What You Have Endured

I ran 12k hard this morning.  I finished gasping for breath, tasting blood in my lungs, with legs that felt like they were encased in cement.

It hurt. 

Which was entirely the point because I was racing.  A virtual race.  The only kind of race our Covid world allows.  No other runners, no spectators, no finish line.  Just me and my GPS watch.

If I had not signed up, this morning’s run would not have hurt.  I would not have pushed myself to run maximum effort for nearly an hour.  I would not have subjected myself to voluntary pain. 

I would not have relaxed.

Hurt and relaxation.  Essential elements of running hard.  Essential elements of living.

Running brought a good friend into my life years ago.  An accomplished runner and even better person.  I was Luke, and he was my Yoda.  He was smooth, I was ungainly.  He ran fast effortlessly – I did not.  I equated speed with pain – my body clenching, tightening, straining.  My friend helped me understand that less was more, that letting go, breathing, unclenching, loosening, relaxing, allowed me to run smoother, stronger and ultimately, faster.  It was both counterintuitive and made perfect sense.  And it worked.  My best runs, my fastest times were under his tutelage.   

I thought of him today when I ran, struggling for speed, fighting to hold the pace.  Hurting and relaxing.  Relaxing and hurting. 

Running is a wonderful metaphor for life, but not a perfect one.  When running hurts too much, I can choose to slow down – even stop – I can make the pain go away.

We can’t do that in life.

There is pain.  For all of us.  Pain that comes and goes, pain that ebbs and flows.  Chronic pain.  Pain in our bodies.  Pain in our souls.  Fleeting pain.  Pain that heals.

Pain that reveals. 

Pain reveals our weaknesses, in our bodies, in our psyches. 

Pain hurts.

So relax. 

Breathe.  Walk.  Meditate.  Read.  Listen.  Sing.  Hug.  Pray.  Love.  Share.  Give.

And then – stop relaxing.  Do things that hurt.  Run hard.  Lift weights.  Cycle until your legs are on fire.  Take a cold shower.  Hold your breath until your lungs explode.  Do something that makes you want to scream – do it because you can – do it because you control the pain.

Do it because when you choose to suffer – you can relax.  It is within you.  It is in your breath.  It is in every fiber of your body.  Pain and peace are not opposites.  They are not mutually exclusive.  They are in all of us, always.  Co-existing.  Waxing.  Waning.  Teaching.

Pain teaches us to relish its absence.  This afternoon my daughter and I played in a park, walked in our neighbourhood, and saw some of her friends.  All those moments were just a little more precious because hours before I ran hard and made myself hurt. 

And then the hurting stopped.  Not long after my run, my body felt better.  My lungs didn’t taste like blood anymore.  Instead, it was as if my airway had tripled in size and oxygen was being pumped into my chest.  The air I was breathing was cleaner, fresher, more potent.  My legs stopped hurting.  Instead, they ached – good aching – the aching that only comes from pushing past comfort.  Aching that satisfies.

Relaxing in the midst of pain teaches us … teaches us that we can relax in the midst of pain.  We don’t have to enjoy pain.  We can hate the pain.  But we can co-exist with it.  We can conquer it.  The next time it happens to you, you will emerge on the other side.  Maybe scarred, maybe scared, maybe aching everywhere.  But you will be stronger, better, and more equipped to deal with the next time.  And all the good moments – joy, fun, normalcy, Netflix, will be that much sweeter, for what you have endured.

The Horizon was Upside Down

I’ve been reading a lot about ultrarunners.  They push their bodies into agony and train their minds to overcome their pain.

They volunteer to suffer.  Seek it out.  Embrace it.

Hillary Allen did that.  A world class ultrarunner racing on a mountaintop she lost her footing, crashed to the ground, fractured both wrists, several ribs and sliced her head open.

Doctors told her she might never run again.

But she did.

Reading about Hillary sent me to YouTube, and a video called Redemption.  I was about 30 seconds in, when my daughter Molly scrambled up on the couch, insisting I turn off the “boring” show so she could watch her new favourite cartoon, PJ Masks.

Molly cut her knee earlier this week.  She bled and cried, while mom and dad cringed at the chunk of gravel embedded under the skin.

The gravel is out, the knee is healing, and Molly is back to tearing around the neighbourhood park and scaling the ropes of the jungle gym.

I didn’t turn on PJ Masks.  I told Molly that Hillary had fallen and hurt herself badly.  But she’d healed and was running again.  We watched Redemption together.  Over and over.  Molly kept asking me to go back to the part where Hillary Allen talked about her fall and said, “the ground was pulled out from under me” and “the horizon was upside down.”  As she fell Hillary thought she would die.  As I write this Molly is sprinting back and forth in our living room, holding my headlamp, pretending to be Hillary running in the dark.

This week the horizon turned upside down for some very close friends.  They weren’t running.  No wrists were fractured.  But their son received a life altering diagnosis.  A diagnosis that will affect his life, every minute of every day.  That will affect the lives of his parents every minute of every day.

They don’t deserve it.  As a family they have already sacrificed and struggled, pulling together, working to overcome another diagnosis.  Also life changing.  Also something that is always with them.  It is so unfair.

“The ground was pulled out from under me.”  A regular reader of this blog had the world pulled out from under her a few years ago.  Members of her family were murdered.   She is a writer.  I suspect that sustains her in her darkest hours.

None of these stories are mine to tell.  Not Hillary’s, not my friends, not the regular reader’s.

Not Terry’s either.  I worked with Terry ten years ago.  She was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.  She didn’t wear it on her sleeve.  Her profession, her career, her success required strength.  Steel.

But Terry melted around those who had nothing.  Addicts, sex-trade workers, the mentally ill. Those for whom every day was a struggle to survive.  Those who are so easy for us to drive by and ignore without giving a second thought.  I do it, all too often.

Terry used to remind me to treat everyone with respect and kindness.  Everyone.  Because you never know what they are going through.

Soon after she retired Terry was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  She fought hard.  Valiantly.  With dignity.  And passed away less than a year later.

There seems to be a consensus among ultrarunners, that the pain they experience is worth it.  Perhaps not in the moment.  But in the process, the preparation for the race.  And in the aftermath.  Real life lessons learned from voluntary suffering.

Suffering.  Utrarunners seek it out.

Suffering.  It seeks us out, throughout our lives.  Ground crumbles at our feet.  Horizons turn upside down.

I had no idea how to respond to our friends this week.  No words can heal what they’re going through.  I sent them my love.  I think about them.  They are strong and brave and they will need every ounce of that strength and bravery in the days, weeks and years ahead.

Their horizon is upside down.  I pray for healing in their lives.  For love and health and family to prevail.  For their horizon to right itself.