There I was, 47km into the fourth day of
running through the desert, stage 4 of the 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme
Marathon. The sun beat down relentlessly and the sandy track ahead shimmered in
the ruthless afternoon heat. I still had 23km to go before reaching the day’s
finish line. My legs were working hard, feeling the strain of the 150km they’d
covered on loose sand under the weight of a 6kg pack, but my energy levels
remained high – the race was going well. I knew there was no room for
complacency though – if I let my focus slip now, I might lose the lead I’d
established on stage 1.
I had enough to keep my mind busy: being
sure to eat something every 30 mins, take a few hefty slugs of water every 15
mins, and wet my arms, neck and head every 10 mins. Just doing the maths meant
I had to concentrate – my brain always turns to mush after 20km anyway.
The rhythm was metronomic – the plod plod
plod sound of my foot fall crunching on the grit… the sun beating overhead... the
hours whittling away. And so it goes with ultras…
And then, BAM! Like an arrow out of nowhere
it hit me:
Mickey, you’re so fine
so fine you blow my mind
The high pitched notes of that awful 1982
one-hit-wonder bore into my brain as sharply as a pin pierces putty.
What the hell?? I hadn’t heard that irritating
song for decades – how on earth had it found me here, in the middle of the
Augrabies National Park in the remote north-western corner of South Africa,
where the horizon stretches further than you can imagine, and the night sky is
studded with so many stars it hurts your heart.
I DETEST that song. What was it doing in my
head? Here? And why wouldn’t it go away?
I tried everything: I counted aloud for 100
footsteps… I concentrated on my breathing
– in, out, in in, out out. I thought of crashing waves, snow-capped peaks,
crystal clear waterfalls. I tried to sing other songs out loud.
But every time I thought I was free of it,
back it came…
Earworms. We’ve all had them. Often more
appropriately referred to as brainworms, they’re defined by The Urban
Dictionary as the single line of a song
that sticks in your mind on repeat, refusing to leave no matter how much you
try to forget it.
Apparently the best way to get rid of an
earworm is to replace it with another. Be prepared to become a human jukebox.
The term earworm is said to come from a
translation of the German word ohrwurm.
It’s pretty appropriate really – they’re common, and when you have one, it
burrows deep into your brain, worming and wriggling until the repetition almost
drives you crazy.
Psychologists say earworms are a result of
word memory association, a wandering mind or an altered emotional state. I beg
to differ – earworms force me into an altered emotional state!
I’d guess that the frequency of the earworm
phenomenon in us runners is more a result of the rhythmic sound of our
footfall, the regularity of our inhalations and exhalations… making us vulnerable to SSS, or stuck song
Perhaps the most widely publicised earworm was
the one described in the 2003 documentary Touching
The Void, based on the book of the same name, by British mountaineer Joe
Referred to by The Guardian as the most
successful documentary in British cinema history, the film describes Simpson’s
and his climbing partner Simon Yates’s near-fatal attempt to climb the west
face of the then unclimbed Siula Grande (6344m) in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.
Having fallen off a cliff into a crevasse and been presumed dead, Simpson
miraculously survives, and spends several days dragging his broken body across miles
glacial moraines in the freezing cold to get back to camp. At one point he gets
attacked by a determined earworm, playing Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring over and over in his head.
What he had to say in the movie about that moment is
just went on and on and on, for hours. I found it really upsetting, I wanted to
try get it out of my head so I could think of other things. Bloody hell, I
thought I was going to die to Boney M!”
I’ve done a little research of my own into the
most common earworms that attack runners:
But then there’s always someone who’s able
to outshine everyone else, and it seems the case even with earworms. I’ve been
told of a 24-circuit runner in the UK who intentionally plays a single song on
repeat on her ipod, over and over again, for hours on end. Apparently it’s her
someone has to love ‘em!
Cartoons in colour drawn by Candice Munro
Labels: Boney M, earworms, Hey Mickey, Joe Simpson, Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, orhwurm