Some runners transcend the marathon. These ‘ultra’ runners conquer distances of 50 or 100 miles in some cases. I had the good fortune to train with a few ultrarunners in preparation for a 50-mile race and I learned of a place called ‘the pain cave’.
While I was familiar with ‘the wall’ from running marathons, the pain cave was something different. The pain cave was a place of unrelenting, unforgiving discomfort. It was a place where despair was seemingly omnipresent and hope was hard to come by.
I found myself trapped in the pain cave in the latter stages of my first 50-mile race. As I struggled through some of the most difficult miles I had ever covered, it occurred to me I had actually been to the pain cave before.
My first encounter with the pain cave was six years prior. I found myself on a surgeon’s table a few minutes before going under the knife wondering how my business could survive if I couldn’t walk, let alone run.
Surgery had been a last resort after suffering from a monstrous case of plantar fasciitis for several months. I always describe plantar fasciitis to people as a demon that takes up residence in your foot. But, this is no ordinary demon.
The plantar fasciitis demon is akin to the terrifying one that possessed young Regan in Roman Polanski’s ‘The Exorcist’. You may recall this demon was finally exorcised, but there were casualties and permanent scarring for those who survived.
I tried everything to get rid of plantar fasciitis including wearing funny socks at night, rolling the bottom of my foot with balls and frozen water bottles, massage, taping, and everything in between.
As I sat on the surgeon’s table waiting for them to apply anesthesia, I realized the pain in my foot from the plantar fasciitis was a wonderful metaphor for the seemingly omnipresent pain I was feeling in all facets of my life.
Not only could I not run, my business was failing. It was in critical condition. It had been just over a year since I had launched my business and it just wasn’t working. What few personal clients I had were simply not generating enough revenue to cover the bills associated with my meager existence.
I had acquired nearly $15,000 worth of credit card debt despite living in a dingy dining room and living on a diet of austerity. I’d walk the aisles at Trader Joe’s and agonize over something as simple as buying a bag of chips. It was a new experience for me and an unwelcome one.
My girlfriend had also recently decided she needed some space, which basically meant she not only couldn’t see me, but apparently also meant she couldn’t even have a conversation with me to explain why she needed space.
Saying I felt stressed is an understatement, I felt besieged. Running was usually an outlet to relieve stress, but without running, I was simply drowning in a roiling, turbulent sea of stress with no sign of rescue.
Yes, I was deep in the pain cave. If there was a glimmer of hope, if the exit was anywhere in the vicinity, I was having a difficult time seeing it. I couldn’t run, my business was seemingly done, and my girlfriend was gone.
Having surgery might eventually get me back on my feet, but it wouldn’t remedy any of the other things ailing me. I wasn’t sure what was going to turn things around or if it even made any sense to try. Maybe it was time to face the music and simply pack it in. The idea of simply following my heart began to seem silly.
Then I reflected on all of the things I told my runners when they found themselves in the throes of exhaustion and despair. Don’t focus on the entirety of what lies in front of you. Break it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks. Take it one mile at a time. If a mile seems too daunting, focus on getting through the next block or getting to the next tree.
For me to give up while understandable and perhaps even wise, didn’t necessarily make sense to me. I’d never dropped out of a race for any reason even when I felt terrible and I knew it wasn’t my day. Was this current predicament any different?
I’d been on many runs before that had started out crappy, but then got better as I pushed through the tough spots one step at a time. I’d also had runs that had been glorious at the start, but devolved into a death march, but I’d still gotten through them.
The runner’s high doesn’t last forever, but similarly fatigue and pain are often transitory as well. You just have to be willing to try to cover that extra step, that extra mile that you don’t think you can.
As someone who tried to inspire people to run, I had found that most people can run a bit farther and a bit faster than they think they can. Most people sell themselves a bit short. Was I any different? Maybe I was just a few steps shy of finding my way out of the pain cave.
Perhaps it was the anesthesia that contributed to this irrational wave of optimism, but as my vision began to blur and consciousness drifted away from me, I found myself thinking that perhaps not all was lost.