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 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.
**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.