It is no big secret that a significant amount of pain is incurred during our time here on this vast blue planet. Pain, of course, comes in many forms – both easy to explain and often inexplicable. We can experience great pain in our physical bodies from strain, injury, or illness. We can also experience great pain in our hearts from loss, separation, or longing. The list of sources of pain goes on and on and on. Pain can also be described as a journey. Throughout a lifetime, we can encounter pain in many magnitudes, from many sources. Pain is inevitable.
As an Ultra Runner, pain can be both an old friend and a vicious opponent. Conditioning the body and mind to endure training for, and the execution of ultra-marathon distances requires one to become very familiar with pain. Throughout my journey as an Ultra Runner, I have become incredibly versed in pain management. After 20 miles on the trail everything starts to hurt. After 30 miles on the trail, everything starts to REALLY hurt. After 40 miles on the trail, the pain often becomes so familiar that it begins to fade away (trust me, the fading away part does not last too long). However, conditioning my mind to acknowledge, welcome, dismiss, or distract myself from the physical pain encountered while running great distances has been an ongoing, evolving, and magnificent experiment, yielding great personal growth. The underlying lesson was a discovery I made a few years ago on an insanely long training run, in preparation for my fist 100-miler. I was profoundly enlightened by my sudden use of the mantra, “pain is only a condition of the mind” implying that the physical pain I was enduring was merely a temporary mental interpretation of that moment in time. If so, can pain be “conquered”?
During my enlightening run, the mantra replayed in my mind, over and over again. If pain is a condition of the mind and I am in control of my mind, it stands to reason that I my mind (aka ME) conquer any pain. I held on to this notion. I still hold on to it. There have been many tough training runs, and even races where this mentality has helped me press through the toughest moments of perceived physical pain. But, my understanding of pain has recently changed.
In April of 2018 my father passed away. A few weeks later we learned that my mother had stage 4 Colon Cancer. She died, quite suddenly, on June 30th. The wind had been knocked clean out of me – twice. And just like that I was drowning in the worst pain I had ever known. At the time I was a 6-time Ultra-Marathon finisher. I had successfully ran 72 and 100 mile distances. But nothing about enduring such intense physical pain could have prepared me for this.
The experience of physical and emotional pain can never be compared as it would be like comparing walking on hot coals to walking on broken glass – both experiences are inherently different. Furthermore, such experiences will always be perceived intrinsically different for each individual. Yet, there is a striking beauty that arises in my field of view surrounding this incomprehensible comparison. One that is ultimately worth sharing… so, here goes.
After my mom passed I found some solace in a book, entitled, “Things I Wish I Knew Before my Mom Died” by Ty Alexander. She provides a raw, real account of her grief surrounding her mother’s death. The words in this book spoke to me with resounding strength and healing power. The most memorable takeaway from Ty’s book was her discussion about pain. Pain is inescapable. But pain and suffering are different. According to Ty, we do not hold the power to live a life unscathed by pain. However, suffering ultimately becomes our choice.
To explain this in an alternate way, imagine being stung by a bee. There is instant, and sometimes lasting physical pain where the bee’s stinger penetrated the skin. After being stung you might exclaim, “Ouch, that hurt”. This is an expression of pain. However, imagine being stung by a bee and holding onto intense feelings of fear, anger, and disdain for flying insects, or even paranoia surrounding the circumstances. Perhaps, your exclamation would change to, “I cannot believe I got stung by a bee, it’s as though every stinging insect in the world is against me”. This pattern of thought could even lead to future thinking, such as “If I am going to get stung in life, I must have done something to deserve this, I must not be worthy of a life unscathed by bees”.
Now, clearly there are fallacies in this example of thought. It seems somewhat absurd to even imagine someone turning the experience of a bee sting into something so all-consuming. BUT, the truth of this matter is that exact evolution of thinking depicts suffering. There is a point in which pain becomes suffering – at the instant when the experience of pain mutates into something so perversely invasive in our lives that we can almost not stand to carry it.
If I relate this all back to what I know best, ultra running, I am immediately struck by another important revelation. Pain is NOT a condition of the mind. Pain is, in fact PAIN. Inescapable, undeniable, and often incomprehensible. However, suffering IS a condition of the mind. It is often a mode of self-preservation. We might develop thought patterns of questioning people’s intentions (or in this case bee’s intentions) in order to save ourselves from future pain. YET, if pain is inevitable and inescapable, what would happen if we were to acknowledge and accept it? What if we welcomed it as an old friend?
The bottom line is, I see clearly now that I make a conscious decision while running 30, 40, 60, or even 100 miles NOT TO SUFFER. Sure, it hurts like hell. Sure, there are times I want to quit. Sure, there are a million reasons why I, “should” quit. But before I allow myself to entertain the notions that accompany suffering – I acknowledge my pain. I acknowledge that it is temporary (of course barring some actual legitimate injury). It is at this point that I press ON. Forward. Relentlessly. I chose NOT to suffer.
Hopefully, you’ve stayed with me through this woven rant of expressive emotions. If so, I want to conclude with this. I know how to avoid the pitfalls of suffering in my running. I’ve been doing it (unbeknownst to me) for years. What I propose now, to my readers, and to myself, is how can I apply such thinking to the experience of my grief? There are many ways that I continue to actively pursue this as I struggle to accept the, “new normal”. There are days when I am bombarded by memories of things we shared, places we went, songs we listened to, or foods we shared. But my continued progress will be dependent upon my ability to acknowledge, accept, and (someday) even find solace in those memories – ALL in the ABSENCE of suffering. This doesn’t mean the pain dissipates. This doesn’t mean that the pain never existed in the first place. This simply means that I feel the pain, but I chose not to suffer. That is my journey. Not simple, not clean, but I am here and I chose to keep moving forward. Relentlessly. I chose NOT to suffer as I attempt to turn my pain into strength.