Pain Cave. (Where is it?)

Me, in the white shorts, 1977
Me, in the white shorts, 1977

I was fast once. Really fast. Really fast at much shorter distances, like 400 meters.

Now I’m 55 years old.

I ran my last track race in Brussels. I had a huge blood blister on my inside foot – the foot on the inside of the track, that torques and turns running the corners hard. I was holding back just a bit, but I knew that it was my last race, maybe ever, and when my coach called out my 100 meter split I decided to just go for broke. The blood blister burst a footprint or two later, and I finished the race with a left shoe soaked in blood.

I’d noticed some of the rubber was peeling in the outside lane, and once things had calmed down some, I peeled off a chunk and stuck it in my bloody shoe – blue side Asics/Tiger track spikes. The shoes were never worn again. The piece of track stayed inside the bloody one for another decade or so, until the shoes were lost in some Hollywood breakup and move.

That was almost 40 years ago. In between then and now came a lot of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, with a heavy emphasis on the middle one. Running was not compatible with that life style, although I would take it up again on occasion, when I wanted to clean up some, work on my health, and burn off some stress.

When I was young and fast, I never lost a race.

I wasn’t competitive. It was never about winning. Instead, it was about not losing. I was deathly afraid of losing. I was so sure that it was my destiny, and so determined not to let it happen. I was great at this running thing back then, and no one was more surprised by that than me, since my view of myself was of a fragile and slightly broken kid. Some part of me was sure that this gift was given to me by accident, sort of like the Christmas when my stepfather, drunk, got confused wrapping presents and everyone wound up with the wrong stuff. I was fairly sure that g/God, when he sobered up and noticed, would be equally pissed off that he’d accidentally given this hopeless kid the talent to run so well he was pretty much unbeatable. I ran every race in fear that g/God would have this realization just as I pulled into the lead coming into the second straightaway. I needed to prove to everyone, but mostly to me and maybe to a drunken g/God that even if I wound up with this gift by accident, I somehow had come to deserve it.

My teammates and coach always told me to hold back a little – no need to set a record in the heats; save it for the finals two hours later. But I couldn’t hold back. I would come out of the turn into the straightaway having just pulled ahead, and hear cheers. “Oh shit,” I would think, convinced they were cheering for the guy right behind me, who was obviously starting to catch up. I would turn it on. The cheers would grow louder. I would panic and turn it on more, crossing the finish line surprised that the guy they were cheering for hadn’t caught me. It never occurred to me that maybe the guy the were cheering for was me.

Somewhere in my late 40s I came round full circle. I’d long stopped drinking, I’d long stopped drugging, I’d recently stopped smoking, I’d retired (again) from punk rock, an identity I’d resumed in sobriety, having retired from it once before in the late 80s for the not-as-glamorous-as-it-seems-but-more-glamorous-than-I-remember-especially-in-the-beginning life of an alcoholic, drug addict fashion model and later alcoholic, drug addict fashion photographer.

I started to run again.

Soon after, I took to trail running, and to the mountains, and all sorts of childhood memories of the Canadian Rockies came flooding back, good memories, even when they were punctuated by violent drunken arguments. Bear, and moose, and foraging for wild berries and mushrooms, running up and down mountains along old seismic lines, eating cheese and salami off the hood of my stepfather’s old Ford Galaxy 500.

I still have a lot of the old fears, but it’s different now. I’m not going to win. Lets leave that for the kids 30 years younger than me. I’m fighting two clocks now, the race clock and just plain old time.

As a runner, I am a terrible underachiever, intentionally so. It turns out that whatever g/God gave me, he didn’t take away. Maybe he never intended for me to have it, or maybe he did – I’ll never know. And so well into middle age, after a life of brutal self destruction, I’m in great shape physically (aside from this pesky Hep-C that I wouldn’t even know about except for blood tests done 20 years ago). I’m at my lightest weight since I was in my early 20s.

Physically, I genuinely seem to have been blessed. Everything is working pretty perfectly, a marvel considering what I’ve done to this body over the years.

Mentally, things are not quite so good.

I’m still afraid most days. I still kinda think someone is gonna be pissed when they found out I got the present intended for someone else. I’m terribly afraid of failure, and so what I do is I aim really low.

As a runner, this means I am afraid to really go for it. I’ll decide on a comfortable finishing goal, I’ll achieve it with relative, I dunno if “ease” is the exact word, but lots of gas left in the tank. I run a 50 miler like it’s a 100K, and save up for the last 12 miles, the ones that never happen.

It feels a bit like I am squandering whatever ability or talents I might have left.

Comfort zone.

I’m not such a comfortable guy. I tend to live in a state of constant agitation. I do whatever I can to get out of that place. I’m a practicing Buddhist. I study Stoicism. And, of course, I run it off.

My comfort zone is small, and I work hard to both expand it and stay within it because getting out of it usually doesn’t work well for me. I have the typical Aspie’s nearly complete inability to deal with frustration. If things go wrong, as they are much more likely to do when I am outside my comfort zone, I get frustrated, and when I get frustrated it can quickly escalate to near meltdown level. I have only one way of dealing with a meltdown (or avoiding one that’s on its way), and that is completely shutting down. Almost all of my DNFs are the result of this. It’s what took me out of AC100 last year, and it’s what took me out of Jemez Mountain this year.

I’m afraid of the all pain, no gain approach of some of my friends, who go out much too fast and then fade hard and painfully in the end. They don’t seem to understand the correlation between a too fast start and a painfully slow finish. I had an old running partner whose response to her sometimes spectacular failures was to go out even harder the next time, to “put some miles in the bank” before the inevitable blow up. The result was what you’d expect – a bigger crash, earlier in the race.

I’m afraid I won’t be able to find the line that is maximum sustainable effort over 100 miles. I’m not sure how to find it, except by dumb luck.

This year, Dawn Poole ran what might have been the perfect AC100 race. Dawn has always been a solid runner. This year she decided to nearly go for it. This year’s women’s race was for 3rd place, and for a while it was a battle. Dawn was in the mix I saw her at Eagle’s Roost, hurting but smiling. “She’s gonna try to go into the pain cave” said crew member Mark.

The pain cave.

The wonder, to me, is it seems Dawn found the edge of her maximum sustainable effort. She might have danced around it a bit in an effort to determine where exactly it was, but she never got too far from it; her race was steady, and she slowly but surely pulled away from trio battling for third, and left them well behind.

My trouble with the pain cave is that I struggle to get past discomfort. This will sound odd, but I am much worse when it comes to dealing with discomfort than I am to dealing with pain. My pain threshold is kind of high. My discomfort threshold is very low. Pain causes pain. Discomfort causes frustration. Frustration will do me in. This is why a broken finger from a bad fall early in my AC100 2012 was a welcome distraction whereas my cold and clinging rain soaked shirt in 2014 led to a DNF.

In a few days I will be running Fatdog 120, a 120 mile race through the mountains in British Columbia.

I have a race plan based on wishful thinking, which means it’s a lot more ambitious than my usual set-the-bar-low plans seem to be. I have no idea if it’s achievable. Probably not unless I learn to make shit up as I go along if my plan goes awry. That’s what plans tend to do, after all. Can I make adjustments? If yes, how? This is where I’ve struggled.

Accept events as they occur. Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you would wish. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible.” — Epictetus

Me, half mile from finish, 2012
Me, half mile from finish, AC100 2012

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