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Dukkha: Ultra Running Philosophy

dukkha ultra running philosophy

Dukkha: Sorrow, Suffering

Written by Julie Tertin. Julie is an ultra marathon runner who has raced (and won) ultra marathon distances 200 miles and beyond. You can connect with her at or follow her on Instagram @live.ultra.

I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to be honest. I want to hear the story about a time you willingly–or unwillingly–suffered.

The suffering of discipline
The suffering of loss
The suffering of failure
The suffering of hurt
The suffering of grudge
The suffering of ego
The suffering of loneliness
The suffering of addiction
The suffering of regret
The suffering of inadequacy
The suffering of illness
The suffering of demographic

Reading this sparks recognition in your neurons because you are human. You can relate to this. Suffering floods our lives from both internal and external fountains. Remember the Buddha’s first teaching: life is dukkha, or aimless suffering. Learning to understand and interact with the suffering in my life opened my peripheral understanding of the world. It also tangibly applies to ultrarunning. I want to challenge your understanding of suffering.

The etymology of the verb to suffer suggests three meanings:

To experience.

At mile 41, when we realize we have 100k to go and our knee is tender and angry, we begin to enter the experience of what it means to suffer. At mile 76, when our vision slides all over the trail and we are moving slowly and stiffly up our demon mountains, we hurt, we are exhausted, and we are hungry. I believe that we experience suffering any time we ask ourselves to be patient in pain.

We also experience it when we enter lonely places, when our hopes deflate, when our goals are not met, or when our lives are stress-riddled. We experience suffering when we make decisions in secret or live in cognitive dissonance with our values. Suffering finds us when we are rocky financially or broken relationally. When our families grow or fall apart, when we lose cities and houses and friendships. The Buddha was right — suffering is the fundamental human experience.

To be subjected to.

To experience something does not necessarily assign blame. For example, if you registered for the race, you invited the struggle. To be subjected to something adds something sinister to the concept: there is a powerlessness simmering below the surface. This brings up hard words like trauma, grieving, and sickness. Being subjected to something means forced to your knees. You are without say. Scream and break things as much as you want, but you do not have the power to re-write the facts.

Not everything we are subjected to is painful; however, in general, I think that feeling tends to be more humiliating and submissive than not.

This kind of suffering you cannot escape. You cannot quit what you cannot control. You cannot stop mourning, choose not to be anxious, or try to marionette someone’s actions. Powerless suffering is dangerous; the risk is learned helplessness.

To tolerate.

We tolerate annoyances. We tolerate pain. We tolerate failure and weakness; we tolerate authority. We tolerate evil. Our toleration has little to do with good and bad or right and wrong, but again we find that suffering is tied to power. We learn to tolerate the things outside of our control. This is also a dangerous space.

There is suffering we must tolerate, choose to tolerate, and there is suffering we must resist.

In my life, these definitions have been layered. Some of my very earliest childhood memories are painful and dissociative; to be subjected to as a small girl leaves marks. The positive of this introduction to suffering is that it brought an opponent into my life early: hurt. Fighting an opponent will make you stronger than not fighting at all.

As I grew up and started to understand the world, I moved into the second layer of suffering. I tolerated, and still tolerate at times, things that were intolerable. I made decisions I still don’t fully understand. In this position, we develop pain points, hide bruises, switch off, and build in triggers — all for the effort of survival. We tolerate the storm and cling to small faith that it will end.

Sometimes I was forced into toleration by threat, which denied my own reality. I tolerated their desires. I tolerated their selfishness. This made it impossible to tell where boundary lines used to be. We are all pushed forward and backward along the spectrum of suffering throughout our lives, like beads on a string.

The great irony of this is that it spirals us deeper into hurt. I later allowed people and things to enter my mind and body that my reality did not truly want, but I felt submissive to. I was under the delusion that I was trapped – that I had to tolerate it. A sneaky small voice asks: who are you to say no? Why would your needs be prioritized? In the end you will not die, so shut your eyes, suppress your will.

Untangling this idea of toleration was overwhelming to the point of forsaking reality altogether and drowning in alcohol or anything else that misdirected my hurt. In ultras and in life, there is a point of suffering that breaks away into apathy. At a dramatic point, you break. Who gives a fuck? becomes your battle cry.

The truth is, to tolerate something is neither positive or negative. I learned to distinguish an appropriate boundary for what I can absorb without consequence. I learned to tolerate abuse, and later I learned to tolerate it with mercy. Those are wildly different behaviors. One left marks on me, and the other was a gift given freely that never broke the skin. I learned to tolerate illness and evil on my terms instead of theirs. I also learned what I do not tolerate and equally as importantly: how to get away. This is a radical shift of power.

Ultra running

For two decades I tolerated fear and punishment, but today I refuse both. Toleration that leads to further violation is not the suffering that empowers us, not right away. I do not tolerate things that betray my reality. Some people would argue that you should be intolerant to all violations. Ideally that would be wonderful and probably pain-free, but we are human and we are full of mistakes. I think the wiser road is simply knowing your property lines.

I pursue endurance and discipline, which means I welcome the experience of suffering and I tolerate the struggle. Life has the power to pitch you into any of the layers at any time and you will be a pebble in a rockslide. Life can construct all sorts of suffering for you, on any day, that you will be powerless about, so I do not want to give you the impression that I have arrived anywhere above suffering’s reach, but my present suffering is often in my control — like running a hundred or two hundred miles.

It now is an exercise into reality, rather than a desperate attempt to exit it.

The suffering of an ultra is a productive experience to subject yourself because there is no ulterior motive. To be broken is a beautiful thing, especially in a safe place with people who understand. Even more blessed are those who break themselves.

To cut away the safety netting, the comfort, the easiness, and sometimes even your help — to remove it all and ask yourself if you are strong enough to keep going, if you are committed enough to endure the pain, if you are disciplined enough to continue to push forward — that is invaluable suffering. These are the decisions that keep us honest and help us mark our boundaries. These exercises help me know my own thoughts and feelings in no uncertain terms. For those of us who have had to live others’ realities, there is something freeing in living your own raw reality during the second half of an ultra. The pain grounds us, but not like the past.

The denial of suffering leads to locking the doors to rooms in our minds and slipping the keys on a keyring of delusion. Sometimes we do this so readily that we now carry a heavy jangle at all times. I think true freedom is perhaps throwing away the keyring entirely.

Some things cannot change—powerlessness is also part of life—but your interpretation of suffering can. Your relationship to it can. If you can accept that idea, you have already loosened its grip, just a little. We are not free when we are someone’s subject. Do not let suffering be your master.

Because we’ve chosen this sport, because we’ve attempted to give life’s aimless suffering a compass, we might be a little more free.

If you’re suffering with us, if you’re in control of your own suffering with us, I applaud your courage, and look forward to running with you today, tomorrow, and every day after, as ultra marathon runners.

Written by Julie Tertin. Julie is an ultra marathon runner who has raced (and won) ultra marathon distances 200 miles and beyond. You can connect with her at or follow her on Instagram @live.ultra.

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