Runner's Pain

Michael Stocks Running

04:33am, 114 miles of running

I’ve heard it said many times before: embrace the pain. Pain is a strong and emotive word to describe something we experience when bad things happen. Pain is a problem, but what is it? The aching in my legs and hips is pain. The sciatic flashes are pain. The jarring in my lower back is pain. The tenderness on the soles of my feet and the blisters under my toenails are pain.

I don’t embrace these feelings and I don’t welcome them – they are here to stay, whether I like it or not. I don’t even ignore the pain, not entirely. Physical pain is a language and my body has a story to tell, most of which I’ve heard a hundred times before. The sameness of the plot becomes more boring to my brain as the race goes on, so much so that I can eventually barely hear it. There’s only so many times the same nerve can complain before I lose interest – what I’m listening for is a new line in the story, or a sudden plot twist.

So I don’t embrace, welcome or ignore this kind of pain – I accept it. It is a fact of running as I do, something I know from experience that I can handle. There is no anticipation, no fear and no dread. It is just something that simply is.

Then there are the other things that athletes call pain, sensations for which there is no other adequate word. The anaerobic burn of the sprint, the devouring lactate of the endless hill, the accumulated fatigue of the explosive burst, the exhaustion of endless repetition. It is the sum of sensations where we take ourselves beyond the realm of comfort. And underpinning it all is the mental strain of coping and finding a way to carry on. I have tried to embrace these things too, but acceptance is more realistic when at the extremes of effort, and even that is difficult at times like these.

Before the race, when I imagine the run, I accept the arrival of those feelings and know that they will be there because I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t give it that label, though: pain. Assigning those sensations a name might add to their power.

How funny all the preparation, and then this – the reality. It is beyond the scope of memory to recall feeling like this. After every race I think I can remember – that I have enough experience to be able to recreate the discomfort in my mind and prepare to face it again. And as I do, I look back on races past and wonder: why didn’t I press-on when I had the chance? I’ll do better next time. And now here I am and it is harder than anything I could ever recreate in my mind. And suddenly that last performance looks a whole lot better. If I could truly recall what this feels like would I ever have returned?

In this reality, I can try to accept and to embrace whatever this clusterfuck of difficulty should be called. The truth is that anything works if it works for even one moment and all this can be is a series of moments that can take me to the end. And pain is a word used for lack of something more adequate, because in many ways this is so much worse.

 

From Michael's book, ‘One-Track Mind’, out in 2021

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