The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.– Ben Okri
Bear with me … things are about to get heavy.
The sun is just minutes from rising, and my pacer David and I are somewhere near the Bird Knob aid station at mile 81 of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100.
It’s more than 24 hours into the race, and we’re in full on zombie mode. The air is downright cold, and our paper thin jackets and wet shorts make the misting rain feel more like an arctic blizzard.
This section of trail is relatively smooth compared to the miles of rocky climbing we’ve covered the past several hours, but I’m still having a hard time walking straight, let alone running. We’re beat up, shivering, and suffering — it’s a full-fledged sufferfest, with an equal chance of us spooning in the woods to keep warm and making it to the next aid station.
I look at him, he looks at me.
“Keep going, they’ll have something warm ahead,” David says, and I march on, half awake, half asleep, fully defeated.
It isn’t long before we see lanterns that signify the upcoming aid station. As we approach, we’re handing hot coffee and offered a seat by the fire.
“Don’t sit down. Let’s drink the coffee, warm up by the fire, and keep going.”
Unable to think for myself, I oblige, and a few short minutes later, just as the light rises over the mountains and I sip on a second coffee, we press on down a dirt road. Slightly warmer, but no more satisfied.
That was the lowest point I’d ever had during a run, and maybe the greatest physical suffering I had ever felt in life. It was miserable. It was scary.
And it was also of my own doing.
I wasn’t cold because I couldn’t afford clothes, or malnourished because I didn’t have access to food. I wasn’t running because anything terrible would happen if I didn’t.
But there I was, suffering, and dragging my friend through it with me.
A Better Way to Suffer (Through a Race)
From the lead pack to the final finisher, we all suffer during an ultramarathon.
Proper training, pacing, and nutrition can minimize the amount of suffering, but even when the stars align just right, you’re still going to suffer. That’s the beauty of ultrarunning, if you can call it that…
So it’s not whether or not you suffer, but how you suffer and what you do with that pain that sets one runner apart from another.
The way I see it, there are 3 ways to manage suffering. The first, and most common, is also the worst option.
1) You can dwell on your suffering. I’m pretty sure you know exactly what this feels like before I even describe it.
It’s when the pain and discomfort arrive, and you can’t stop thinking about it. You can’t let go of the fact that your legs feel heavy. Or your stomach queasy. Or the fact that you’re just so damn tired you want to lay down and cry. Yup, cry. This is the suffer management style that ends races.
2) You can flat out ignore it.
Pump the jams, chat with another runner, sing “This is the song that never ends” until you can’t sing it any longer.
Ignoring your pain often works in the short term, and it’s a good way to get through a particularly tough spot, but most of us can’t ignore the discomfort forever.
3) You can take the mindfulness approach: Acknowledge it, accept it, let it go.
Unfortunately, this is also the hardest (and most frustrating).
OK, what the hell does mindfulness mean? Well, until put into action, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around. Let’s try anyway …
When the pain, discomfort, irritation, and suffering surface, acknowledge it, don’t try to hide from it. Focus on that discomfort for a moment, listen to what the pain is trying to tell you, then accept it and let it go. Just like that, into the wind and down the trail.
You don’t have to listen to your suffering or dwell on the discomfort. You don’t have to abide by that voice that tells you to walk, slow down, or sit by the fire. Those are just voices in your head, thoughts that can be released just as they arrived.
When you accept it, and let it go, you can flip the thought from a race-ender and emotional crusher, to just another part of the experience.
We Do This to Ourselves
Suffering is where we grow.
It’s where we’re the most vulnerable, the weakest, and the most exposed. Who you are in that moment tells you a lot about who you are outside the moment, and how you need to grow.
For most of us that choose to run ultramarathons, we crave that feeling … even if we hate it when it arrives.
I often think back on those pre-dawn miles with David. I think about how I needed him to get me out of the dwelling phase, and how incredible it felt when I came out the other end a few hours later.
And I think about how frustrated and depressed I was in the moment, and what that experience would have been like had I been able to fully let it go.
We do this to ourselves. Suffering is an option we choose.
But it’s how we manage that discomfort through an ultramarathon that will show us what we’re capable of managing when the suffering isn’t optional.