Power In Not Knowing

By Noah Graff

Diane Van Deren, One of the world’s best ultra-marathon runners. NPR.org

Are the people with the sharpest minds and the most knowledge the most likely to achieve extraordinary feats? What if knowledge didn’t always mean power? Maybe we humans sometimes know too much for our own good. Perhaps a little naiveté or comfort with not knowing everything is a healthy ingredient to reach success.

The following is a summary of one of my favorite Radio Lab episodes, a fantastic show from National Public Radio. The 2011 episode featured a story about an ultra-marathon runner named Diane Van Deren.

When Diane was 24 years old she started having epileptic seizures. She discovered that when she had the feeling she was about to have a seizure, also known as an aura, she could often stop the seizure by getting up right away and going running. But in the end, the seizures kept getting worse and the running remedy was not enough to control the epilepsy anymore.

To prevent future seizures, Dianne elected to have a kiwi sized section of her brain cut out, the temporal lobe, where her seizures were originating from. The procedure was successful in stopping the seizures, but it also had side effects. It ruined Diane’s sense of direction and left her with poor short-term memory. She also lost the ability to keep track of time.

One year after her brain surgery, on a whim she entered a “short” 50-mile ultra-marathon, which amazingly she won. Ultra-marathons usually range from 50 to 150 miles. They go through crazy places such as Death Valley or the Rocky Mountains. The competitors are not allowed to sleep and may run for 30 hours or more straight. After she won the first race Diane started competing in ultra-marathons frequently and became one of the best in the sport.

Because of her poor short-term memory and inability to read maps, when Diane races she has to leave pink ribbons on the ground to mark the path she has taken when she encounters a fork in the road. Then, if she runs a significant distance and the rout seems wrong she retraces her steps and tries another path—a definite handicap when running 100-mile races in harsh environments.

However, one of Diane’s brain deficiencies gives her an advantage. Because she is not aware of how much time has elapsed she can run extraordinary distances without feeling tired. She can’t tell the difference between running one mile or 10 miles. She won a 300 mile race through the Yukon, where she fought temperatures as low as -48 degrees. She says that for the first 100 miles of the race she didn’t even have a drink. Diane says she focuses only on the rhythm of her footsteps and breath, blocking out all distractions that could slow her down.

Side note—I have extremely mild epilepsy, also originating in the temporal lobe, which is associated with hearing and speech. Fortunately, thanks to medication I haven’t had a grand mal seizure since I was 18. It is the only one I’ve ever had, thankfully. Seizures can manifest themselves in many forms, but the grand mal is the one everybody pictures when they think of seizures—when a person can go into convulsions, turn blue and lose consciousness. I still have auras, also known as simple partial seizures, every so often, although they occur pretty infrequently because of my daily medication. During the auras my hearing gets very loud. I can hear my footsteps and my breath, and the world sounds kind of eerie for a few minutes. I can still function decently, but it’s a little harder to think quickly. Interestingly, in high school, when I had to run the mile in gym class I would sometimes have an aura, and it made me somewhat numb to fatigue. I seemed to enter a zone where distractions were blocked out, and I felt I had a kind of super strength. One of my minor claims to fame is running a mile in 5:59 to beat a challenge from my gym teacher, a feat I believe was made possible by an aura. I’m extra proud to say that I did it after eating huge Italian beef sandwich only 30 minutes before.

But I digress.

Diane is a champion ultra-marathoner despite her having a poor short-term memory, no ability to read maps, and no ability to keep track of time. One could argue that the lack of time awareness is an advantage, but it’s a profound brain deficiency nonetheless.

I wonder what great things I could accomplish and could have accomplished in the past if I was not overwhelmed by fear of failure, fear of the time the task would take, and fear of the pain I might have to endure to reach a goal. So many times I hear successful entrepreneurs say that if they knew how hard starting a business was going to be they probably wouldn’t have even tried. Thank God they did try. Thank God for the gift of naiveté.

Question: Is distance running good for you?

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12 thoughts on “Power In Not Knowing

  1. Steve Ignots

    A mile in under 6 minutes is very good. I was also challenged, in college, and try as I might the best I could do was about 6:30.

    1. Noah Graff


      I honestly can say I don’t think I could have done it without the simple-partial seizure. My gym teacher promised my friend and I that we could play Frisbee by ourselves for a whole period if I could do it.

      Ahh. High School. 🙂 Ridiculous.

  2. Josh

    Heck yeah it’s good for you, humans are the best endurance runners on the planet, it’s what we’ve evolved to do.

  3. Kim

    The mile was never my strength, but in my glory days of collegiate* running I once did a 5K (3.1. mi) in about 18 minutes. Haven’t raced in years though I still turn to running for regular exercise. It’s the easiest and cheapest exercise around. Though I enjoy and believe distance running is healthy and fun, I’m not so sure about extreme distances. Ultra-marathoners are a whole other class of person beyond what I’d ever try to do.

    * walk-on for Div II and definitely just one of the pack, not the star.

  4. Seth Emerson

    True, Josh! Living alongside beasts that would happily kill and eat you can motivate running!

    1. Josh

      Also useful for hunting, I recall seeing a documentary on native Africans chasing down some four legged deer like creature. The deer was faster than the hunters but the hunters maintained their pace over the course of many many hours and eventually the creature tired while man prevailed.

  5. Matt

    Running is not good for you. It’s too addictive. Once you start it becomes hard to stop. If your a competitive person you will want to keep pushing further or faster.

    I run for my health,
    I train for my soul,
    I race with the gift He gave me.

  6. Christopher Ferrier, CA

    I ran my first 100 mile trail race over the weekend, the Santa Barbara 100. I won a belt buckle for the effort. I am a better human being when I exercise regularly. Distance running is good for me. ~ Christopher Ferrier, CA

  7. Dave Bradley

    The only running I can speak for is that I ran a tool and die business for 16 years. I found fear to be my best motivator (for myself). I was not able to make it work on other people. The troops I had were pretty good people. When they sensed my fear, they were always right behind me. If I had my shirt sleeves rolled up and working until 2 in the morning, they were right there with me.

  8. Lloyd Graff

    Noah’s writing about his epilepsy is the most important part of his blog. I grew up terrorized about epilepsy. My aunt suffered from the malady and it horrified my father who saw his sister’s seizures growing up. I have watched Noah deal with epilepsy since he was a child with good humor and courage. I am happy and roud he wrote about it because I think most people have little understanding of it and how it can disrupt lives.


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