I’ve heard it said many times before: embrace the pain. Pain is a strong and emotive word to describe something we experience when bad things happen. Pain is a problem, but what is it? The aching in my legs and hips is pain. The sciatic flashes are pain. The jarring in my lower back is pain. The tenderness on the soles of my feet and the blisters under my toenails are pain.
Physical pain is a language and my body has a story to tell, most of which I’ve heard a hundred times before. The sameness of the plot becomes more boring as the race goes on, so much so that I can eventually barely hear it. There are only so many times the same nerve can complain before I lose interest – what I’m listening for is a new line in the story, or a sudden plot twist.
So I do not embrace, welcome or ignore this kind of pain. Instead, I accept it. It is a fact of running as I do, something I know from experience that I can handle. There is no anticipation, no fear and no dread. It is just something that simply is.
Then there are the other things that athletes call pain, sensations for which there is no other adequate word. The anaerobic burn of the sprint, the devouring lactate of the endless hill, the accumulated fatigue of the explosive burst, the exhaustion of endless repetition. It is the sum of sensations, where we take ourselves beyond the realm of comfort. And underpinning it all is the mental strain of coping and finding a way to carry on. I have tried to embrace these things too, but acceptance is more realistic when at the extremes of effort, and even that is difficult at times like these.
Before the race, when I imagine the run, I accept the arrival of those feelings and know that they will be there because I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t give it that label, though: pain. Assigning a name to those sensations might add to their power.
How funny. All that mental preparation and then this – the reality. It is beyond the scope of memory to recall feeling like this. After every race I think I can accurately remember the discomfort and prepare myself to face it again. Yet now here I am and it is harder than anything I could ever recreate in my mind. If I could truly recall what this feels like, would I ever have returned?
‘Pain’ is a word used for lack of something more adequate, because in many ways this is so much worse. In this reality, I can only try to accept whatever this clusterfuck of difficulty should be called. The truth is that if something works for even one moment, it works, and all this can be is a series of moments that can take me to the end.
From Michael's book, ‘One-Track Mind’, out 18 March 2021