”. One of my oldest friends used to tell me, “you are the fittest person I know.” How could I maintain that without being able to run? Or jump? Or hike? Or climb? How would I deal with my anxieties and quiet my active mind without being able to push my lungs, my legs, my body to it’s limits?
Recently, I listened to a podcast on memory. It was part of an assignment in my Creative Nonfiction class. The researchers have found that we can’t actually trust our memories. This may not seem that shocking, after all, there has been much research done on the efficacy of memory in relation to eye witnesses of crimes. However, what about our own personal memories? The ones that we have that represent who we are? Researchers indicate that memory, at its basic level, represents changes in who we are. Our habits, hopes, fears and belief systems are all influenced by what we remember from our past and those memories are predictive of who we will become. Can that not be trusted either?
I did some more digging. Most Memory Research is aligned in the idea that emotional memory is very strong. Emotion acts to emphasize certain aspects of our experiences and, therefore, makes them more memorable. This is why emotionally charged events are remembered more clearly than neutral events. I was highly emotional when I broke my foot. The memories I have of that incident seem so clear to me, but are those memories of the event fact? Or are they malleable and twisted and turned to fit the narrative that I carry of that day? Is the memory of my broken foot tainted by what came after it? When I look back on that specific day and the exact time that I broke my foot, do I actually remember being emotional? Do I actually remember feeling scared and worried that I would not be able to run for a long time? Or have those thoughts/feelings/memories been implanted after the fact? After I had confirmation it was broken and after the events of the next several months unfolded? Did that change my memory of the actual event?
The research would say yes. My memory of the event is not a series of facts, but rather a story that I have told myself, and others. That in actuality, the “facts” of that event, have likely been somewhat altered to fit my narrative, not only of that day, but of the effect it had on me in the months following.
This passage from an article in Psychology Today, from November 2017, explains our personal memory:
According to narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a mere chronicle of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person picks apart or weaves together those facts and events internally to create personal meaning. This narrative becomes a form of narrative identity, in which the experiences people choose to include in the story, and the way they tell it, can both reflect and shape who they are.
It points to one of my favorite quotes, I don’t see the world the way it is, I see the world the way I am.
If memory is swayed by our own internal stories, our own beliefs and interpretations, then at some level we have control over those memories. Or at the very least, we have we have influence. Especially over the effect that we allow them to have on our present. We can choose to dwell in our past, ruminating and sorting through our perceptions, perhaps of being wronged or of pain or hurt. I like to think that we can also choose an alternative way. We can choose to flip the script and learn from those memories. Internalize a positive impact from the past that allows us to be more fully present.
As I ran, I chose to let go of those past memories of running. The one where I ended up broken and in pain, and instead embraced the present. I was aware of the moisture in the air, of being able to see my breath, matching strides, matching pace. I thought of the runs with my running club, a step outside of my comfort zone and smiled to myself. Gone are the memories of pain and loss on the run. Now my memory of road running is one of teamwork and unity. At least, it is the way I see it.