Sam’s running memory is long
I once read about a man who’d
suffered brain damage and lost his memory. He no longer recognised his wife or remembered whether he’d eaten breakfast, but set him outside his front door and he could unerringly walk the neighbourhood circuit that had formed his morning constitutional for years. It was as if his footsteps had imprinted the route indelibly on his brain.
I recall thinking the same would hold true for my regular running routes – even those I’d not explored in years. Stand me on the doorstep of the house where I grew up and I’d set off on one of those well-trodden routes without a second thought.
I recently had a chance to put this notion to the test, when I went for a run while staying with my mother for the final time before the old house was sold. Sure enough, my feet soon found a familiar route, needing no guidance from my brain.
There were changes, of course. Different cars in neighbouring drives, new arrivals in the parade of shops, smart flats, all glass and steel, glinting in the sun – but much more was the same. And that sameness lent the run a feeling of nostalgia.
Here’s the stretch of road where I bumped into an ex-boyfriend – my first love – not long after our split. He’d last seen me broken, but my running had helped me grow strong, and I knew he could sense it.
Here’s the corner where I can still picture vividly the red phone box into which I stepped, sobbing, to call my mum and ask her to collect me because I couldn’t run any further. Crippled with knee pain, I was just a week away from what should have been my first marathon.
And here’s the church where I once had to request – with some urgency – to use the toilet. I left relieved, but with a handful of religious leaflets in my hand.
The visceral strength of all these memories surprised me. I could still smell the pee-ridden interior of the phone box as if I were standing in its confines; hear the muffled tones of an off-key organ playing at the church; and as I cut across a park where a group of boys once threw a spark-spitting firework at me, I felt a ripple of tension in my stomach.
Much research has been done on the link between physical fitness and the processing and storage of memories. For example, it’s been found that aerobic exercise benefits the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in remembering) and impedes memory loss as we age. But most of this research focuses on voluntary memory – our capacity to recall specific information. The memories that arrive unbidden are different. Psychologists call it ‘involuntary autobiographical memory’, those memories that pop up in response to a particular environment, situation or trigger without conscious effort.
It’s been shown that involuntary memories tend to be most prevalent when the mind is left to wander, rather than when it’s being asked to focus on one thing. That may be why running presents the perfect scenario – its familiarity and repetitiveness literally jog the memory.
As runners, many of our memories are trodden into the path itself. You can scale a particular hill and recall how you felt reaching its peak on a past occasion. You can press the ‘walk’ button at a road crossing and recall the countless other times you extended your index finger to press it. A rock, a tree, a gate, a path junction – all silently calling up moments from your past.
I’ve driven the routes near my old house many times and that, too, has triggered the remembering of things. But my recent trip down memory lane showed me that coupling the physical context (in this case, running) in which a memory was forged with the environmental cue is twice as powerful, an even bigger rabbit hole down which to tumble into the past.
My run finished, I walked up to the glass-paned front door and rang the bell for what would be the final time. A sweaty middle-aged woman stared back at me from the glass. But behind her, the faint reflection of a hundred younger selves stared too, as if the door wasn’t glass at all, but an infinity mirror. These trainers, I thought, they’re more valuable than any time machine.