The Difference between Pain and Suffering and Why I Want to Run** another 100-Miler

It’s been five weeks since I completed the Run Rabbit Run 100+ -mile ultra-marathon. The recovery has been tough – in some ways tougher than I anticipated. I had neuropathy in my feet, and my toes have been numb until just a few days ago. I’ve been exhausted and hungry all the time. The worst part – and this I did expect – is that I’m having a lot of difficulty with my chronic headache. I went from running** 40 – 70 miles a week to a fraction of that, so I’m in endorphin withdrawal, and that makes the pain much worse. (Yes, NOT running makes the pain worse. See this post)

Now I’m feeling recovered enough that I’m wondering what’s next. (Of course I am!) The big question is if I want to do another 100. I’m asking myself why I set out to run 100 miles in the first place and how my experience of Run Rabbit differed from my expectations.

I want to be clear that I am beyond proud of myself for finishing. I set out to go 100+ miles and 21,000 feet of elevation gain in less than 36 hours and I did (even though nearly half of the field dropped out along the way). There is only one accomplishment that has ever given me reason to be more proud (my book deal with Beacon Press, of course).

The big, unexpected gift was how loved I felt during those 36 hours. Not just from the people who paced and crewed for me, who rubbed my feet and fed me, but also by the enormous crowd cheering for me virtually back home. Run Rabbit was better than 10 birthday parties. You all are so awesome – thank you a million times over.

There are two main reasons I suspect I felt compelled to run 100 miles:

  • To live without limits. It’s in my DNA to challenge myself every time I think “I could never do that” and that’s exactly what I thought the first time I heard that 100-mile races were a thing.
  • To increase my endurance because the more of it I have, the more mountains I get to see. No matter how far I go, I always want more.
I have so many happy memories from a single summer of training for Run Rabbit. A thousand basins, lakes, cliffs, peaks, wild flowers I saw I wouldn't have otherwise.
I have so many happy memories from a single summer of training for Run Rabbit. A thousand basins, lakes, cliffs, peaks, wild flowers I wouldn’t have otherwise witnessed.

I also suspect that a third reason has to do with my chronic headache. Probably deep down there’s a part of me who runs as a way of finding master over pain. I can’t control my chronic headache but I can control running, and if I can manage that, if I can handle that pain, then I can handle my headache too.

Are you still with me? Here’s where it gets harder to understand…

Here’s the thing: I finished the Run Rabbit despite myself. I fought myself the whole way. I’ve been saying that ultras are more mental than physical, and I really believe that. Physically your body is going to break. It’s all up to the mind to either give into that brokenness or to transcend it.

With about eight or nine miles left, Anthony, my friend and pacer said, “As soon as you let go of the pain, we’ll be able to get up this mountain.” It’s that part of transcendence he was talking about. I was clinging to the agony rather than letting it move through me.

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

It’s easy to dismiss the mantra, but it really is true. The difference is in your mind and how you experience what is going on in your body.

Anthony made a similar point about pain and suffering and how I was doing both needlessly, that I needed to learn how to separate the two. If I had had the energy to argue with him (which I did not!!) I would have. I wanted to argue because there does exist a part of me who knows this trick. It’s what I do every day. I’ve had a headache for almost 14 years now and I’ve learned to live with it – and I don’t mean that in an abstract sense. I don’t fight it every day, I don’t hold on to it, I don’t walk around with it at the forefront of my existence (though I see the irony in that statement, literally it IS in the forefront of my body). It took me years to practice this. While I have bad days during which I backslide, when I’m angry with it and miserable, more often than not, I am in pain but I’m not suffering.

(Obviously the worse my headache is in any given day, the harder it is.)

I never reached that part of the race where I was able to let go, leave behind suffering, and surrender to the pain. I didn’t transcend. In my mind, that’s the actual finish line.

I wondered before the race if I was running it in as a means of finding the strength to cope with my headache, but now what I wonder if it was the other way around. I wonder if I ran the race hoping to put to use what the headache has already taught me, what I practice and succeed at more days than not.

In that sense, I didn’t have the race I hoped for.

This thing I’m talking about – transcendence, if you will – I’ve felt it in shorter races. Marathons or even my first double-marathon that have made me hurt, hurt, hurt but in the last miles I was able to let go of the misery. Doing that same thing in a 100 mile race is even harder because the suffering is bound to be greater, but I wonder if it is still possible, and if it is, if I can get there.

I hope you hear me: my pride in myself is in no way diminished. This isn’t me being hard on myself. It’s more like acknowledging that there is an experience out there and I want to have it.

In other words, I want to run another 100-mile and I don’t want it to hurt. Crap, that’s not what I’m saying at all!

What I’m talking about is all the mental stuff. That’s what makes ultra-marathoning so great. We already know that running so far is beyond the perceived limitations of the human body. It will be taxed in every way, but what gets you the rest of the distance is the mental fortitude. Going back into another 100, it’s this mental part I want to work on. I do want to get stronger and faster, but I suspect that would be irrelevant if I can’t practice this other part.

I’m not going to run another 100 right away. In 2016 I’m going to go back to speed and mid-range distances, perhaps a 50 – 70 miler (yeah, I just called that mid-range, it’s all relative!). My ultimate goal is Hardrock 100 which is even far more elevation gain with more technical terrain and extreme conditions, truly the perfect intersection of running and mountaineering. There are so many crazies who want to run it, there is a lottery, and each year you put in your name you have a better chance of being selected. So as of this morning, my name is in the hat for 2016. Hopefully I’ll be selected in the next few years.

