Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Pain Cave and maybe bears

Craters of the Moon, Idaho
The caves are actually lava tubes. 
If you have never had the pleasure of visiting, the Pain Cave is a very real place that runners and other endurance athletes go to, in their own heads, during long and difficult events.  It is a place where you find out who you are and what your limits could be (Side note: you will most likely never know your actual limits; most of us don't. But that's a discussion for another time.)  Athletes are familiar with the pain cave, and as Sam Robinson discussed in his article for Outside, some of us are obsessed with how long we can spend there.  There is even a Podcast about it, with this cute little logo!
Image result for the pain cave

But as glamorous as this article and podcast makes it sound, the Pain Cave can be a terrible place.  Because it is not a cute little cartoon cave with whatever that cute little blob is supposed to be. It is the dark place that you go to when you hit the point where your body wants you to stop, for the love of all that is holy just stop, what you are doing and lay down on the side of the road.  Everything hurts; some things might be bleeding or burning.  And it is very dark in here. 

For many people, one trip to the pain cave is enough. It is a scary place, and it could be filled with things that might eat you - like bears!  They never go back.  They never even go near it again.  But caves can be beautiful.  Dark places often hold incredible secrets, if we are willing to explore them.  Bears will definitely eat you, but they are so cute and humans can't help wanting to snuggle cute things! So some of us move right in and make ourselves at home. 

The pain cave is the true training facility for endurance athletes.  If you cannot stay here, you are never going to know what you might be capable of, or how far you can push your body beyond its comfort zone.  So when you find yourself in the pain cave, you have to make it a place where you can be comfortable for long periods of time. You have to push forward into the darkness to see what you can find.  You have to be willing to find bears. 

This fall I ran two marathons.  Most of my training and both races were uncomfortable for various reasons (more on that later), and I found myself spending more time than usual in the pain cave.  As I said, it can be a dark and scary place.  When I found myself there I would panic and look for a way out. Do not do this.  The more you look for the exit, the more elusive it will be.  Your panic at finding yourself in the pain cave will blind you to the way out, and is likely to drag you deeper into the darkness.  Instead, you have to make yourself at home.

Sometimes I imagine it like an episode of some HGTV show where the starting house is a disaster.  The carpets are moldy and have creepy stains.  The walls are cracked and water is seeping in from some indeterminable source.  It is cold, and the lights don't work right, and you cannot imagine that this place could ever be lived in by anything other than raccoons - and even then, you suspect that they have higher standards than that.  It is not a place you want to be for any length of time. 

Craters of the Moon National Park, Idaho
Not a painful cave. 
But here's the thing: this is YOUR place. You bought it and now you have to live here, if you want a roof over your head.  Walking away means giving up everything; you have to make a choice.  So you stay.  You knock down walls and replace the floors.  You paint and fix the lights.  You get comfy furniture and decorative plants.  You turn it into a place that reflects who you are, inside and out.   And then you move in.  You are okay living in your pain cave, because it is YOURS. 

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Most days, I am in pain.  Usually it is not intense, but often it is widespread and persistent.  It is exhausting physically and emotionally, especially since I have always been a person with a high pain tolerance.  I have yet to find a pharmacological treatment that works without problematic side effects.  It interferes with my training because some days I cannot tell what is a real injury or sign of overuse, and what is a harmless neurological impulse blowing up my central nervous system for no good reason.  It has been frustrating and demoralizing.

And I find myself spending an enormous amount of time in my pain cave, sometimes before I even lace up my running shoes. This has forced me to get comfortable in here. I have had to spend a lot of mental time and energy making my pain cave a place where I feel safe, not scared; a place where the dark is calming instead of terrifying.  Of course, this doesn't always work.  Sometimes it is too much work, and I stay in bed feeling sorry for myself.  But I have found that this is worse; I need to move.

I have been hesitant to write about this, because I am 100% sure there are people who have this condition in a much more extreme form than I do! I am not complaining or looking for sympathy.  (Okay, maybe a little bit.)  I can and do run regularly, although I find myself needing a little more rest than before, and not being able to move as quickly for the first few miles. Running has taught me a lot about what I can withstand, physically and emotionally.  Years of finding my way into the pain cave by choice prepared me for these days when I am here against my will, stuffing down the rising panic when I cannot find the exit.  In fact, I am often best able to deal with the pain when I am running.  For whatever reason, I find it less terrifying when I am moving.  When I am sitting quietly that the pain overwhelms me, and I allow it to take over. 

And so I keep running, even when I find myself in the pain cave at mile 5 of a 20 mile run.  Which is good, because I had been planning to spend more time here anyway!  I have some big races planned for this year, with a two (maybe three) year goal of working up to the VT100.  I am going to run up mountains, and through the night, and spend a lot of time in various vans.  This past year, I have learned a lot about what I can and cannot expect my body to put up with.  Fact: it can deal with a lot more than I give it credit for, as long as I take care of it. 

I know that I am going to hurt.  But that's okay and I am curious to see what I find in my pain cave.  Hopefully, nothing too scary.  But, if I do find a bear, I hope it is this one because he seemed pretty awesome! 
The bear that waved to us at Yellowstone Bear World, Idaho 


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