Why Pain is Good

Why do we suffer through ultra marathons? Crewing for the Pigtails Challenge 200mi/150mi/100mi and watching the runners come through the checkpoint time and time again, hobbling, walking, and for the most part looking pretty beaten up (this was later into the race for many of the runners) I thought, Why are they putting themselves through this pain?  This doesn't look healthy.  Admittedly, this was an odd thought to come to me being that I put myself through these kinds of challenges and love them the best. I not only love the adventures that are long enough to expose your body, mind, and spirit to that raw edge where everything is intense, I crave them.  I need them.  I have finished 100 milers hobbling and miserable only to finish blind to my suffering and body injury.

A real smile at my finish at TRT100
While running HURT 100 this year, I sprained my ankle at mile 3.  Yet I was able to finish the race.  I am not against DNFing. I think a good DNF makes you a real ultra runner. It means you took chances.  It means that you were smart enough to admit that it wasn't your day.  It means you had a big dream, but knew when to listen to your body.  That is a hard call to make. At HURT, I wasn't willing to call it a day at mile 3.

To understand this, you must understand that I'd traveled a long way, both physically and mentally to run this race. I trained through the fall and winter.  I arrived almost 2 weeks early in Hawaii to train in the humidity and heat.  Through the support of many people and sponsors, I was in Hawaii to run and be competitive in this race. I could not fathom the idea of a DNF so early.  I hadn't even begun to suffer the pain of a 100 miler.

Back to mile 3.  The sprain was bad enough that after writhing around on the ground in pain, I propped myself up on a rocky outcropping, trying to figure out how I'd get 3 more miles to the aid station.   My ankle began to swell instantly.  Five minutes on the side of the trail and the eventual winner passed me, asking if I was okay.  A few minutes later I decided to try to put weight on my foot. I needed to know if I could walk. As I hobbled down the trail, I slowly realized I could jog on it.

After 15 minutes, I was running again.  The ankle ligaments were so stretched out that my ankle turned 3 more times so severely I was again left sobbing on the ground, grasping my ankle, to the horror of onlookers. Are you okay? a hiker asked, panicked.  I couldn't answer.  Instead, I rolled around trying to get control of the pain. Fumbling in my waist pack I found ibuprofen. I popped one and staggered up, moaning something like, I'm okay, in a big hurry to the horrified onlookers.  I can only imagine what a hideous sight of masochism I appeared to be to the onlookers.  By mile 40 it was tape the ankle or DNF. Lucky for me, taping the ankle stabilized it enough to let me finish in 3rd place.
My ankle after the HURT 100
Another time I raced through so much pain that it took me more than 24 hours post event to realize I had injured my ankle.  Everything hurt so much that it took more than a day to realize my ankle was swollen and barely useable.  This masochism, this borderline crazy behavior, is all over the ultra running world.  Runners are told that they must be able to run through the pain.  That pain is no excuse for slowing down.  When you understand the subtle difference between injury and pain, you realize that some pain can be run "through" without major consequences. Knowing the difference between normal ultra running pain and injury pain is more intuitive than anything.  I have played that line many a times, and only a few times made the mistake of thinking the pain was normal, when it was an injury.

Trying to get control of the pain at R2R.  Blisters, dehydration, and more.
Running the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier last fall was both the most terrifying and incredible experience of my life. When I finished, I felt as though I had survived in a very real way.  I had deeply felt that I was teetering on a cliff edge. From the cliff I saw the indescribable beauty of the view and the very real danger that misstepping entailed.  This experience was intensely meaningful to me because it mirrored my life, a true struggle that I was having outside of running. It was like a dream you have that is so clearly metaphorical. If I could survive this solo, unsupported run complete with mountain lions, bears, and unthinkably long miles I could survive my personal journey.  After making it through the night and the mountain lions, the sunrise hit Mount Rainier and I crumbled to the ground, devastated by the number of miles I still had left to the eery, alien calls of elk.  The view of Mount Rainier that morning was at once the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen and the lowest low I'd felt, and I sobbed with the immense journey I still had to compete (only 20 miles, but I was exhausted mentally and physically).
This was the view I saw that morning on the Wonderland, taken with my camera.
Why do we chose to do events and adventures that result in this suffering? Adventures that often are suffering. To answer, I will tell you what I feel when I am running a 100 miler or a unsupported route.  In the beginning, there is endless possibility. As the adventure proceeds and my body begins to respond to the environment and the immense strains put on it by the heat, cold, exertion, lack of food and water combined with the mental stress of competing, a magical thing begins to happen. It's a shift.  These physical experiences and stresses begin to wear away a layer, then another layer.  I become raw in emotion and experience.  The world looks new and even the little things are experienced as great joys or devastating lows.  Life is simple and the goal is survival.  Your legs begin to grow out of the trail, your arms swinging in the clouds. Taking in food makes you stronger. You can feel the food fueling your body. The surge of energy.  The taste of water to a thirsty body is joyous.

That's the look of real joy.
Having such normal experiences transform into intense ups and downs is, well, incredible. It makes me feel alive in a deep way.  In a way that day to day life lacks. I feel extreme gratitude for the people in my life. I feel thankful to my body for allowing me to travel such long distances and experience so much.  I can appreciate how food and water truly fuel our bodies and how running in nature feeds my soul. On a more spiritual level, I learn of my own strength through testing my boundaries. I can best describe the experience of ultra running from my blog post about circumnavigating Mt Hood:

I experience in the external world my internal environment.  Fears turn into mountain lions, bears and nightfall.  And yet...Joy is the mountain with a sunset like a blush making my cheeks pink.  Peace is the first glimpse of Mt. Hood above an alpine meadow with glaciers carving its side.  I feel as though I am those mountains I am circumnavigating, covered in glaciers, cutting into my flesh.  But the glaciers turn into streams and feed the alpine meadows.  The meadows grow and feed the animals and insects.  The streams hydrate us as the glaciers slowly melt.   

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