I remember speaking with an international cross-country runner a few years ago the day after he had won a big race. He told me that he had woken up on the moring of that race in just the right frame of mind. He said to me , “I knew that there would be five or six runners at the starting line who could win the race but that it would eventually boil down to whoever could take the most pain and I knew that I could take a lot.” Those words stuck with me afterwards because, until that time I had always believed that the people who won races were always the fittest, the most gifted and the best physically prepared. I had thought that no matter how mentally strong a person might be, that they couldn’t ever just ‘think’ themselves faster. That conversation opened my eyes to the fact that the physical differences between runners were often less significant than how they could manage their moment-to-moment reaction to the stressful experience of racing. The first step that was apparently required in order to cope well under the extreme pressure of a race appeared to be a personal realisation that the relationship between the self and pain could be managed.
In contrast to the attitude of the cross-country runner, I have spoken with other runners who’ve had quite a different experience. In particular I remember reading a race report many years ago which had been written by a first-time marathoner. This person had run confidently and strongly for the first twenty miles of the race but had then found it increasingly difficult to continue running as the final few miles approached. At some point during those final miles they had been reduced to a walk. In describing the experience they wrote, “I was so tired that I had no alternative. I didn’t believe I could run another step.” The contrast in attitude between the marathoner and the cross-country runner interested me because I hadn’t yet found myself in such a state of physical and mental exhaustion that I couldn’t continue to run. I asked myself the question could I ever be so tired that I had to stop running. I believe that question was a large part of the reason that I ended up running very long distances. Like a child who bends a ruler to see how far it will go before breaking, I was intrigued to know how far I could push myself before I broke down.
You may have heard the advice that whilst pain is mandatory, suffering is optional. My own experience tells me that there’s a large element of truth in those words. From a Buddhist perspective, suffering is at the heart of the human experience. The First Noble Truth is that of Dukkha, which is often translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoryness’. By this it is meant that no matter what we do, no matter how careful we are, the experience of living a human life is by it’s very nature involved with suffering. As a runner, and more particulary as an ultramarathon runner, I think it helps to be able to pull some of these threads apart – to make a distinction between the self and the experience. If you realise that running will always be an imperfect experience then we can adjust our perspective to take account of that realisation. In other words, if you fully accept what’s coming it’s less difficult to manage when it does.
Some of the most frightening and difficult moments I’ve had during ultramarathons have arisen out of panic. There have been occasions when I’ve conjured up suffering up out of thin air. During the Connemara 100 mile rac e this year I had a really rough spell fairly early in the race. I passsed the 30 mile marker feeling strong and positive. I had plenty of distractions and was enjoying each passing moment. It was only when my mind drifted ahead and I began to focus on the remaining miles that I hit trouble. I began to worry about how I might feel while running the remaining distance. It seemed impossible that I’d be able to cope with 70 more miles. Durimng those moments of panic, nothing had really changed for me but, all of a sudden, I was struggling badly. It was only when I was able to bring myself back into the present tense that I realised I was actually fine. From that moment on things magically improved.
Perhaps both suffering and pain are mandatory ingredients of ultramarathon running, but I do think it’s possible to adjust your relationship with these states and to use awareness to differentiate between the two. To some extent at least we can choose one over the other. An awareness of the transience of the experience helps a lot as does the ability to maintain your focus in the present.
If all else fails, and you find yourself trudging through the final miles of your next ultra, you can at least entertain yourself by trying to remember what the First Noble Truth was.