The Correlation between Ketchup and Your Best Running Ever

By: Catherine Barrera 

Two presidential races ago, I read a really cool article on ketchup in the New Yorker magazine. It was about Heinz ketchup, relevant to U.S. politics only because Democratic candidate John Kerry’s wife is part of the Heinz dynasty. Anyway, the article was about the dynamics of taste, and specifically, what our tongues interpret when different foods are introduced. Notably, we taste: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. But, according to the article, scientists now agree that there is a mysterious 5th taste sensation, one which not even top chemists have been able to explain with any kind of clarity. So far, all experts can tell us about this 5th “flavor” is that it is nearly universally palatable, we respond positively to it. But guess who, uniquely, has been able to develop perfectly this miracle “5th sensation” in its ketchup recipe, thereby nearly monopolizing the ketchup market, but good ol’ Heinz! But enough on ketchup, what I’m interested in here is that 5th taste perception, that nebulous variable that can’t be quantified or described or frankly, barely understood beyond the fact that it does in fact exist, and matter significantly!

So thank you McMillan calculator, Muscle Milk, running magazines, compression socks and MapMyRun. You have opened my eyes to a whole new world. You have showed me how to test my limits, encouraged me to run faster than I imagined possible four years ago when I started this venture. You have pointed out guidelines, sketched out weekly mileage plans, warned me of all the to-dos and the not-to-dos, and as such, you have led me to the finish line many times since I met you. Everything you say makes sense. I trust you. If there is ever a day when I might doubt you, I can turn to science to reassure me that you know what you’re talking about!

And yet, I keep wondering about this one variable that tends to get left out of the expert equation, that sort of “5th sensation” as it applies to running: the emotional one. After all, as perfect as a racehorse’s gait might be, we are not that kind of animal; that is, as human beings, our worlds are not so neatly confined to just the track and stable. No, we humans are different because we know how to read on our phones and laptops about world events, in the forms of natural disasters, political upheavals, personal triumphs, and this knowledge evokes emotion; we watch as our parents get older and then sicker, and this evokes emotion; we endure as our marriages fall apart or are rejuvenated, and this evokes emotion; we get to listen to music and understand melody unlike other animals, and this evokes emotion; we are able to watch movies about human challenges, sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic, but this too evokes emotion. Alas, the esteemed racehorse is privy to none of these experiences.

And I can’t help thinking, that with all this emotion flowing through our veins, there must be ramifications. Surely our running is affected? Maybe my head hangs lower when I am sad, so my back hunches more, and my pelvis is tilted abnormally, and my hamstrings try to pick up the slack? Or maybe a piece of my brain is preoccupied with how a medical test will come back, and I forget to pick up my knees the way Carmen and Ricardo have taught me to do.

Ok, so maybe I’m using this blog as a self-help tool, I admit it. I’m trying to make sense of the events of last year, that my husband was struck by testicular cancer (early stage, he is fine now), and my dad passed away after prolonged hospice care provided 24/7 by my sweet mom (he was 85). And I’m curious about the ways in which all this emotional product affected my running. We know what happens when there is a build-up of lactic acid in our bodies, including what we need to do to expel it, but what about an emotional build-up? What are we supposed to do with that? What I wanna know is, to what extent is there a correlation between human emotion and a running experience?

My coaches are semi-geniuses. I am in awe of how much they see, perceive, know. And last year, when my body started to break down repeatedly, Carmen tried to prepare me, that I was going through a lot, and that I ought not to feel guilty or disappointed if I needed to coast with my running as much as my competitive nature would allow me, because even after the “quake” of familial health concerns that were concerning me, I needed to be ready for the “tsunami” of emotional flooding that lay ahead. Ok, she didn’t phrase it that way; she is way too pragmatic. But she did try to carve out space for me to not run as well as I might have liked, in response to my more pressing concerns. In this way, Carmen is the one who actually encouraged me to value the connection between the power of human emotion and running performance. A biomechanics expert with a resume of stellar running accolades, and even she believes in that “5th sensation”. Put another way, as Carmen so aptly reminds us time and time again, “Sometimes life gets in the way.”

The only problem is that this emotional variable can’t be quantified or plugged into the McMillan calculator, so we can never be sure how our race times are destined to be affected by the loss of a job, or the death of a beloved family dog, or the pain of divorce, or the unwelcome transition to a new home. We don’t know when we will be “hit”, nor do we know how long we should expect lingering effects to hang around.

In a running world where we are guided by Garmins and second-splits and weekly mileages, all intended to help us run faster, longer, more efficiently, we still can’t quantify or control everything. We can do everything “right” leading up to a race, and yet there is no guarantee that our heads and our hearts are clear enough to support a PR. Blame it on the emotional drag that comes from being human. Oh, well, I’d rather be me than a racehorse.

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