Postcards From the Pain Cave

Story and Photos By Gary Dudney,
Author of The Tao of Running

As an endurance athlete, I’m sure you’re familiar with the “pain cave.” It’s that very bad place you go to in the last half of a difficult race, or when you’re pushing through a tough workout, where fatigue, lack of energy, general pain, and a bunch of specific pains all conspire to make you horribly miserable and wish you were anywhere else.

You need a strategy for dealing with the pain cave; otherwise, fear and self-doubt can quickly shred your mental defenses, and you can find yourself spiraling down through a vortex of negative thinking until you back way off of your effort (or quit altogether). Remember, if you start to THINK you can’t go on, then you’re probably right.

One key concept that will help a lot when you’re dwelling in the pain cave is acceptance. The natural tendency when you experience pain is to try to ignore it, to escape from it, or to somehow make it go away. None of this works. In fact, it just seems to make the pain get worse – and more debilitating.

What does help is facing up to the pain, acknowledging it, and accepting it. Once you’ve done that, you tend to take the sting out of it, and you’re ready to deal with it in a more detached way. You should even try sinking down into the pain to experience it exactly as it is, while avoiding attaching to it emotions such as fear and dread. Tell yourself, “Okay, it may feel like it, but it’s not killing me. In fact, it’s what I should expect when I’m pushing this hard. It’s normal to feel this way.” Once you accept the pain, you can try to let it recede into the background somewhat. Then refocus yourself on your form, on relaxing, or on what you need to do to keep up the effort.

Dr. David Horton knows a thing or two about enduring through pain. He is a five-time finisher of the massively difficult Hardrock 100 and twice winner; he’s held the speed record for running the Appalachian Trail and the 2,700 mile Pacific Trail; he’s run across America; and he’s a finisher at the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathons, which has been completed by only 15 runners in 23 years of holding the race.

Horton spoke at the prerace dinner of the Prairie Spirit 100 Mile in eastern Kansas a couple of years ago. The next day he came by me on a bike at about 30 miles (he was recovering from surgery, so not running himself), and I was complaining to him about how the straight and flat course was hard to deal with for someone who normally lets the ups and downs in a course dictate his effort. He looked at me and said, “You just have to take it.”

In other words, I needed to accept the situation – period. The day before, he had presented us with a list of pithy truths about enduring that he had learned over the years. One that stuck in my mind was, “Accept the day as it comes.” I couldn’t help but think of that saying a couple of months ago in the middle of the Cruel Jewel, a challenging 106-mile trail run in northern Georgia. After a long day of roasting in heat and high humidity, several of us were caught in a cold, drenching rainstorm in the middle of the night out on the “Dragon’s Spine,” a jagged single-track trail with endless steep climbs and descents. The rain turned the trail into slick mud, and made it practically impassable for long stretches.

The surprise cold caught us unawares, so in addition to being totally drained from running for over 30 hours, we were freezing, and now we could barely make any progress, having to crawl up and down the muddy slopes hanging onto trees and bushes and still slipping and falling all the time. It all seemed so unfair. It would have been hard enough just getting through the last 20 miles of the course, but with the cold and the mud, it was almost unbearable. I could hear the desperation in the other runners’ voices. I almost felt like crying myself, but my inner voice repeated Horton’s words: “Accept the day as it comes.” And just that thought helped me deal with the situation and keep going instead of falling into complete despair.

Another thought I’ve often had when I find myself in the pain cave is that I’ve been there many times before, and managed to get through it. It’s like every time I go there, I send myself a postcard for later use. Then when I’m back in the pain cave, I can pull out all those mental postcards and remind myself that I’ve endured tough situations in the past, maybe even tougher situations. It’s great consolation and helps with the whole notion of accepting the pain.

So don’t be afraid of the pain cave. Have faith that when you get there, you’ll have some resources to fight back with, that you’ll be able to accept whatever is thrown at you, and that you can always shuffle through your pack of postcards and know that having slain the beast once, you are fully capable of slaying it again.

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