The first week of football practice in high school, I became somewhat notorious for throwing up in the middle of drills. This turn-of-events wasn’t lost on me, and eventually I learned not to eat in the hours before practice. Still, for the next few years, in the hot North Carolina summer, I would throw myself into drills and sprints to the point where I would experience “dry heaves”, basically retching and feeling terrible. My coach would say, “Don’t die out here! If you’re going to die, go inside first!”
There was a perverse bit of pride in knowing I could push myself so hard. In fact, I remember Coach Gero once told someone who was suffering a similar experience, “Get back in line! Mullis threw up and he got back in line!”
At some point, every serious athlete will need to decide what kind of relationship she or he wants to have with pain. This is especially true of endurance athletes, but is also true for those who must practice in adverse weather or who must do physical tasks over and over. And it almost goes without saying that martial artists and other physical combatants will need to figure out how much pain to tolerate (although in this latter case, pain isn’t something you want to invite in, but rather something you must endure as part of the sport).
Some of the most-watched videos of endurance races are those when someone is collapsing or otherwise not able to move forward toward the end of the race. These are hard for me to watch.
In shorter races, though, I am inspired to see how people can push themselves. (I can watch these because there’s not much serious health risk for a well-trained athlete running relatively short and middle distances.)
Steve Prefontaine was notorious for his ability to push himself to the limits. He once said, “ A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” This was a man who understood the relationship between performance and pain. There aren’t many videos of his races, but most of them show him in an all-out effort until the end. My favorite of his races is the noted 1972 Olympic 5000M, in which he came in fourth. He led, then dropped to fifth, then led, the dropped back, and then made a final bid on the last lap before breaking down. It was clear than his limit wasn’t pain, as is the case for most of us, but just his physical ability. (It’s important to note that no one under 25 had ever won the gold medal in the Olympic 5K, and had Pre’s life not be cut short, he might have come back in 1976 to medal.)
But I need not look to celebrity and elite runners for inspiration. I have many friends who I’ve seen lay it all out for the sake of knowing they did their best. Last summer, our training group did an informal relay where there was nothing but team pride at stake. My friend Sarah, in particular, ran all out in every event ranging from 400M to 1600M, setting multiple personal bests in the process. It’s something I’ll never forget, and it’s the kind of thing we can draw on when we are deciding how much pain to endure.
And that’s the thing about pain in endurance sports. It’s a decision each person makes, a calculation of how close she or he wants to come to reaching full potential versus how much pain to endure. Alexi Pappas has written eloquently about her relationship with pain: “All pain takes its time. Some hurt grows old and dies, but other times it lingers like the glop of hot-cocoa powder stuck to the bottom of the mug. No matter what variety of pain I am confronted with, I have a choice about how I interact with it and how it will affect me. All marshmallows, when squeezed, can reinflate eventually.”
It’s remarkable that in order to feel most alive, you have to push yourself to the point where you feel dead. It’s a decision you need to make over and over to reach your full potential.