Do you see the switchbacks above Ice Lake? That's part of the Hardrock 100 course! Yes, please!
Do you see the switchbacks above Ice Lake? That’s part of the Hardrock 100 course! Yes, please!


**When I say “run” in the context of a 100-miler, I don’t mean in the traditional sense of the verb, but rather a run-hike-shuffle which is a bit too clumsy to repeat so often. From here on, assume “run” means to move as fast as possible.



11 thoughts on “The Difference between Pain and Suffering and Why I Want to Run** another 100-Miler

  1. Tom it sounds like you know exactly what I am talking about. And Donald duck sleeping bags? Hysterical!!! Hey have you spent much time in the San Juans? Hanging out with my crew during Hard Rock could be the perfect excuse 🙂 (I’d absolutely love to have you and Lorena!)

  2. Love and have oftentimes quoted that saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” but I didn’t realize until this morning that, while it’s aligned with Buddhist teachings, it’s not actually attributable to Buddha himself. So, yay! I learned something new before coffee this morning–about the Sallatha Sutra*, with which that quote is typically aligned–and about my friend inner grit and outward grace.

    Rooting for you, Lynn, as you set your sights on another run-hike-shuffle. And wishing you continued transcendence as you work through and rise above any self-imposed limits.

    “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.” –excerpted from Sallatha Sutta (the portion that describes the distinction between pain sensations & the secondary suffering that comes of our response to the initial pain.)

  3. Hi Lynn,

    I have read your missive 2 ½ times now and I will probably read it another 2 ½ times in the next few days. I really like what you have written and how you are able to describe so well such an esoteric experience. I have never had to experience the kind of pain that you must deal with each day so I don’t really know how I would.

    I have had some experience in putting aside the misery in an extended (for me) physical challenge. I have done some long backpacking trips and several long bike rides that have each let me experience a modicum of misery. Again, I am not in the least attempting to compare my experiences to your, but they have given me a taste at least of what you are talking about.

    I can recall several experiences where I was having arguments with myself about the benefits of quitting as opposed to continuing. To me at least, once I am able to send the misery part away, it suddenly becomes not only possible but essential that I finish. These mostly were experiences that the elements and terrain collaborated to defeat me (actually let me defeat myself). I remember several long, long (150 mile) bicycle trips that included endless hills, pouring cold rain, and seemingly endless headwinds. The pain involved just being cold, wet, and weary. There were several times that I considered giving the whole thing up and finding a motel someplace, fortunately, a part of my brain intervened and convinced me that I could not give up; that I must complete the challenge or die in a heap alongside the road. Also some long solo backpacking trips with a too heavy pack and of course the west coast rain and cold winds. Since I was by myself in the middle of nowhere, there was no motel that I could escape to; my only choices were getting it done or turning around and heading back. I knew that if I turned around, I would hate myself so I managed to tuck away the misery and actually enjoy the adventure. I used to backpack with a friend of mine who was more fit than I was, but he would have these go-no go arguments with himself out loud — that was almost enough to drive me crazy — he didn’t offer much support.

    When I finished these challenges I was soundly proud of myself.

    On a lighter note 🙂 I recall one backpacking trip that had disaster written all over it. Somehow I got elected to lead a half dozen ladies on a 2 to 3 day backpack on the north side of Mt Rainier. These were friends of Lorena’s and somehow I had the impression that they were not rookies and had done some serious hiking before. When we got out of the cars at the trailhead, it instantly became clear that they had never done anything like this. When checking their equipment which consisted of several Donald Duck sleeping bags, tenny-runner shoes, over the shoulder bags, and some plastic tarps that were to serve as tents, I could sense disaster lurking. I considered calling the whole thing off, but just couldn’t bear to heap disappointment on them. They were all very excited and anticipating three days of fun, fun, fun. So I did my best to lash everything down so they could at least hobble along without tripping over dangling gear. Thus the adventure began with bad forebodings sitting on my brain. We had gotten about ¼ mile from the cars and needed to cross a tiny little creek with many handy step-on rocks. One of the ladies fell and somehow cut the roof of her mouth with her teeth (I’m still not sure how she did this). Of course she was bleeding like a stuck pig – I couldn’t think of a way to bandage a mouth. The bleeding would not stop so it was clear that we had to take her back to the ER. We had her stuff a couple of neckerchiefs in her mouth and drove off to the ER. I am convinced that this was a supreme stroke of good luck as the “hike” could be called off without my having to endure heaps of disappointment. I never again mentioned to them re-trying the trip.; I had clearly experienced a not-to-be-ignored omen and had no desire to tempt fate again.

    In any event I am so very proud of you and to have you as a friend — I get to vicariously accompany you on your adventures. If you are in need of another support person, keep me in mind; I would be honored and it would be fun.

    Fondest regards,


  4. I love every part of this blog post, Lynn!!!

    I think you’re absolutely brave in your everyday battle against the chronic headache… And brave to do all the feats that most in near perfect health would never attempt.

    I’m so proud of your journey, and you inspire me to keep moving as fast as I can!!

    Much love to you, Hero Sister… 💙💛❤️

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