EARWORMS in ultra running

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:
Hey Mickey, you’re so fine
You’re so fine you blow my mind
Hey Mickey!
Hey Mickey!

The high pitched notes of that awful 1982 one-hit-wonder bore into my brain as sharply as a pin pierces putty.
Hey Mickey!
Hey Mickey!

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.
Hey Mickey!
Hey Mickey!

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…
Hey Mickey!
Hey Mickey!

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 syndrome.

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 Simpson.

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.

Click on this link to watch Joe Simpson being driven nuts by Boney M 

What he had to say in the movie about that moment is priceless:

“It 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:

In no particular order:
-       Who let the dogs out – Baha Men 
-       Yellow Submarine – The Beatles  
-       She loves you – The Beatles  
-       Call me maybe – Carly Rae Jepson   
-       Desperado – The Eagles  
-       Oh when the saints go marchingin  
-       Oh Danny Boy  

And of course, my personal worst:  Hey Mickey!   

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 motivation song.

Earworms…  someone has to love ‘em!

Cartoons in colour drawn by Candice Munro

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