Monday, February 27, 2012

Suffering is Optional

I remember the day that I got my first pair of running shoes.  They were a pair of blue and white Nike Air Max; my father bought them for me because I had announced that I wanted to try running.  My dad had been a runner for years, entering local 5k's every summer, but I had never shown much proclivity for it.  In gym class, when we had to run the mile, I whined the whole time (which was a long time because I also pretty much refused to run after the first lap--to this day, I cannot stand the idea of just running in circles).  So, I am sure that my parents were both surprised and dubious when I came home from school and asked for running shoes.

It makes sense that, when I was sitting in the mall athletic store (it must have been Footlocker, since that was all we had in the mall at the time),my father's only comment to the guy helping me was "Just make sure they fit her right, because if it hurts, she won't do it."

My dad was not wrong, of course.  I had never run before, but he had, so he knew exactly what was in store for me.  He knew about cramps and blisters and the horrible sucking feeling in your lungs when you try to run for the first (several) time.  He was trying to minimize the number of reasons that I might have to quit.  And at 14 years old, it was pretty easy to trick me with a new pair of shoes.  (Okay, that part is actually still true... I freaking love shoes.) 

That first year, I wanted to quit a lot of times.  Even the one mile around the block was torture some days.  I had been a dancer since I was four years old, but it had not helped me to build up much in the way of endurance (although to this day I believe that it did instill in me a dedication to perfect form and a belief that even things that are physically demanding should feel light and beautiful--which has been essential in running).  Those first horrible miles eventually got easier, and as they got easier they became three miles.  In high school, I had to run for soccer, but I chose to run for fun the rest of the year.  I would dutifully put in my three miles around the lake each afternoon.  In the beginning, it was awful.  I remember very clearly a day when I realized that I was walking, but had no conscious recollection of transitioning from running down to walking, that was how tired and out of it I was.  It would take everything in me to force myself back into the shuffle that passed for a run in those days.  Those early runs were plagued with pain. 

But like with almost any pain, over time it became less and less noticeable, until eventually it faded behind the joy of running. 

And one day, I realized that I loved it.  Even when it was terrible, I loved it.  I ran year round, in any weather.  During the winter, I ran stairs at the hockey rink while the boys' team practiced, and in the summer I would drag myself out at the crack of dawn to avoid oppressive humidity (yeah, it probably wasn't that bad, but I hate summer).  In college, early morning runs through the freezing, windy winters in Geneva became the norm, and much preferred to mornings spent on the ergometers with my butt going numb.  I was much happier when I got to be outside, running.

Fewer and farther between were the runs that ended in blisters, cramps, and misery.  But they were there sometimes.  A morning where my sock got wedged in my shoes in a weird way, or when I hadn't dressed for the weather; there were days when I was tired or sore or just didn't want to put in the work.  And then I got sick.  I lost everything, all the endurance, all the muscles and strength just went away.  I swam, lifted weights, tried to stay in shape, but over the nearly two years between when I got sick and when I was able to start running again, I lost the running and was left only with the pain.

But somewhere along the way I had made friends with the pain.

No, that is not true.  We aren't friends, but we know each other really well; we are companions that occasionally have amazing fights.  But we also are stuck with each other, because pain is unavoidable.  It is an inexorable part of life, and definitely a part of running.  What I do have a choice in is how I deal with that pain: do I embrace it as a part of my life or do I suffer under the weight of it? 

For the first few years after I started running again, the running and I had a lot of fights and spent a lot of time apart.  It was more than just pain for those few years, it was also suffering.  I felt weighted down by the hurt and the work that went into something that had once been so effortless and enjoyable.  I hated the feeling of starting from the beginning, of being that 14 year old girl who didn't do things that hurt, all over again.  I very nearly chose to hate running. 

Over time, however (and with the help of some constant running companions) my relationship with the pain got less... painful.  I started to love running again, to go out early in the morning just for fun.  Because every morning I chose not to suffer, I chose to accept the pain.  Why?  Because of what the pain means.  The pain means work; it means effort; it means something that I go out each morning and create for myself; it means something that no one else has to give me, and that no one else can take away; but it doesn't mean suffering. 

About a million years ago when I got my first pair of running shoes, my father thought that he was doing me a favor by trying to protect me from pain.  Or maybe he wasn't.   Maybe he knew, even then (as someone who had run for years himself) that no pair of running shoes protects you from hurt. Maybe he knew that he was putting me in a position to experience pain.  But he was also setting me up to learn about the choices we make about the pain in our lives; I learned that there is always pain, but  suffering is optional. 

2 comments:

  1. Yes! Exactly. It is all about how you choose to deal with the pain and how you view it. Its mental. Suffering is not an option! (And I also think it helps that we are probably both pretty stubborn and don't give up easily!) Ha!

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  2. I think just as the Eskimos have many words for snow, runners (and others in similar activities) should have many words for pain. It's not as simple as just pain - that's way too global. There's the pain that you run through, the pain that stops you, the pain that you welcome because it's a signal that something good will follow. I don't think of pain (physical or emotional) as good or bad - it's just information. For that reason I don't think it's healthy to ignore pain - but there are times when you have to disregard it and carry on.

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