- On May 21, 2018
I’m standing on the side of a winding country road near a vineyard with tiny green grape clusters reaching for the warm sun, yards from the entrance to a winery known for its excellent Zinfandels.
But there will be no wine tasting for me today. This day is all about supporting my husband through Ironman Santa Rosa.
I know he doesn’t really “need” me there; he’s done these events solo before. And by the rules of the race, there is nothing I can do to aid him anyway. Today, though, he seemed deeply grateful for the company at the 4 AM wake-up, chauffeuring through the dark morning to Lake Sonoma for the 2.4-mile swim at dawn, and (what will eventually be 16) hours of waiting, cheering, and just being present.
This is ‘sherpa’ life for an Ironman support ‘team.’
The one who picks up the mud-splattered bike and the bags of sweaty clothes and hauls them back to the car.
The one who pushes through the crowds for the most advantageous spot to cheer him on as he passes by (hopefully in a blur, he’ll be going that fast).
The one with a cold milkshake or piece of pie waiting at the finish line.
Although my husband’s been doing Ironman races on and off since 1984 long before we were married, the first one I watched was ten years ago. Then, I was simply an enthusiastic observer. Not impartial by any means, however not knowing enough to feel what was going on.
Now, after supporting him at 5 of these, I definitely “feel his pain.” It must be my mirror neurons kicking in.
I feel the nervous stomach, the fitful sleep the night before. I can almost feel the strain in my own legs when the tracker app shows he should be heading up steep Chalk Hill around Mile 30.
Dr. Dan Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says the mirror neuron system is what allows us to perceive the intention behind the actions of another. This system may be responsible for how we can sense what other people are doing or feeling, how we learn, and how we feel empathy. Siegel likens it to a neural map of your intention in my head, and I sense your intention through observing your actions. Like much of what happens in our brains, the interpretation of intentions is processed through an integrated system or network of neurons.
I suspect my mirror neuron system has something to do with shifting my perception from observer to sensor. No longer am I just watching a cyclist ride a bike through beautiful countryside. Now I am sensing the experience of a competitor putting his all into the ride, each rolling hill a test of perseverance to make it through 112 miles and still have the energy to complete a marathon.
I am no longer a casual observer. When I notice his time is off from where he intended, my own legs feel heavy mirroring the lead-leg feeling he must be struggling against as he pushes harder to maintain his pace. Miles away, I am feeling his exhaustion and am willing energy towards him.
While I didn’t swim, bike, or run, my brain is mirroring in my own body the “felt sense” of mental and physical exhaustion for what it took him to get across the finish line 16 hours later.
What sensing do you notice as you observe the actions of someone else?