Suffer with meaning: Finding the life you tolerate

There is no escaping it, running hurts.

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No matter how experienced you are, running hurts. You just need to stand at the finish line of any marathon to see this. Even the professionals cross that finish line with their faces contorted from the pain and effort.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by runners, that it doesn’t get any easier, the times just get quicker.

That isn’t to say a more experienced runner couldn’t pace themselves and go for a nice “easy” run. Of course they can. It’s just that this is very rarely the case.

No. Instead we are always chasing those elusive PBs, or trying to push that little bit further. We don’t stick with what is familiar and comfortable, but force ourselves back into that painful territory of the unknown. The unachieved.

But why?

Madness!? Quite possibly. Einstein defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this is runners, putting themselves through that same pain again and again expecting it to be different. Is it that, despite miles and miles of efforts to the contrary, we believe that the next race will be different?

No. This can’t be it. You see, runners don’t expect it to be different, they know it’s going to hurt, and perhaps that’s worse…

Runners know the outcome. They are not only resigned to it, but welcome the pain their hobby brings. This goes beyond simple insanity.

You see, what runners do to themselves, this is masochism.

Capture

Now, I am not arguing that all runners derive some kind of sexual pleasure from that stitch they got seven miles into their marathon. No. Of course some might, but I would like to believe they are the exception rather than the rule.

Runners do however find joy in an activity that appears to be both painful and extremely tedious. This goes doubly for those road marathon runners out there!

26.2 miles, pushing yourself on hard concrete, pounding your joints with a monotonous, unchanging gait. Little else matches the tedium and pain caused by such an exercise. But still, we love it.

In trying to figure out exactly why it is we put ourselves through this, I can’t help but think back to my days as an impressionable, hipster student, during my studies of English Literature in Winchester. In particular, a specific extract from Nietzsche I came across one of many afternoons spent reading books on pop philosophy in a particularly edgy, “cool” student establishment enjoying some beautifully crafted avocado on toast.

Whilst it has certainly become somewhat of a cliche to quote him, Nietzsche came up with something I can’t help but feel is particularly relevant as far as runners are concerned.

To begin with, he posed a situation,

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

The concept of a “groundhog” day has grown into something quite often repeated in pop culture. The idea of repeating a moment over and over. Nietzsche took this one step further.

What if you didn’t repeat just one day, but every single moment of your life? Every single tear, every time you smiled, each time you laughed. Everything.

He then followed this with a very simple question:

Would you be horrified by the thought of reliving it all, or would you embrace it gladly?

This is where runners come in. We are not horrified by the thought of reliving all those miles we’ve tread. Often, it is our most painful runs we repeat, we go back to and try again. You see that hill that caused you so much pain during the closing miles of your last cross country race and begin thinking how you are going to better approach it next year.

Runners have not only an outstanding resilience for, but ability to embrace pain.

This is not to say that all runners can endure any kind of pain and soldier through with a smile upon their face. I believe there is more to it than that. It’s more nuanced.

You see, runners choose the pain they endure. They have a greater purpose, some loftier goals or aims and the pain is merely a part of that. It is for this reason they are able to take the pain so gladly. For example, after my latest hill session my toe-nail is blackened and sore. To walk on it is painful and this is only made worse by the dull ache in my quads. This however, is all a part of making progress. I know come my ultra next month I am going to be better prepared as a result. This pain I can accept as it is a necessary component to the life I’m choosing.

pikachu-i-choose-5a9e7e

Choice.

Running teaches us the inextricable bond between pain and choice.

I know what you’re saying. Pain isn’t always something you choose. Sometimes it just happens. Life is unfair and sometimes pain is thrust upon us and there is nothing we can do.

It is this outlook that holds us back and it is this thinking that Nietzsche so strongly railed against. It is not particular forms of pain we choose. That is true. Nobody – well, very few at least – wake up and decide they’re going to take nail to their foot.

The choices we make are bigger. We decide on the life we want and the direction we go in. Then, we are able to make sense of any pain that comes our way as part of that journey. A necessary step forwards.

This offers structure and meaning to our pain. It is when the pain seems meaningless, when we’re left wondering, “Why me?”, that it becomes unbearable. When it becomes separated from some greater purpose, it becomes all their is. Your soul focus! This places too much weight upon your suffering and increases the burden upon yourself.

Mark Manson believes that,

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Mark Manson, The Subtle                                                                                                                 Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Pain is a part of life. So, in order to get through any pain we need to be a hundred percent committed to the life we’re living. Like Nietzsche, when asked whether we would relive it all, there can only be one answer,

“Fuck yeah!” Of course you would go through it again, because this is the life you’ve chosen.

Sometimes however, there may be forms of pain you don’t have the strength – or maybe it is better to say inclination – to bear. In these situations it is important we think beyond the pain and what in our life has brought it about. How does this play into our life and where we want to go?

If it doesn’t, perhaps it is best to move on and not waste your energy upon it. When this isn’t physically possible, perhaps it is time for deeper thoughts. It may be you need to reconsider your goals and objectives. This isn’t easy, but at times like this, necessary for coping. You can’t force life.

For example, what if a runner is in a car accident? They break their leg and can’t run for several months. For many, this is a nightmare. This pain goes against the very thing you’ve shaped your life around. How can you make sense of this without feeling the victim?

You would need to reprioritise. You can’t keep your focus on being a runner otherwise the pain you can’t escape will cause constant friction. It will always be holding you back from life. So you might shift your focus to your family, or another hobby. Or perhaps you begin blogging and use your experience to help others. Again, this will never be easy. But sometimes it has to be done.

The key is making the pain a part of your life, not some great antagonist fighting against it. It should be something to fight through, not against.

This way, your suffering is never without meaning as it is taking you where you want to go. This is why runners are able to face the pain of marathons and ultras. The pain is a part of who we are.

We are runners, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Although this toe is really painful!

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