Fixing Diane’s Brain

Did surgically removing part of her temporal lobe transform a decent distance runner into an endurance marvel?

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  1. Every few seconds, there's another flash in the darkness, and for an instant you see them—the jubilant Chinese ultramarathon runners, lit up, posing for photographs. At 5 a.m. on this day last May, roughly 200 of them are gathered in the chill that envelops Juyongguan, China, where the ancient Great Wall lures millions of tourists annually from nearby Beijing. And never mind that The North Face 100, the exasperating 62-mile race that awaits them, offers some 2,100 feet of vertical climbing. Nearly all of them are spritzing around as though they're about to embark on a champagne cruise.

    Everyone is taking digital photos of everyone else. One wizened 58-year-old racer, Bian Jinghai, is wearing an orange bandanna pirate-style and inexplicably shouting "Mao Zedong is up there, and I am down here" as he dances about like a prize-fighter poised to enter the ring. Another older runner vows to race barefoot, in homage to Mother Earth, and tiny, 92-pound Xu Yuan Shan, who claims to have once run a 2:45 marathon, is raging around Nixon-like, flashing the victory sign at myriad cameramen.

    Amid this morning's starting-line mayhem, though, one athlete, an American, is almost totally still. Diane Van Deren is standing off to the side, by the shuttered Great Wall souvenir stands, wearing sunglasses and a fresh, glistening coat of sunscreen as her husband, Scott, holds her close, quietly offering counsel.

    Van Deren is 50, and she's traveled from her Colorado home as an athlete sponsored b...