Suffering: Seeking Out Discomfort

By | March 19, 2019

A popular Buddha quote: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

Clearly, the Buddha wasn’t a trail runner.

There’s a more recent quote about suffering, this one by Greg LeMond, but I can’t find it anywhere but in my memory – so I’ve probably got it all wrong. My recollection: LeMond said “getting shot in a hunting accident actually improved my cycling. It gave me a new perspective on pain and suffering.” He suggested that being laid up in a hospital bed with a gaping wound, chest tubes and shot pellets lodged in various internal organs became his benchmark for pain.

A bike race? Merely suffering – temporary, self-inflicted, something to endure, to embrace.

In our modern society, a hard day at work typically includes getting chewed out by a client or a boss, missing a deadline, or getting a computer virus. For workers in developed nations, the days of pushing ourselves to a physical limit, day after day, to make ends meet are stories from previous generations. Suffering, physical suffering, is rarely something we’re forced to face.

I too have been laid up in a hospital bed, twice. Chest tubes, gaping wounds – splayed open and stapled shut. Tubes running from my stomach, then out my nose to facilitate vomiting. Pain! Christ, talk about suffering. Nothing I ever do on a Saturday long run will ever approach the discomfort of those hospital visits. Like Greg LeMond, I’ve been given the gift of perspective.

Endure (definition): to suffer patiently. Trail-runners: we’re endurance athletes. We train ourselves to suffer.

I like to generalize, so I will. Trail runners are an odd bunch. Introverts, solitude seekers, folks who don’t fit in with polite society. Possibly I’m only describing myself, but plenty of books and articles about trail runners paint the same picture – the sport is littered with broken souls seeking redemption… or penance. Substance abusers trading one addiction for another. The mentally ill, running away from their problems, maybe towards a better life. Unhappy people simply beating themselves up because no one else will.

Very few of us live in wilderness areas anymore. Before I even hit the trail I’ve often exerted extra effort – my drive to the trail-head. Depending on where I’m running, it can be a pain in the ass. For me, for most of us, it’s much easier to run a suburban loop – neighborhoods, secondary roads, and with some luck, a decent size park to incorporate. I have one local trail I can get to on a run. It’s mostly untechnical and the hills aren’t very steep; it’s not much of a challenge, and I know every inch of it. For the most part, I run this trail for mileage.

When I want to suffer, I get out of town. That’s where I find four-mile climbs, quad-killing descents, and ankle-turning rock-gardens.

When exercising, I seek out discomfort. Those winter days in the low-teens and single digits, they improve my running. If I can concentrate on form while my water-bottle freezes shut, imagine my focus on a sunny, forty-eight-degree day. If I can push through a Sunday morning half while my cheeks and lips burn on the edge of frostbite, I know I can run through bursting heel-blisters and razor-sharp brambles.

I once read about a mud-run racer who, when approaching a good sized mud puddle, always got on his belly and army-crawled. He explained that by making this a normal part of his training, it wouldn’t be demoralizing in a race. I don’t crawl through mud (yet), but I will frequently go out of my way to run a brutal hill… several times.

Recently, I’ve been involved in the planning of a potential new marathon that encircles my town. The planned course covers long rolling hills as well as a couple of nice climbs. This isn’t surprising since all runs around my town are hilly. The Appalachian mountains are just a few miles away, always visible when facing west. My town is where the foothills start. One of my friends stated that this was going to be “a tough marathon, lots of hard hills.”

I pffted – I couldn’t help myself. Roadrunners, ugh! I’ve only run one marathon, and that was twenty-five years ago. The Marine Corps – the easy one. This is where I should just shut up – I don’t have the cred for this rant. I don’t know what I’m talking about. But…

I’ve run every inch of this proposed marathon route. I know these roads; I go out of my way to run the hardest of the hills. None of the ascents on this course is as challenging as my untechnical trail run – the one I do when I want easy mileage. Road racing is rife with complaints about the hills.

The legendary ‘heartbreak hill’ in Boston, is a 3% grade. That doesn’t even rate a “trucks use low gear” sign. A total elevation gain of 91 feet. A bump on the elevation profiles I’m used to seeing. I’m signed up for a June marathon. The Xterra Big Elk Marathon in Maryland. I’ve copied the elevation profiles from Boston and Big Elk below. There are eight or ten heartbreak hills in Big Elk.

Boston:

Big Elk: (13.1 miles, you need to run it twice)

I’m a numbers guy. I would feel disingenuous if I didn’t point out that the scale of the Boston profile has a greater span. You need to read the y-axis to get the complete picture. But the Boston profile shows a wider range only because it loses 450 feet from start to finish. So people are really just bitching about regaining a third of the elevation they’ve already given up. And as soon as you crest the hill, you’re downhill and flat until you cross the finish. Can’t you gut out a short climb knowing that a free ride is a half a mile away?

I’m sorry to say that I’ll never run Boston. I’m not fast enough to qualify, and I wouldn’t sign up anyway. Running on the road is boring for me. It’s like driving (which I hate) but it takes longer. Un-diverse foot-strikes lead to repetition injuries. The hard surface beats up my back and knees and feet. This isn’t the sort of suffering I’m looking for. I might as well be running on a treadmill.

That hackneyed Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” contains an element of truth. The heartbreak hills of the world give us purpose. They make life worth living. If everything is easy and predictable, why bother at all. I know many runners are in it for the time. Looking for their personal record. I used to be like this as well. But my best times are twenty years behind me. I’ll never run a 3:50 marathon again, and I don’t want to. That would mean I’m running flat roads in perfect temperatures. Where’s the fun in that?

I’m looking for a different sort of challenge – something internal, something you won’t find in a race report. I’ll continue to seek out races like Big Elk. Long trail races with daunting profiles. But my measure of success won’t have anything to do with a clock. Did I trudge up the steepest hills as fast as the person next to me? Did I properly let go on the descents? Were there times I could have pushed harder, suffered more? Did I learn anything about myself? Did I enjoy the race?

Originally published on The Other Stuff

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