If a person hasn’t experienced physical pain in union with mental and emotional pain, an ultra marathon could be a worthwhile lesson in pain management.
What is pain?
A physical sensation? An emotional state? A mental yearning for comfort?
What is pain?
New ultrarunners wonder about the pain they’ll feel 60, 70, or 80 miles into their longest events. Veterans often offer the age-old encouragement: “Relentless forward progress. Just keep moving.”
I support this idea. It’s not supposed to be easy; just keep moving through the pain and accomplish what you set out to accomplish.
Early on in the ultra marathon, pain will prod your mind. He will test the waters. He will explore your “WHY?” and see if you brought your beliefs and values to the trail. A stubbed toe here, a hot-spot on your foot there. A twisted knee or a tight hamstring. These are discomforts sent early on by pain, scout parties exploring your mind while the troops amass.
“That didn’t feel good.”
“My foot already?”
Early in the race, your beliefs and values, your “WHY?” are held closely; your grip is still strong. As time goes on and the many mile markers passed, fatigue will loosen your grip on your beliefs and values, your “WHY?”
The task will begin to feel extraordinary. The miles longer and longer. Your mind begins to contemplate discomfort.
Pain sees his chance. The fortress of your mind, guarded by your beliefs and values and your “WHY?” is momentarily left unguarded. Discomfort and the many miles ahead and the fatigue leave cracks in the wall of your mind.
His infiltration begins.
That hot-spot isn’t quite going away. A blister is forming. You begin to favor one side of your foot. Your hip flexor groans with each step and the twisted descents bludgeon your ankles.
You have many miles to go. Where is the next aid station? You haven’t seen another runner in awhile…
Your guard let down, your grip slipping, your mind begins to wander; pain is distracting your thoughts, teasing your mind, and gouging your beliefs and values, your “WHY?”, from your heart.
This moment, the loss of your thoughts, the loss of a central focus on your “WHY?”, is the Moment of Quit.
This is what novice ultra marathon runners fear, and what veteran ultrarunners crave conquering.
The Moment of Quit.
The topic of this whole discussion is: “How can I push through pain?” What you’re really wondering about is the existence, and the ferocity, of the Moment of Quit.
Can you really fathom the pain of your first, or tenth, or fiftieth ultra marathon? It seems so distant, like it will never come true. This Moment of Quit is always unique and unexpected; terrain, distance, preparation, and the human element all make the Moment of Quit an unpredictable, novel experience.
What should you do when pain and nausea and fatigue storm your mind, when each step is slower and more agonizing than the last? What should you do when the trail winds farther up the mountain, away from the safety of the valley where your physical and mental and emotional pain are already debilitating?
I’ll tell you what I did during my first 100 mile ultra marathon.
It was a race I wasn’t prepared for. I’d run 7 times in the 6 weeks prior to it due to injury; not one of those runs was longer than 5.02 miles. Only four other times in my life had I run more than 20 miles. I refused to discuss or look at the weekly mileage in my training log and fooled myself to the starting line.
I paid for it.
From miles 66 to 75 I slowed drastically. From miles 75 to 92 I fought pain and frustration, barely comprehending that I was not likely to make the cutoff of 30 hours. From miles 92 until the finish, I ran. My average pace needed to be fourteen minutes per mile to make the cutoff; I hadn’t average that pace since mile 70.
The nighttime downhills terrorized me and I found uphills were my friends; they went much easier on my bludgeoned ankles. I couldn’t even conjure up embarrassment of my state -unprepared and suffering for it- around my crew and the volunteers; the pain I was in justified my loss of momentum and tortoise-pace.
At mile 92 I couldn’t believe how far I’d come, but still had to go. I found out I was projected to finish 7 minutes after the 30 hour cutoff.
This was the second time the race changed for me. The first was at mile 66, the last time I felt confident in finishing.
Something changed in my mind at mile 92.
I again saw what I had come searching for; my “WHY?” resurfaced.
Maybe it was the sunshine of that warm Ohio morning, or the relatively short distance to the finish line, or the complete horror I felt at getting so close and not finishing.
Pain retreated when I decided pain did not matter.
It was an actual, real conversation I had with myself.
“Mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. George, do you mind?”
“Do you mind the pain? Will it get worse? Will it last forever? Can you do anything about it?”
“Can you finish this race?”
“Keep running. Run now. Faster. Good. Keep going.”
This self-talk, this real conversation I repeated in my head, made me run when I didn’t know if I could, when I didn’t even think I would make the cutoff.
It made me run when the weight of pain was crushing my will to continue.
I made a decision. It wasn’t to ignore pain or push through pain, it wasn’t to coddle my sore areas and adjust my strategy.
I decided to run.
Independent of circumstances, including pain.
Independent of the heat of the sun. Independent of my nausea. Independent of the ticking clock. Independent of pain.
This is the way people “push through pain;” this is how veterans conquer the Moment of Quit, when pain finds a weakness in your defense and rushes in.
You must acknowledge pain. He is out there in the woods, waiting for you. Waiting for fatigue to loosen your grip on your beliefs and values, your “WHY?” Anticipate this. Prepare for mental war.
I ran through what I know as real pain from miles 75 to 101.2, the finish line. I greeted pain at my Moment of Quit, mile 92, when I was projected to miss the cutoff. He fell behind quickly as I regained my composure and had a real conversation, a real heart-to-heart, with myself.
You know in your heart if you can still run. Pain controlled me late in the race; I remember fighting back tears as my pacer told me to try and run, just for a few minutes. I gritted my teeth and said I couldn’t.
I wasn’t lying; pain had gotten into the cracks, broken my fatigue-weakened grip.
So, how do you push through pain?
You push through pain by changing your relationship to circumstances. Acknowledge pain and commit to action regardless of circumstance; admit your ability, your capabilities, and regain your composure. Alter the relationship.
Do not be a victim to pain; be the person who moves forward, relentlessly, with or without pain. Focus your mind to the action that leads to your goal; everything will end, including pain.
It’s not supposed to feel good; run through the pain, with the pain, and regardless of the pain. Otherwise, you’re missing the point of even running your ultra marathon.