I was rowing nowhere at the gym last week when I noticed a gentleman on an adjacent treadmill wearing a t-shirt from my favorite local race, Headwaters Trail Runs. I couldn’t resist stopping to chat about it.
He explained that he’d only ran the race that one year and doesn’t run very much anymore due to a bad knee.
“Can I ask you a question?” he asked.
“How much of running a 50k is just the ability to endure pain?”
“Oh!” I smiled. “Lots.”
He looked confused.
“But.. how do you learn to like pain?”
I scanned my brain for an easy answer.
“Well, it’s more like getting to know various types of pain. You know, there’s the pain like ‘shit, I’m injured’ and then there’s the, ‘this is really hard and uncomfortable but I’m going to feel so much better after finishing it’ kind of pain.”
He seemed pleased with this answer and slowly nodded his head.
Then, I politely excused myself and hustled to get my workout on before my muscles cooled down.
It was a nice conversation, but one that really left me thinking.
I’ve always joked about ultrarunners being masochists.
But what I really meant is that we seem to have the ability to continue moving steadily toward our goal (finishing a race) despite the inevitable discomforts of running for 6, 12, even 24 hours.
And I’m not just talking about chafing and cramps. At just about every race, I meet at least one nut who’s running on the kind of injury that would send a normal person to urgent care.
The first time I met my friend Lorelei, she had a lump the size of a softball on her knee. We had both just run Lithia Loop Trail Marathon and I asked if she was okay.
“Oh yeah, my knee is fucked up,” she said, matter-of-factly. And in the same breath, “Where’s the beer?”
Then, she walked off, limping only slightly, in search of a cold beverage.
When I finished SOB 50k in 2017, I met a kid after the race who was icing a knee he had dislocated several miles before the finish line.
And let’s not forget Kilian Jornet!
Sometimes I wonder if regular people see things like this and think that endurance athletes don’t feel pain?
We do, I assure you. We just don’t let it stop us.
Personally, I don’t love pain. But I do respect its place in life. And I believe running has helped strengthen that relationship.
What’s that saying?
For me, learning to appreciate the pain of running is like learning to thank the person who broke your heart for all those valuable lessons you couldn’t learn any other way.
Like anything else, it takes practice, patience, and hard work to get there. But first, you have to make the decision to try. I really think that’s where a lot of people get stuck.
So often, I find myself ⅔ into a long run or race and then hit a wall. I don’t want to keep going. I hate running. But I can’t stop because the only way back to my car is the feet I’m standing on.
At that point, I can stand there and hate myself until someone comes to save me or I can get over it and move on.
That decision is easy when you’re out in the middle of nowhere with zero cell service. It’s a little more difficult when you’re in a comfy bed and have to make the decision to get up and do it all over again, knowing you’re probably going to hit that same wall.
So, why do I do that?
Because it’s worth it. Because it makes me happy. Because spending long hours in the wilderness is how I find peace, humility, and pure joy in this world.
And, by this time, I’m well-aware that any pain I encounter along the way is only temporary.
Back to pain vs suffering — Running long distances has helped me understand my mind’s power over my body. Energy follows your train of thought. So, if you focus on how much something hurts, that’s all you’re going to experience.
For example, I’ve been having some foot problems this year. I started developing a bunion late last fall and then a Morton’s neuroma over the winter (I blame rental ski boots.) A neuroma is like a pinched nerve, and this type occurs between your third and fourth toes.
About 12 miles into my last 30k race, I started feeling pain shoot up the nerve every time I put my left foot down. Had I fixated on that pain, my thoughts for the last six miles would’ve gone something like this:
My foot hurts.
Who wants to think like that for an hour?
Not me. Not when I have beautiful scenery to drink in.
I choose not to suffer.
On that note, I’m happy to share that my foot is much better. I took a few days off of running after that race and then switched to shoes with a roomier toe box and more cushioning.
I also take Hammer Nutrition* Tissue Rejuvenator to reduce inflammation and promote joint health.
These happy feet are headed to Susanville tomorrow to run Paiute Meadows 50k. It’ll be my first 50k since I ran the same race in 2018, so I’m sure I’ll return with a fresh perspective on pain and ultrarunning ;)
I’ll let you know how it goes!
*I’m a Hammer-sponsored athlete. Enter my code: 270369 at checkout for 15% off your full order at hammernutrition.com
Cover photo by Revise_D