The hardest thing I do each day is imagine who I want to become.

The Pain Cave

A basic internet search will uncover more than a few articles on The Pain Cave. Since I started running more seriously a few years ago I’ve become a little obssed with trying to understand how I could love my own pain cave. I had this idea that if I could just love the pain a little more, maybe I could be a better athlete, able to push a little harder, and achieve a little more.

I’ve now had two experiences that make me question whether I’ve been looking for the right thing all this time. When I read about the pain cave it seemed like there some kind of alignment where you would experience a very bad hurt and then somehow break through that hurt. It has not (yet?) worked quite like this for me.

My first experience of the pain cave happened in a non-running context. I was tired, and cold, and it had been a very long day. I was wrapped up in bed shivering and feeling pretty darn sorry for myself. Suddenly, there was a little flick of a switch in my brain and I felt like my brain had become a Russian nesting doll, with upset and hurt on the outside, but an observational peace on the inside. I can perhaps best describe it with this gif:

John Travolta looking around

I was there. But also somehow not there. I didn’t stop being upset, but it also didn’t bother me that I was upset.

Skip ahead a few months to my run during Storm Dennis. I’m in the middle of a looped run with no easy escape. I’m cold, wet, and my arms get a shooting nerve pain any time I slip and need to move them quickly. I am, shall we say, “not in a good way”. But I’m also not unhappy. I’m miserable, yes. But somehow my thoughts aren’t aligning with my feelings. My face is screwed up. I’m on the verge of ugly tears. And also thinking to myself “this. right now. is me training for miles 60-70 of an ultra marathon. I am a freaking badass.” I wasn’t trying to trick myself into having fun, I simply was.

Up on the hill two things happened to me: I allowed myself to experience my emotions without guilt or shame, AND I allowed myself to proceed with the task at hand without the emotion altering my behaviour. In other words: I was upset AND I continued with the task of moving forward. I suppose it’s a little like the improv “yes, And!” game.

I’m not sure 100% why I’ve started to have these incredible experiences, but I’ll chalk it up to a few different things: I’m physically a lot stronger than I used to be, which means I have a lot more trust in my ability to progress through discomfort. The discomfort that I experienced on that run was weather-related: I had absolutely no control over it, and knew my only option was to get OUT of the weather. (I still have a hard time overcoming pain that is breathing-related as it feels too close to the panic attacks I used to suffer from regularly. This makes tempo runs, where you hang out on the edge of your lactate threshold for as long as possible, feel “out of reach”.) I’ve also been using Headspace for several months. The Happiness Pack and the Focus Pack were particularly useful.

Last updated: 16 February 2020