At mile 17 I’m in a fast stride going up a rather steep and long hill, “walking with purpose,” as my mantra has become. The sun is starting to emerge from the clouds, and the cool, crisp air of the dawn race start is sneaking away. I feel good: my muscles are burning, I’m taking steady, deep breaths, and my heart rate remains at a clean aerobic rhythm.
“Good work,” a fellow runner says to me as I pass by her. She’s struggling with the uphill, and has all day. “You too,” I respond, “see you on the downhill.” She might be struggling with these inclines, but the descents are absolutely trashing me. In two miles, when we roll over the top of this little summit, she’ll fly by me in a controlled running fall down the other side.
A similar interaction will happen with a half dozen more runners as we negotiate our way up this section of trail. Having just left the 3rd aid station, past the halfway mark of this 50k ultra-marathon known as the Dirty Thirty, we’re all starting to feel the effects of long-distance running. At least those of us in this pack of runners. We’ll find out later that the winner of the race is crossing the finish line as we reach mile 20.
How could he endure the pain of running at such speeds on this trail, the same trail that’s pounding us down? How are we enduring the pain that we’re all experiencing on this hill right now? And probably the question that most sane people will be asking as they read this: why have we chosen to put ourselves into a situation where we have to endure this pain, and significantly more pain in the last miles of the race?
“Running with the Mind of Meditation,” which I cited in last week’s post, talks about the importance of engaging pain, experiencing pain, and knowing how to deal with pain. This hill seems like the perfect time to contemplate these wisdoms.
I’m thankful for all the hiking I’ve done since I was a kid. My leg muscles have a lifetime of training in the effort of walking up steep hills. These same legs are also pretty accustomed to walking downhill, but as for running downhill, which I’m inclined, motivated, and persuaded to do when I get to the top, that’s a different story. With only a year of running under my belt, and minimum miles learning to run with gravity, the entirety of my body will feel quite different in just a few minutes. I’ll be in the same state then that everyone I pass by now is in.
I know one thing for sure, it won’t feel good. The bottoms of my feet will ache, my shins will feel twinges of sharp, stabbing pains, and my upper-leg muscles will feel a serious burn. I will attempt to adjust my form, and some of these changes will help. But the real issues are that I don’t have the best technique, and I’m under-prepared. Fortunately, as I pass by another set of runners, we laugh about the state of pain we’re all in. We smile and congratulate one another on our collective efforts, and I’m quickly reminded of the great joys in running these races and the happiness that community brings.
So what conclusions do I come to during this contemplation and celebration of pain? Pain is a part of life, and as such, we must meet it as an experience. Laughter and smiling at our pain is a strange act, but it must be done. Secondly, pain reminds us that we are alive, strolling around this earth in volatile bodies. Pain reminds us to appreciate every moment, to inhale the refreshing breath of life.
And finally, third, pain makes us work hard to accomplish something. It forces us to overcome the limitations of our bodies, minds, and hearts. It makes us stronger, and it makes completing the race or weathering life’s greatest adversities worth every moment of struggle. Pain revitalizes us to see the new dawn with hopeful eyes, to fully embrace the gift that is today and that will be tomorrow. We need pain to appreciate all that we are.
So, downhill? Here I come.