There’s an old joke that some people are built for comfort while others are built for speed. But let’s not kid ourselves: We’re all pretty much built for comfort.
That’s what I was told by a running friend of mine named Stormy who, when preaching the trail running Gospel to the masses on a hot July evening, summed it up just like that.
He was advising us to play to how human nature tends to gravitate to the easier path by walking steep sections of a trail, then use gravity to speed us downhill. It’s a trick a lot of experienced long-distance trail runners use to conserve energy so they have enough left in the tank to gut out 50 miles, or in some races, 100 or more.
There’s a lot of wisdom in this. But it’s also good to remember that this is a tactic, and a specific one at that. It will help you finish, or even win, a grueling long-distance event that you’ve hopefully trained for.
In the process of training, comfort takes a back seat.
The strategy of training is actually quite different. It would be easy to cheese off, go through the motions and then show up on race day or some other high-effort endeavor, then learn real quick how hard things will be for you if you let your inner couch potato get his or her way a little too much.
Training, or just running for the fun of it, takes on a new dimension when you embrace discomfort.
I can usually tell when I’m approaching my physical limits by monitoring my breathing. My pulse pounding at my temples at 170 beats per minute is another pretty good sign that it’s time to back off the throttle. And then there’s the annoying feeling of something akin to lead filling your legs at the same time you realize you have many, many more miles to go.
But I’ve found that I’m OK with flirting with many of these symptoms. Managing them. Living with them. And dare I say, embracing them?
This is not akin to people who love to be miserable. That’s a whole different kind of mental pathology that I won’t get into. But I’ve found that the best athletes, the best climbers and mountaineers, these folks have all faced the harsh realities of a true sufferfest, looked it in the eye and said, “Bring it.”
Fierce winds? Bitter cold? Soaring temps? You’ll never be an elite mountaineer or a finisher at the Badwater 135 unless you can face down the extremes.
And when your body tells you, “No mas!”, that enters the realm of mental toughness few people dare to go.
I can’t say I’ve mastered this, but no one has until they’ve reached limits of discomfort and just kept going. I’ve found at those times, you’ll surprise yourself.
I was running some trails the other day on a very hilly and rough course and found myself battling the desire to slow down and even stop. I’d already climbed two big hills and now was on this roller coaster-like section that never seemed to flatten out and give me a break. My breathing was labored. But my legs were good. So I pushed through.
When I finished, I’d ran the course faster than I’d ever done before. I was pretty jacked up about that. My mind and body learned a lesson that day — a new level of discomfort had been reached, embraced and conquered.
I know there are limits, and much of that has to do with who you are. There is an ultra runner I follow, and one thing I’ve seen about her is that she has a mental toughness beyond most humans. As in way beyond. She runs 100-milers, and does so competitively. She has pushed through some serious injuries to finish and win.
That sort of toughness is rare, and going there is not for everyone. On the plus side is the glory and strength gained from pushing the frontiers of fortitude. The downside is the occasional post-race ER visit. In order to take it to that level, you have to decide for yourself if the rewards outweigh the risks.
But much more common is the opposite. We don’t usually quit when we break down. Much more common is quitting when things start getting tough. Or even a little uncomfortable. That’s where the human trait of gravitating toward the comfortable takes over, like some sort of genetic predisposition to sloth.
Injuries and illness from training and competing are one thing. But the easy road of the comfortable leads nowhere. There’s no glory in it, no lessons learned, no toughness gained. No achievement at all.
I can tell you that there is no way I could have found any Rocky Mountain summit if I would have stopped and turned around when I got tired, winded or just weary of the whole affair. Believe me, the thought has crossed my mind on nearly every mountain I’ve tackled. All I can say is that after each summit, the beer tastes better, the food is more savory and my sleep is deeper for having finished the task. I could make the same statement after each long run I complete and after each finish line I cross.
Expressing yourself physically is beautiful. Doing it at a high level is akin to art (at least in my mind). But doing that comes with a price, paid with the currency of soreness, pain and suffering. The trick is learning to appreciate the discomfort, to realize that when it begins to make its presence known, it is not some monster trying to beat you down, but more of a sensei trying to whip the weakness from your being.
At that point, the sufferfest becomes glorious.
The uncomfortable becomes your friend.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088