Thursday, June 23, 2011

No Fear

“I think some runners just like the pain,” said Katy. We were on our bikes, heading up Martin Luther King Drive in Philadelphia, almost at the Falls Bridge. It’s a pretty piece of parkland, a sylvan bubble just feet from an expressway and a railroad line. You can’t see either one at this point, because of the trees. And then there are the fields of grass and, on the right, the river with its rowers.

Not a bad place to be skewered by a very honest young woman who knows how to speak her mind with diplomatic indirection. I hadn’t been able to go running for a while because of an injury I had basically inflicted on myself. Running injuries are almost always overuse injuries, and I’m an artist at joking about obsessive-compulsive disorder and simple fanaticism. But I’d never looked myself in the mirror while shaving and said, “I like pain.”

I’d helped Katy train for her first two marathons. In the beginning, I had felt faster, and I had been wiser – at least about preparing for a marathon. The faster thing changed early, when she decided I’d be okay with it. And now the tide had shifted in the wisdom river.

As children we’re taught to fear pain. It’s an easy lesson. After all, pain hurts. But I prefer to think of pain as a language. The body has things to tell us. If we listen, we will learn. It’s hard to listen to something you fear. You’re too busy running away.

I remember, I think it was my second marathon, in 2002. I was in mile 26, coming down Kelly Drive past Lloyd Hall. The finish line was just up a slight rise and around a curve, in front of the Art Museum. And I remember feeling that my lungs were very tired from all the breathing they had been doing. It wasn’t really pain, more just a sensation that the surface fabric, down inside my lungs, had been worn down by all that air. I’ve never had that sensation since, possibly because of better training. And I think it’s also true that, in mile 26 of a marathon, the definition of pain has shifted a bit.

What did this sensation tell me? It told me I was okay. It told me I was very tired. And it told me to do more long runs next time.

The idea of liking pain takes you to some very strange places – self-flagellation in the Christian church, and masochism for the psychologically inclined. None of this works for me. It would help if people talked about this more, with a little more depth than, “Boy, that really hurt.”

I do have certain pains that are old friends. There’s one in my right knee. It’s from an old injury. Every once in a while it just shows up for a visit. Doesn’t mean any harm. Goes away after a while.

So I have some old friends, and I do seem to make new acquaintances on a fairly regular basis. But do I like pain? I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t fear it. When it shows up, I don’t run away. I listen.

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