Suffering

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Whenever I bring up the subject of suffering, one of two things happen. Either people  change the subject (I’m used to that), or they bring up the hammer analogy: “It’s like hitting yourself with a hammer. It feels so good to stop.”

It  surprises me that people would think I’d hit my head with a hammer. Even if it improved my times, I wouldn’t take a hammer to my head. Unless they improved a whole lot. 

Still, I’m just beginning to learn how to use suffering, hamerless suffering, to run my age up Mt. Moosilauke. The technique works better than I imagined.

Suffering probably isn't an incentive to get people to try trailrunning. And I suppose that talking about childbirth won’t convince people either. But it’s instructive. My wife, Dorothy, did it twice, without any painkiller except for her own Lamaze breathing. It was a sort of athletic competition with her identical twin sister. Dorothy and Jane had two baby girls just a few days apart. Three years later they birthed two baby boys just two weeks apart. Jane, who was married to a doctor, had an epidural each time. So Dorothy won on effort. But then Jane went and had a third child, a daughter, while we stopped at two. So Jane won on points. Anyhow, Dorothy was a champ all through giving birth to our first child—up to the moment when Dorothy Jr.’s heels came out. “I can’t take it anymore!” my wife yelled. “Give me drugs!”

The doctor had been late to show up at the end, and I was the one who caught the kid. Here I was, holding my beautiful wide-eyed daughter, and I didn’t know what to do. Was it that the relief of pressure on the nerves made them sensitive? Or did my wife collapse at the finish line? Still, even if I succeed at running my age, I’ll always be junior varsity in comparison.

Besides, why suffer for something as stupid and pointless as running my age? Two big reasons. Matt Fitzgerald, author of the excellent Brain Training for Runners, suggests training for suffering instead of time. In other words, on key training runs, try not to run as fast as you can. Instead, suffer as much as you can. In other words, practice suffering. This will make you better at suffering during a race. And you’ll run faster.

But that’s not the first reason. This is:

Yesterday I did a training run from my house four miles up to the Cardigan summit and back. I started at a walk and gradually increased my speed, running at race pace up the mountain until the ledges at the top, when I picked up the pace. My breath turned into croaking from asthma, my lactate-heavy legs turned into anchors, and I said to myself, “I could suffer more than this.” And suddenly my limbs relaxed, the rictus of my face turned to a smile, and I felt as if someone had just put an oxygen mask over my mouth. I sprinted to the summit.

Which leads to the second reason to suffer. It leads to the Zone. In posts to come, I’ll be writing a lot more about the Zone. It’s what makes all this training worthwhile. And it says wonderful, strange things about life and happy geezerdom.