You’ve been there, or heard other runners talk about it.
Eighty miles in, chopping away at the distance, trudging uphill and falling downhill toward a distant finish line.
Feet aching, knees swollen, hamstrings twitching into a cramp.
The pain cave isn’t just about the sore feet and swollen knees and cramps though, is it?
Pain cave refers to the mental fatigue, the dread of twenty, or forty, or one hundred more miles. It speaks to the massive weight of sensation wrought by trail behind and, at the same time, the task that lay ahead.
This dirt and blood and nighttime manifestation of the fatigue and incredible discomfort of ultrarunning solidifies purpose, though it may be hard to see in the moment. He came here to explore his mind. She wanted to decipher willpower. Once you’ve crawled into and pulled yourself from the fatigue and discomfort of 50, 100, or more, miles, life just isn’t the same.
A runner’s pain cave is a mental isolation from the world; it’s a crypt of fear and doubt.
Your pain cave, frightening as it might be, is your Why?
The World Beyond the Hurt
An ultra marathon is the incredible intersection of adventure, endurance, community, and mental toughness training. Ask any ultra runner, wearing his compression sleeves and Nathan hydration pack or her Altras and Wicked Trail UltraCap, what he or she loves most about ultra running, and one of these will probably come up. In fact, I bet that person can’t pin down just one of these reasons he or she trains for and takes on endurance races.
That final point, the one of training mental toughness, doesn’t require explanation; the Wicked Trail, any ultrarunning event, will greatly test one’s mind.
Our test as ultra marathon runners is delivered in discomfort, fatigue, and the relentless expenditure of energy on a trail that never seems to end.
Discomfort —pain— must be managed to reach your goal. Your mind must be managed in an ultra marathon.
What is success?
Earning a belt buckle?
Finding a story to tell?
Take from an ultra marathon the breathtaking mountaintop views, the lush forests, the warm community, and the inspiration of the other runners.
And take the joy of seeing your crew and the volunteers, the warmth of the overnight broth, and the ecstasy of the sunrise.
Take the beauty of the ultra marathon with you.
But don’t neglect the adversity.
Take with you the pain, the fatigue, the fear, the trembling hands and shaky knees. And take the blisters and cuts and bruises of the Wicked Trail, that which climbs on into the mountains you love.
Use your ultra marathon as your own rejection of comfort, a testament to your culture; put yourself in a place of fatigue, distress, and vulnerability. Find where it starts to hurt. Explore the world beyond the hurt.
You’re on Stage
Place yourself in the pit of pain, of adversity. The pain cave. It’s dark, there is a storm churning the sky, the trail is rugged and leads up a steep ridge, and your feet are bruised and beaten. The rain forms mud beneath you. Feel it. Place yourself into your own pit of pain and adversity. The pain cave.
Let your mind wander out and look down at yourself in the cave. Your bruised and beaten feet sink into the mud. You scramble toward the light, only to be pulled back in. The damp cave echoes your heavy, fatigued breathing.
What do you see when you look down at yourself, struggling in the cave?
See the blood, the sweat, and the tears. The trials and failures and fear. You scramble toward the light, but are pulled back in and fall to the floor. Sitting in the mud of despair, all seems lost.
Welcome to the pain cave.
Your mind has wandered out; you are self-aware. You know where you are, this cave, and you understand the predicament: You continue to struggle toward the light of relief, of comfort, but cannot get a footing. Sink deeper into the mud. Count your blisters, cuts, and bruises.
Look at yourself, down in the cave. What do you want to yell? Do you want to show yourself the way out? Should you drop a rope and pull yourself out of the mud of despair?
Will you allow yourself to quit?
Remember why you first came here. You entered this cave for a reason.
Why are you running this ultra marathon?
Look around you; you’re not the only one watching yourself struggle in the cave, this pain cave. Standing around the mouth of the cave are your friends and family and the volunteers and spectators who came to watch; your children, parents, siblings, coworkers, and friends are watching!
What do they see?
Certainly they see you scramble about the cave. It’s hard to miss the mud, the water, the treachery. They see your blisters and cuts and bruises. They see the adversity.
But do they also see an iron will and mentality forged by extreme conditions? A body capable of much more than what seems possible? Do they see indomitable character?
Or do they see self-pity and a deterioration of will, embers stifled by the rain and wind, by the cold cave?
Don’t call out to them Help! I’m in the pain cave. I can’t find a way out. Throw me a rope! It’s cold and dark in here!
Steady your voice. Change your perspective.
I’ll find my way out. I’m exploring this cave. I’ll learn its passageways. Sure, I’ll trip over rocks and roots, but I’ll understand its structure. I’ll find my way out.
Welcome to the pain cave.
What will they say about you? Will you example leave a lasting impression on them?
You see, when you put yourself down in the pain cave, the pit of adversity, and expose yourself to extreme conditions and physical toil, you’re setting an example for those watching. An example of adventure, and experience, one of fortitude and perseverance.
Let your mind rejoin your body; explore the pit. Explore all the roots and boulders, its stalagmites and rocky ledges. That’s what the ultra marathon is: Familiarization. Placing ourselves in the pain cave, the pit of adversity, is a way to become familiar with what is to come upon our return to society, our return from the trails and mountains.
Life will not be kind to you. At any moment you are subject to crippling disease, death, heartbreak, mental degeneration, complete loss of comfort, violence, oppression, and rejection.
Familiarize yourself with discomfort. Prepare for these and remember who is watching: yourself and those you interact with daily. You came here to find out what you’re made of and now you get a front row seat to the show, to the cave.
Take a new perspective on the pain of ultra running; allow your mind to wander out and see your actions on the trail, in this cave. Explore it. Align your life with discomfort and set an example for those around you. The ones who, aligned with the culture of the common man, say “I could never do that” or “Be realistic” or “I’m comfortable here.”
Live as a shining light in the darkness of complacency.
Stay on the Wicked Trail.