Pain And The Ultrarunner

AJW's TaproomI recently came across a study out of Monash University in Australia which found that ultramarathon runners feel less pain and experience pain differently than non-ultrarunners. In the study, the researchers subjected participants to a variety of pain tests and had them self-report their pain experiences. Overwhelmingly, the ultrarunners in the study were able to withstand feelings of pain for a longer period of time and experienced pain in a less acute way than their non-ultrarunning counterparts. While the results were inconclusive, the evidence intrigued me.

First off, I was not at all surprised at the results as just about every ultrarunner I know, and especially those who’ve been at it for awhile, have a higher-than-average pain tolerance. Furthermore, I have come to expect ultrarunners to have a somewhat indifferent attitude toward pain and even a tendency to, at times, embrace it. Our relationship with pain is just different. Finally, I couldn’t help but think that the skill to persist in the face of pain is something that can be learned and honed over years of experience and in that process nurture inevitably wins out over nature.

However, as I reflected on this study further, I couldn’t help but wonder if the conclusive evidence suggesting ultrarunners are better at dealing with physical pain than most people extended to other kinds of pain, as well. In particular, I thought about how we runners deal with emotional and psychological pain. For it’s one thing to have the wherewithal to deal with quad death at mile 80 of an ultra or trashed feet with two days to go in a stage race, and quite another thing to deal with the death of a child, a volatile breakup, or a devastating job loss.

Pain is a complex thing, to say the least. And how we address our pain is often a measure of how we can address the volatility of the rest of our lives. Physical pain is acute and tangible, and ultimately treatable. Other kinds of pain, particularly pains of the head and of the heart, are less likely to be quickly overcome. I like to think that years on the trail, years overcoming obstacles and addressing my weaknesses, years coming to grips with my own mortality, have prepared me for life’s inevitable pains. But perhaps it hasn’t. Perhaps pain, in whatever form, is just something we need to take as it comes?

I truly believe long-distance running can be a crucible for the experience of the rest of our lives. A place of solace and comfort on the one hand and a place of risk and uncertainty on the other. Our experiences out there undoubtedly make us better runners and quite likely better people. And, I like to think that as we face up to pain and weakness in our running, we prepare ourselves for the inevitability of pain and weakness in those parts of our lives that are more capricious. Those places in our lives where it is more difficult to just get to the next aid station and those places where stopping and resting is simply not an option. I like to think that it is in those places, in those inflection points between what we feel and what we know, that running can provide some guidance and, in the end, keep us moving forward.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Russian River Brewing Company TemptationAs this is Lake Sonoma weekend, this week’s Beer of the Week comes from Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California. Their Temptation is a blond ale they affectionately call an American Wild Ale that is truly wild. It’s sour but not overly so, and it runs smooth and silky on the mouth. While this is certainly an acquired taste, the Temptation is one of the best takes on the Brett variety I’ve had.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • If you had to put words to the kind of pain you feel in ultrarunning, what would you say?
  • And what sorts of words would you use to describe the pain that comes with difficult times in life like the death of a loved one or the end of a meaningful relationship?
  • Do you think your coping skills for challenging running circumstances translate to coping with life’s other difficulties? And vice versa?