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?

There are 4 comments

  1. JBaldwin

    I’ve always been curious as to varying degrees of suffering. The elite front pack runner who pushes hard to maintain what front packers have to maintain, or is it the back of the packer who may even be in over his/her head with ultra distances and fighting to make cutoffs. I myself have never really been either to this extreme but ultra running was way more “painful” and difficult when I had less experience and was not in ultra running form. I know a lot of runners with 1000 non competitive racing miles under their belt that dig way deeper into the pain threshold than I can imagine any elite runner doing.

  2. Mark Copeland

    Great article. Very interesting to me as I’m two weeks out from my first 100 mile event.

    Couple of thoughts.

    Firstly, I’m pretty sure you can train yourself to, at least in part, ignore the usual signals of pain that make you want to stop. I seem to recall a podcast about using stroop games/tests during treadmill running enhances the ability to ignore natural reflexes (like stopping when it hurts). You’ll also be doing this, in a roundabout way, during your really long runs.

    Secondly, I competed in a marathon the other week and narrowly missed out on a London qualifying ​time. There was a section where we passed guys and gals that were around 20 minutes, half an hour in front of us heading the other direction. At least one of those guys looked like he was really suffering but he was still going, and going at a decent rate! The lesson for me there was that maybe the difference between him and i wasn’t so much fitness but more the ability to carry on through suffering. I’ve trained my legs and body pretty well so far and, to take it to the next level, i need to train my mind to accept the pain and carry on.

    Anyway, wish me luck on my Thames Path 100 journey and please visit my fundraising page.

  3. Sung

    After reviewing the article, the research is reinventing the wheel of chronic pain knowledge; especially, the notion of catastrophizing as a hallmark for chronic pain experience. This isn’t groundbreaking at the least and has been around for at least a decade.

  4. Nathan Nelson

    And yet, Sung, the article was worthwhile to me. I may intuitively or academically know these things, but sometimes I forget them. A reminder that is written this well and this palatable may not be groundbreaking, but it is necessary to me, as I have a tendency to forget important things. :)

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