June 28, 2012

Perspectives on Pain

Perspectives on Pain

Tomorrow is my birthday and I will have been running – and sometimes not running – for a year.

That seems crazy. I am sure I’ll have something more to say about it when I wake up.

Today, I have been just over 24 hours without medication for my back and my whole right leg is very unhappy about that – so it should not surprise anyone that I am going to say something about pain.

Pain is one of the great secretes of running. (and don’t any of you deny it)

When you are a non-runner, you look at runners along the side of the road or on treadmills or wherever and you think: Wow, that looks painful! You might even occasionally ask a runner why they would engage in an activity that looks like it hurts and they might laugh and say: Running doesn’t hurt – it feels great!

When you start running, you quickly learn that pain is just part of what you sign up for. Seasoned runners are kind of like military veterans. They won’t just go about telling everyone about their battle injuries – but once they know you are part of the team they all have a story or 5 or 10 to share because now they know you will understand. You hurt your foot and someone is there to tell you about their chronic plantar fasciitis or their last broken toe. Get hip pain and sure enough you will suddenly find 3 runners to tell you about their bursitis. Knee pain? No worries – five of your new runner friends will tell you about how they came back from that ACL repair and that that was the very thing that pushed them to a new personal record or their first marathon.

And you are going to tell me that running doesn’t hurt???

Running does hurt. Seriously. Let’s just all admit that. But it also feels great and this is the catch. When you pass that point where the feels great part exceeds the part where it hurts you are hooked.

Maybe that’s when you actually become a runner.

At least I can tell you this – ever since this injury got me to the place where I physically can’t run, I miss it all the time. Each and every time I see a runner on the road or the beach or simply tying their shoes, I get a little pang of sadness, envy, longing. I want that to be me.

Here is a true story from this morning.

A friend of mine is a runner who is on vacation right now. He was texting me this morning.

Him: I broke my toe on the boat yesterday. I’ve broken my foot twice, my big toe twice, my orbit, my thumb and a ring finger, so I know the exact feeling.

Me: Your poor toe! Ouch!

Him: I won’t complain unless you step on it.

Me: Promise not to do that.

Him: Got up early to run but decided against it.

Me: You were going to run with a broken toe? Uh…

Him: Yep.

Then he sent a picture of his toe that looks like this:

Would you put that in a running shoe and run on it?

If you just said Yes or even Quite Possibly in your head than you are undeniably a runner.

The reality is that our relationship to pain is a matter of where we stand. Pain is almost always at least in part measured up against how much we love something or want something. Or from another perspective – how much you think it might hurt to NOT do that thing. If you don’t run, running itself might look or feel painful enough to keep you from ever doing it. I spent the better part of 6 months overcoming that, so trust me, I know what that is like.

But if you do run, and running is something that brings you joy, then shoving your newly broken toe into a shoe and pounding it against the ground for several miles really might seem better than not running. Two days ago, knowing I was going to have to come off my pain meds, I put on my shoes and dragged my not-entirely-functional right leg on a 3 mile run knowing that it might be the last opportunity I would have to run with “tolerable” pain for a couple of weeks. Laying in my bed that night trying to find any comfortable position for sleep, I thought: That was probably stupid, but I am so glad I did it.

Why is it that we sometimes we can only know we love a thing when it is taken away from us?

Please don’t expect me to answer that today.


PS – Special thanks to all of you who have sent kind words of support and encouragement. Really, it does help!


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