Friday, February 10, 2017


Due to a number of different circumstances lately, I've been ruminating about pain and how one deals with it.

There's no mistaking the fact that it's unpleasant, no matter how it comes about. The very nature of pain is such that most people would choose to avoid it entirely. Apart from injury and illness, though, there are some pursuits and pleasures that require you to get up close and personal with pain.

Ultrarunning is one of these, at least for my clumsy, heavy body. As the hours tick past and the pounding takes its toll, it's virtually inevitable that I'll end up hurting.

A seeming majority of people try to alleviate the pain by various means. They'll listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks to distract them, or just try to focus on the scenery instead of acknowledging the discomfort. Some will even go to the extent of taking medication like ibuprofen or other drugs to chemically reduce their suffering, despite the dangers of doing so (TL;DR: taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before or during a run can mess you up!).

Few people are willing to just sit with pain, getting to know it and learning how to listen to it.

"So, do you have any hobbies..?"

The thing is, I've found there's a lot of value in accepting the suffering that comes with long distance racing, and its rewards stretch far beyond the boundaries of sport. Pain tolerance can be trained like a muscle, and that mental strength can hold you over through some very rough times.

In the last month I've had about a decade's worth of dentistry done to me. Right after New Year's two of my wisdom teeth went south on me, while I was battling a sinus infection. Since swollen sinuses can put pressure on the roots of wisdom teeth (and I had a race coming up), I ended up waiting more than a week to have those teeth pulled. In the interim, due to the nerves being exposed, it often felt as though someone had driven an ice pick into my throat just below the left side of my jaw, up through my left cheek and eye socket, and out through my left temple. It's not an experience I'd recommend to anyone, but I managed to run an 8 hour race during all of this and perform far better than I had expected. 

When I finally went to the dentist, I was asked what kind of pain medication I'd been taking to cope with the torment from my crumbling teeth. The look on my doctor's face when I said "none" was something to behold.

For many years now I've shunned taking painkillers (except in a few rare circumstances) because I believe there's a lot to be learned about yourself that can only be experienced through pain. The trick is to sit with the feeling without judging it, just listening to what your body is telling you. If you are patient and persistent, you'll soon be able to tell if the specific pain you're experiencing is something that needs immediate action (like a broken bone or heart attack), or something you can set aside (like the effects of muscle breakdown and fatigue during a race, or even the bite of a tattoo gun's needles). You keep one ear open in case the pain has something new to tell you, but otherwise just ignore it. I have managed to finish a 6-hour trail race that I started injured just by feeling my way through it, coming out no worse for wear - things actually started to improve afterward.

My dentist and the hygienists who have worked on me in the past month tell me I'm a model patient, as I simply sit still in the chair and let them get on with their work. Same with tattoo artists, and even massage therapists. It's often very uncomfortable, but I know that sooner or later it will end. The suffering I've lived through by my own choice has given me the tools to endure quite a bit of torment from other avenues, raising my quality of life overall.

All of this is to say that maybe the next time you're hurting a bit, why not give yourself the chance to really experience it and learn from it before you go trying to find a way to simply make it go away. You never know what you may find out about yourself.

It only hurts for awhile..

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