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Unsympathetic Discomfort

Wicked Trail Ultra Running Blog Unsympathetic Discomfort

I think I’m pretty tough. You probably think you’re pretty tough.

I train intentionally, eat for performance, and structure my life to include a heavy dose of discomfort.

But lately I’ve reflected on toughness, that easily claimed attribute of the modern athlete.

A historical feat of endurance forced some hard questions into my mind.

Could I survive two years in the most inhospitable place on Earth?

Could I stay sane in a place where catastrophe was always a misstep away?

What if food was scarce, the weather was unforgiving, and the very ground beneath my feet threatened my life?

It’s all hard to imagine. Those odds are strenuously unfavorable.

It’s likely you and I would not survive such a test.

But it’s been done.

Those impalpable odds were overcome, the Earth and elements submitted, the catastrophe avoided.

And not one of the 28 men died.

Perhaps you know the impossible story. It made the news recently when the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, was found 106 years later and 2 miles deep in Antarctic water.

A crew of 26 men (and one stowaway—can you imagine sneaking aboard to join such an ill-fated mission?) and their captain, Ernest Shackleton, attempted to make the first trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914. After their ship became stuck in crushing ice flows, the men were forced to abandon it. They were stranded for almost 2 years in the harshest environment—not survivable by modern standards—on this planet.

Check out Endurance on Amazon.

Here are a few of the tortures they endured:

  • Using packed snow as toilet paper for over a year
  • Wind madness: mental deterioration due to constant and severe winds. Sustained 100+ mph winds were common across the sea of packed ice
  • Going months without sunlight: the men endured a 4 month stretch of darkness
  • Surgical removal of gangrene and frostbite in austere conditions

Not. One. Life. Lost.

The lessons are abundant; some leap from the pages of the book (Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Tap here to check it out on Amazon) and others require reflection. There are themes of leadership, patience, and camaraderie. Survival and navigation, faith and trust, fear and purpose.

But it’s none of these that fascinates me.

The one theme that has gripped me since finishing the books is discomfort.

Pure, unforgiving, uncaring, unsympathetic discomfort.

You see, we like to think we know discomfort. It comes with being tough. We sweat and bleed for our goals, changing our bodies and minds into formidable weapons by years of challenge. We pound pavement and climb mountains, pursuing an ideal by habit and fatigue.

We show up today and tomorrow and the next day, hungry for hard work.

Today is an easy length of time to battle. It’s easy to digest discomfort for just a day, or even just a few hours on trails, when we know soft, cozy beds wait at home. And so it’s easy for us to embrace our little doses of discomfort, to claim hardship as our path.

But every day has an end. For most of us, it ends easily in softness and warmth.

But still we claim hardship.

We spend hours in the rain, scrambling up steep singletrack, and suffering through ultra races. We count our calluses and inundate our brains with motivational messages. We pursue big goals and sign up for big challenges.

At least I do. And you probably do too.

And I thought I knew hardship, discomfort.

Until I read this book.

Because I realized I knew discomfort of today, but I had no understanding of unsympathetic discomfort, discomfort which is inanimate and unmoving, discomfort which is a mountain of impregnable stone.

This book gave me a glimpse of savage survival in the face of that unsympathetic discomfort, that which knows no laws or treaties, has no blood or breath, and has no eyes for human tears. To survive such internal, mental chaos—or to bring your people through such darkness alive, as Shackleton did—what would that require?

What does it require of me today? Tomorrow?

What habits create such patience for misery?

Could I endure that hardship?

My immediate reaction is YES. It’s a reaction I’m proud of.

But I know there is still work to do.

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And it’s hard to identify exactly what type of work molds a person for impossible hardship, unsympathetic discomfort.

Perhaps, my eyes opened anew to life’s incredible cruelty by this book, my mindset has shifted from TRAIN to PREPARE. If those words are divisible, it is only the latter I now inhale and exhale with the sweat and blood of my pursuit. “PREPARE” for the trials you are not ready for, for unsympathetic discomfort, for natural cruelty beyond reason.

Wind madness, gangrene and frostbite, leopard seal attacks, and months of darkness are miseries you and I cannot imagine. Even typing this now, it takes great effort to conjure those images. It doesn’t feel possible that humans endured, and survived, such calamity.

But we’ve other miseries, modern calamities, to prepare for.

You needn’t be damned to Antarctic ice to understand the lessons of Shackleton’s crucible.

Disease, financial disaster, mental illness, and the loss of family and friends can easily ruin a modern person. Culture even allows such ruin; society permits unending trauma and mourning and tells us constantly “It’s okay.” It is offensive and tasteless to lament the ruin of the modern person, to tell someone to rise up and keep moving (though you and I still might).

Shackleton and his men did not permit ruin, unending trauma and mourning.

They knew their situation wasn’t okay, and they didn’t care.

They had work to do.

And there was no one watching.

And there was no one to hold their frostbitten hands.

And there was no social sympathy.

There was no escape, no relief from the burden.

And still they survived that which should not be survivable.

They knew their situation wasn’t okay, and they didn’t care.

I can hardly say a person can “train” to survive insurmountable odds. It doesn’t feel sufficient. Shackleton and his men didn’t volunteer to be stranded in Antarctica for 20 months, and they didn’t train for that moment. My own understanding of the word “training” is effort toward a moment of achievement, but they weren’t offered an achievement. After that long stranded, even rescue wasn’t an achievement. It was a necessity. Death by starvation or the vicious efforts of nature was the only other option.

I’ll keep working for achievements. I’m not giving up competition and progress.

But I’m preparing.

It has a different taste on my tongue.

Go ahead, say it out loud.

“I’m preparing.”

I’m preparing for wind madness, gangrene and frostbite, leopard seal attacks, and months of darkness, though these I’ll likely never see. I’m preparing for uncertainty, loneliness, and despair. I’m preparing for life to completely remove comfort and ease from my life, to thrust me into savage dependence on my past experiences and a future I can hardly grasp.

Few people understand unsympathetic discomfort and can imagine the descendance of such cruelty.

We’re all flesh and blood, and so we’re all vulnerable.

When life rips you from luxury, or convenience, or simple pleasures (I can’t imagine the crew of the Endurance felt much pleasure during their crucible), do not die. Do not die when instability or uncertainty rock your world, when your possessions are stolen and your values violated.

That’s the lesson of the Endurance.

And it’s why we show up, ready to fight, for every single challenge we volunteer for.

For every day we open our eyes.

Death is easy.

Death is warranted.

But do not die.


One short-of-breath, hands-shaking step after step.

Darkness overhead, uncertainty before you, discomfort unwavering.


Your life depends on it.

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