Putting Pain on the Back Burner

if you change the way you look at things the things you look at change

I’m a member of the Ultra Listserv, an email community of ultra runners and those interested in ultra running who come from all over the world, all levels, stripes, weights, speeds, etc.  Since joining the list back in 2007, I’ve learned a lot from the posts and plan to continue learning as time goes on.  The conversations on the UltraList run the gamut (pun intended 🙂 covering everything from nutrition, to particular race courses, studies on endurance sports, training plans, and more.  Recently, there was a conversation on pain tolerance which I found very interesting.  One UltraLister, Gary Cantrell (AKA Lazarus Lake), who happens to be the race director of the infamous Barkley Marathons, had the following to say:

nobody really “tolerates” pain.

“pain” is nothing more than brain data,
and you have to learn to treat it as such.

think of discomfort as something like your car’s “check engine soon” light.
is it thirst? drink.
if it is hunger; eat.
if it is blisters, consider the situation.
if you are near the end, just run on them to shut them up.
if there is a lot of time left, do some foot repair and get the situation under control.
if it is foot pain; maybe try a change of shoes,
or for joint and muscle issues; try to correct your form and reduce the stress.

whatever the discomfort; do what you can,
then put it away in a compartment and don’t think about it.

you wouldn’t stare at your “check engine soon” light for 8 or 10 hours straight.
well, you don’t need to focus on discomfort continuously either.

relegate it to background noise, and go on.

no one is a bigger sissy about pain than me,
but even i was able to learn how to deal with discomfort during ultras.
don’t listen to someone’s overblown depictions of agony,
they amount to little more than adolescent boasting.
i have had the good fortune (bad fortune at the time)
to experience genuine pain a time or two.
trust me, no one would “tolerate” that.

and the key is not to tolerate it,
but to put it on the back burner.
if you can’t remedy it, ignore it.

This really made sense to me.  In all endurance sports there is a level of pain that comes along with it.  All runners know the feeling of burning quads or glutes during and after a long or intense workout.  People handle all the aches and pains that come along with running ultras in different ways, but from personal experience, and reading, I agree with Laz that in most instances, you have to ignore it.

Of course there are exceptions to this “if you can’t remedy it, ignore it” rule.  You have to know your body and know if the pain you’re experiencing is from injury or internal issues that require medical attention.  While those instances of needing medical attention or approaching serious injury do happen, it is most often the case that the body hurts because we’re pushing our limits.   So, if you know you are going to experience pain, how do you prep for it? Can you?

I believe you can.

I think I experienced the highest level of pain I ever have during the Ghost Train Rail Trail (GTRT) 100 last October, but I’m not sure.  How can that be?  I put myself in a place where I did not have room for pain. GTRT was my first 100 attempt, and I was hell-bent on finishing and giving it my all.  I really wanted to finish in under 24 hours.  And, in order to do so, there were many things I had to focus on – nutrition – was I eating and drinking enough; pace – was I going too fast or too slow; maintaining a positive attitude;  not losing my footing in the dark and with tired legs; taking care of my feet – did I need to change socks/shoes/apply more bodyglide to feet; did I want to change into long sleeves/shortsleeves; making sure I knew what I needed when I hit the aid stations.  I had a mental checklist.  When I completed the checklist, I started it all over again.

The checklist allowed me to realize discomforts and make a plan for attending to them.  I couldn’t do anything about it at that moment,  I put it on the back burner focusing on what was in my control.  I did my best to keep it there until I could do something to remedy it. 

My awesome Ghost Train Rail Trail crew and pacers!  Love them and wouldn't have been able to do it without them.

My awesome Ghost Train Rail Trail crew and pacers! Love them and wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.

Near the end, of GTRT I knew I was in pain because my breathing was loud.  I was “breathing through the pain”, as they say.  Still, I wasn’t focused on it.  Instead, at this point in the race I always had an amazing pacer with me who would talk and keep my mind focused.  If at anytime I began to really feel the pain despite their efforts, I just recited my simple, yet effective mantra which I have with me and ready to whip out during tough points in any race.

This is my race and I am strong. 

That’s it.  As long as I didn’t keep looking at the proverbial “check engine” light and focused on the important things that would get me to the finish line safely and as quickly as possible, the pain wasn’t a big part of the experience.  I finished in 23:03:00 which was good enough for a 4th overall and 1st place female finish.  So, my method worked for me.

I guess that’s why, as soon as it was over, I was scouting out another hundred.  I don’t know how many hundreds I’ll attempt.  I figure, I’ll keep running long and focusing on the important things during the race as long as it’s fun.  I have a feeling that will be for quite some time to come.

How do you conquer pain in tough workouts, training runs, or endurance events?  Do you “compartmentalize” it? Do you use a mantra?  Please share in the comments below.

till we meet on the trails,


PS – Two books that touch on this subject are  Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Matt Fitzgerald’s Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. I highly recommend both.