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life, Trail Running

Growth before the sweet release of death

Did you ever hear the phrase “exquisite pain” and be like wtf does that even mean? Me too. This phrase has always baffled me. Like most things I don’t fully understand, I’m drawn to exploring it deeper. How can something we are instinctively programmed to avoid – this shape-shifting feeling that strikes us with brute force – be described using a word that pertains to the most delicate and specific beauty? When I heard it again recently, I had just been reading about self-harm, and the juxtaposition of the two triggered something and got my wheels turning.

To me, exquisite pain is synonymous with self-inflicted pain. Maybe the notion of self-inflicted pain elicits extreme images of S&M, cutting or substance abuse. There is a subversive element to our notion of it, a dark ritual practiced by the fringes of society – something “other” people do. The truth is, we all participate in self-harm, it just may not be so tangible or recognizable on the surface.

Trailkat running at the frozen over Boulder Reservoir with snowy mountains in the background
Winter running can be a special kind of suffering.

Self-harm can be inflicted in the most mundane ways, where we pick at the same wound over and over until it’s deadened with so much scar tissue that it becomes a numb barrier to our most vulnerable places. Think about it. How many times have you social-stalked someone who represents everything you’ll never be or repeatedly visited your ex’s profile just to feel that jab to the solar plexus? Do you pine over someone who is completely inaccessible knowing that it’s is a dead end? Have you wasted your energy yearning for a different body shape or the glory days of your youth? Do you continue to accept half-ass people in your life who will never show up for you? Do you engage with people who leave you feeling empty? Do you remain accessible to people who keep you at a safe distance and engage with you strictly on their terms and in a way that deprives you of real, human connection? Of course all of these examples are totally not things I know about through personal experience…. Nevertheless, these “hypothetical” forms of self-harm are examples of a practice we are all guilty of because we are all human – probably. We compulsively repeat these behaviors and in effect, intentionally cause self-inflicted harm.

So why do we do it? Why do we seek out pain? Why do we keep coming back to the behaviors that hurt? It must serve us in some way, or we wouldn’t do it. Humans may not behave logically, but our behavior is always serving our needs, either constructively or destructively. Identifying the destructive patterns, discovering the underlying need and choosing to channel it into a healthy outlet – that is our uniquely human ability. We can choose it but we have to work for it. Maybe we do it for the following reasons:

  1. Illusion of control – we are in pain already from things we can’t control and focusing on pain within our control eases our anxiety?
  2. Comfort of familiarity – that old known enemy is way more comfortable and less scary than the vulnerability of the unknown.
  3. Misguided attempt at growth – since we innately understand that growth occurs throughout nature by overcoming adversity and through struggle, are we trying to better ourselves?

Through the years of my fascination with ultra-running, it is the growth through suffering element that has captured me. In my observation, many people find their way to trail and ultra-running as a constructive outlet, as a way to evolve as a human. Well, surprise, surprise – the basic foundation for ultra-running is suffering. Just look at the language: Suffer Better, Sufferfest, ultrarunning memes focused on the sweet release of death… Phrases like pain cave, bonking, douche-grade, the lows, death grip, and the classic declaration we’ve all shouted into the wind that “this is bullshit“!

I’ve written post after post about searching for these lows and discovering that they come at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways. I’ve talked about running being my way of creating a tangible reference point that I can rely on when life gets tough in more abstract ways and “left, right, repeat” is not so literal or straightforward. It has been an amazing tool that helps mitigate the extreme emotional ups and downs that I’m prone to. It has forced me to face the fact that I am not in control of my body and to sit with that feeling of panic when it does things like get injured, hoard fat or fall down. It’s changed my body for the better and for the worse, it has given me purpose, it has created new and valuable friendships, it has exposed every weakness I have – both physical and emotional. It is my tool, hopefully not my crutch, to help me channel my own self-harm tendencies in more constructive ways. I’ll leave you with a verbal and aural example that sum up the notion of this exquisite pain that I still cannot define, but have come closer to understanding.

The musical arc of this song represents the notion of ‘exquisite pain’ and has pushed me to push the pace at the end of a long run, at once in so much pain but awash with joy so palpable that it gives me goosebumps.

“Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being — a call that asks who they are …”

David Blaikie

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