Sunday, 1 February 2015

Why we choose to suffer

Memory is a fickle thing. Like all things in the known universe, it inevitably falls victim to entropy. As time passes, it becomes a disorganised mess of fragmented images, imagined sounds, a censored version of reality. Also, as any police investigator will tell you, it lies. Memories are the result of a subjective creative process deeply influenced by our personalities. They are susceptible to suggestion. That is why two people can recall the same incident in two very different ways.

How we remember pain is a particularly fascinating subject. Even if we know on a cognitive level that we have experienced pain, we cannot recollect it physically. It is kind of a survival mechanism: just imagine if we re-experienced pain every time we remembered it. We would be overwhelmed by it, unable to lead a normal life.

The past is shaped by what and how we remember. For example, if a race has made a good overall impression, we might remember the scenery, the friendly volunteers, the interesting runners we meet. We often either repress or distance ourselves from the discomfort and the mental challenge. So that what we are left with is a beautiful, perfect snow globe of a memory, an idealised image of the real thing. But if that is how we remember it – and we can never revisit the past to find out if it's true-, is it less real than what actually happened?

And does it matter?

There are different sorts of pain (emotional, physical, mental), degrees of pain (from discomfort to agony) and even levels of pain tolerance. Runners of any distance might experience pain. Disappointment that they didn't win a medal or break a personal record. The beginning of a foot injury. Pushing through the wall at a marathon or the blood taste in their mouth during hard intervals. And so on.

Yet there is something particularly grueling about an ultramarathon. Maybe because the suffering is prolonged and gives ample opportunity to experience all sorts of pain. The ultramarathon is a Herculean labour, an extraordinary trial in which the athlete (from the Greek ”ἄθλος” meaning labour, task) must perform a seemingly impossible feat in order to succeed.

By choosing to run an ultra, we choose to willingly marinate in pain. We feel the tiny stones that have found their way into our shoes, gaiters be damned, and the blood blisters that are starting to swell under our big toes because of them. We feel the niggle in our knees and the anxiety that it can develop into an injury. We feel our stomachs revolting against the latest energy gel we've thrown down our throats. We feel eternity weigh upon us as day turns into night and the hours of our voluntary torment stretch forever towards an unknown finish line. In short: pain makes us feel. We are alive. Pain makes us focus, turn inwards and explore, something that is sorely missing in our frantic day-to-day lives.

Why do we keep putting ourselves through such harrowing situations? After all, the human instinct is to avoid pain. Pain means threat, danger. That's why we learn not to touch a hot stove after only one or two misguided displays of curiosity. Are ultrarunners just really slow learners? Well, I'm sure some people might say that ultrarunners have some kind of screw loose, but slow learners they are not.

As is often the case in life, it is a question of effort versus reward. Ultra running takes a lot of effort but the reward is worth it. We invest enormous amounts of energy in our sport. If we never got any energy back from it, we would just stop doing it. But that is not what happens. What we do get back are the healthiest, most nutrient-dense calories you can get, in the form of breath-taking views from the top of mountains, oxygen-rich air in thick forests, the beat of our hearts and feet on a silent, empty road… and delving deep into the abyss of our own souls to come eye to eye with our monsters, the ones that tell us we can't do this. And we get to slay them. That. That is why we endure the pain. We transcend ourselves, we go past our limits, we venture further than we thought was possible. We triumph. Mind over matter.

And then, when the race is over, we get to lie back and enjoy the memories we have created, where pain once again becomes nothing more than a cognitive exercise, unable to yield its power over us. We know that we persevered. We know that we conquered pain. We learn that there is an end to the pain, and that all we have to do is wait it out. We get stronger, patient, self-confident. We get an extra arrow in our quiver for when we have to face other, involuntary trials in life. Because then we know that this, too, shall pass.

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