by Dante Zappala

The time it takes humans to form an impression is debatable. The rule of thumb, or the cliché you hear the most, is probably seven seconds. A study once showed we can do it in a tenth of a second. Either way, we are gifted with a certain ability to decide things in a short amount of time.

And those decisions are generally certain. It takes an extraordinary amount of mental work to overcome an initial judgement. This is an evolutionary trait. Deciding immediately on fight, flight or indifference was a crucial ability to hone to foster survival.

Those instincts are formed through experience. Just to remind myself of that, I periodically watch a video of children who trap, cook and eat gigantic poisonous spiders.

But simply because our instincts are certain, it doesn’t always mean they are correct. The only way to evaluate them in their most primary context would be if a choice led to continuing to live or to die. Was it the former, it might reinforce that instinct. Was it the latter, it would prove a pointless learning experience unless someone else witnessed it and survived.

Our society, as it stands now, puts those instincts out of place. We require reason and open mindedness if we’re going to perpetuate our species much longer. But paradoxically, our society is not intent on fixing this problem. In fact, it’s much more likely to exploit our rapid decision-making habits. This flaw of ours is an excellent opportunity to sell us things we don’t need, be that a product or an ideology.

Maybe the solution is much like requiring national service; put everyone through a shared experience that breeds empathy and challenges preconceived notions and stereotypes.

But rather than joining the Army or the Peace Corps, I would advocate that everyone should train for and run a marathon once in their life. The time and space to think it provides inevitably will lead to some revealing self-analysis. The physical rigors of it will make you question existence. And the calorie deficits you create make ice cream and beer that much more precious. These things combined can only benefit the world.

Last week, I was completing my last long training run for the marathon. I planned on 23 miles. And, having learned from recent experiences, I made sure to have plenty of fluids and fuels available throughout. I parked down at the Inn and ran out on Forbidden to Ridge Avenue, up the Manayunk Towpath to Shawmont, then up Shawmont and down Wise’s Mill. That’s 9½ miles to start and I could stop at my car to get some Gatorade. I then went up and down Springfield, another 2 miles and a chance to get more gels and liquids. From there, I did an out-and-back to the top of Andorra road for 7 more miles.

It was on the way back that I started to have this conversation with myself that really got to the bottom of my own instincts. It took that long, about 17 miles, but I was finally challenging my senses.

I’m in good shape and my mantra has been, “Don’t get hurt. Don’t get greedy.” There’s little I can do to help myself and a lot I can do to hurt myself.

In most cases, my tendency has been to do the opposite. I end up going for that last little push in the weeks before a race and find myself coming down with an ailment of some sort. Experience would be a great teacher here, but it would also have to override my gut, which is telling me to add the icing.

In this case, the icing was the last 4 miles. I’d be back at my car with close to 19 very disciplined miles in. I hadn’t pushed too hard. I had been very patient, trusting that I didn’t need to prove it right then and there and that running at a moderate pace was a corner piece of the training jigsaw puzzle.

Waiting for me was a bottle of flattened Coke. I’d heard good things about using it in the last miles of a marathon. My idea was to drink it and hit the end of the run at target race pace to see how it goes.

But then my foot was saying something. It was a little twinge, nothing to cry about, but in my mind, I thought it must be a stress fracture. The only reason I didn’t feel a ton of pain was all of the endorphins running through my body.

So, a mile out from my car, I had to ponder this decision. Stop the run short or drink the Coke and finish the workout. The 19 miles and over two hours of running felt pointless if I didn’t do the last bit.

I tossed this in my head over and over. It was clearly more laborious than it needed to be, but ask anyone who knows me and they will quickly confirm that this mental process of mine drives them nuts as well.

I looked for a compromise. I stopped. I drank the Coke. I ran out a half mile to see how I felt. That became a mile. Then a mile and a half. Then, really, there was nothing to do but complete the workout as planned.

I can’t change me. Fortunately, the foot thing was an aberration. It hurt a little walking the dog later but quickly passed. I think it came from some old shoes I was tooling around in the day before.

The results don’t validate much. I didn’t prove anything. I still don’t know which of my instincts are right and which are wrong. But it was definitively a moment of evolution because at least I deployed dialogue, if not reason.