A couple days ago, I hit the treadmill hard. Two and a half miles at almost maximum effort. It hurt.
There was only one other person in the gym. A big guy. Strong and tough. He was hammering the weights.
Between strides and sets we shouted encouragement to one another. “Good work,” and “keep it going.”
It was early in the morning. Still dark and cold outside. Classic rock boomed. He grunted while he lifted. I fought to keep pace with the belt spinning below me.
We were driven and we drove each other.
And we were distracted. His family had recently been hit by a significant health crisis. We weren’t talking about it in the gym. But I bet his mind went there, even when lifting heavy weights.
My mind drifted too. To a family I know that recently received devastating health news.
My body hurt. Not injury pain. But the pain of significant effort.
When it hurt, I thought about something. I thought that I could not outrun the pain. Straining, tensing, groaning, tightening up, did nothing to make me run faster or smoother. The pain was inherent to the speed – the equivalent of 10 laps of a track at the edge of what I capable of doing.
I thought that I could not outrun the pain. Instead, I had to run with the pain. Pain was my companion. It wasn’t going anywhere. I tried to breathe smooth. I tried to run effortlessly. I imagined that pain was an entity, as real as a person, running beside me. My new running partner. Sometimes I let pain sneak ahead, and I tucked in behind it, like pain was leading the peloton and I was letting pain do all the hard work, while I drafted along.
When I was running with pain, I thought, “does the analogy hold?” When real life hurts – not some meaningless run on a weekday in Victoria – but real pain in real life, can we try and do the same thing? Can we run with pain? In real life, pain is rarely two and a half miles in sixteen minutes. Pain is often days, weeks, months, and years.
I don’t know if the analogy holds. But I wonder if it does. When things are bad, nothing is more prominent than pain. It dominates. It may be impossible to defeat. But maybe we can run with it, beside it, knowing it’s not going anywhere, but also knowing that neither are we. That when we give maximum effort, and have someone close to us, providing encouragement, that we can continue. And that we can tuck in behind the pain, knowing it is strong and fast and will take the lead, but we can get behind it and it will pull us forward towards where we are going. Wherever that might be.
I don’t know if the analogy holds. When I think back to the hardest times in my life, I don’t know what I did, or how I approached it, other than day by day. I didn’t name pain or think of it as my companion. So, I don’t know.
We’re not far from 2023. I hope to take on some significant physical challenges. One race or event every quarter of the year that will test my fitness and force me to train to pain. To push my body so it will grow. Pushing my body will mean pain. Fast runs, long runs, and heavy weights. In that sense, I’ll be inviting pain into my life. My choice, for events that I choose on dates when I want to do them. Not real life at all. But when I feel that voluntary pain, I will imagine that pain is my companion that will be with me for the duration. I won’t outrun it. But I’ll stick with it. Until I get where I’m going. We’ll get there together. To those events. Through those events. And whatever will be will be.
That morning in the gym reminded me that running and training and events on the calendar are both crucial and inconsequential. For so many of us they are integral parts of our lives, yet they’re not really life.
I emerged from this week with few answers and many questions. Questions about fairness and good fortune and the unpredictability of it all. And a question about pain. Can we run beside it? Does the analogy hold?