Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why Do We Keep Running When It Hurts?

Yesterday, I stood amongst the crowd of supporters who turned out to cheer on all the runners who participated in the Ayahashi road race. I much prefer being amongst the group of adrenaline-loaded runners, but still, it gave me great pleasure to see a lot of my friends, and even strangers, challenge themselves by either running their first race, or by attempting to beat personal best times.

As a spectator I got to see in the faces of various runners what I experience in every single race I run - the searing pain that hits your muscles and lungs when you've reached your maximum exertion level. I could also see in their faces that all-too-familiar look of self-condemnation, brought about by a deep dislike of their current situation and a consequent search in their minds as to why on earth they decided to "run this damn race!" But moving down towards the finish line and seeing the runners approaching, their faces now told a different story - their expressions indicated a sense of joy and relief, and for many, a huge sense of pride.

I read a great blog post recently, by running coach Jason Paganelli - Jason asks the question, "Why do I put myself through this?" I can tell you that I, and many of my close running friends, have asked ourselves this very question during many of our races or during an intense or long training run. Jason addresses, and answers this question, in a way that makes me feel good (and a little more sane), about why I continue to go back for more pain and suffering.
Start of the 10K - everyone's in control, for now......

This lady is at all the local races - she's amazing! She gives it her all, and keeps going back for more.

Jannine Myers

Blog Post by Jason Paganelli
Ok, so I realize this is a bit of a cliché topic, but this is my first blog entry, and I think it's fitting.
As a coach, and as a runner that regularly tackles long distances, it's the question I most often get asked. Now that I sit here and think about it, it's the question that I most often ask myself. Any runner can relate to this.... there are just certain moments in almost every run that make you ask yourself "Why do I put myself through this?”
Non-runners are so perplexed by this topic. Has anyone ever said this to you?
“You know, every time I see a runner on the road they look miserable! Why do you put yourself through it?”
Whether or not you’ve heard that one before, people have asked me that very question countless times. Maybe I’ve been asked it more than some because I have not been a runner all of my life. People were probably naturally curious as to why my life took a different health-conscious path all of a sudden. Regardless, I usually respond by listing some of the benefits of running. We all know these benefits… Our waists are smaller and our doctors marvel at our resting heart rates. We can eat carbohydrates like it’s a part time job and we get an excuse to reach for the extra beer because science proves it’s good for recovery. But are these REALLY the reasons that we run?
If I were truly honest with the person, and myself, I’d answer the question like this…
“Of course we look miserable… we are running!”
This would absolutely make people’s brains explode. But what I don’t think non-runners get is the fact that this state of agony we are all so familiar with is an integral part of running. In my opinion, and where I’m eventually going with this, is that it is the MOST IMPORTANT PART. The suffering is what makes our sport what it is.
Having now run 12 ultra-marathons, there’s no doubt I’ve experienced suffering while running. In fact, there's nothing else in my life that I voluntarily do that causes suffering. Running is in its own category like that. I’m not trying to play the world’s tiniest violin here. I am just saying that every benefit of running comes with a price. It's something I am immensely passionate about. However, I have a love-hate relationship with running that sometimes just doesn't make sense. Sometimes I wonder if the love part of my relationship with running is over, as if it's a relationship that has come to its natural end. I wonder if I should be investing my time in something that will offer me more... a hobby that hurts a little less, takes a little less time and affords me all of my toenails.
However, suffering makes running the adventure that it is! Without suffering, we would always know that we’d get to the finish line. We wouldn’t anxiously toe the starting line questioning our own ability to cover that day’s distance. Without suffering, the finish line beer wouldn’t taste so good. Without suffering, the simple pleasures immediately following a run wouldn’t feel so amazing! (Ever notice how good a hot shower feels after a long run? Or even how enjoyable the simple act of sitting and resting can be!?) Without suffering, the sense of finish line pride wouldn’t be so strong, and the stories and memories of our runs wouldn’t be so fun to tell. Without suffering, we wouldn’t form such strong bonds with our running friends, having never shared such challenging moments with each other. We wouldn’t be compelled to grow, be stronger, push further, dig deeper or try harder. Without suffering, running would not be running.

Runners CHOOSE to suffer. They get good at it actually, and eventually find joy in the suffering. They learn that in the suffering comes so much positive that they no longer see it as a hurdle to overcome, but as a constructive force. We all know this… it’s the very reason you sign up for a 10k after finishing a 5k, or a marathon after finishing a half marathon. We realize that with more suffering comes more reward.

Realizing that suffering is WHY I run has become a powerful little tidbit of knowledge. When I was new to the sport, I used to run in the hope that I could somehow find the “runner’s high” and avoid the suffering all together. Then, when the eventual slump of a run would set in, I would get frustrated and wonder what I was doing wrong. I would wonder how long I’d have to train to get rid of the suffering, to make the sport easier and enjoyable 100% of the time. Or, I’d wonder if I didn’t take a GU at the right time, or if I ran too hard on that first mile. But as I’ve grown, both as a runner and as an individual, I’ve learned that the inevitable suffering within our sport is exactly why I continue to lace up. Although the suffering itself is never enjoyable in the present moment, I’ve learned to remind myself that the very suffering I’m experiencing is exactly what I came for. Without that difficult moment, and many more moments like it, the passion I have for the sport wouldn’t exist.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an easy way to get through those actual moments yet. Suffering is suffering. No matter how much self-talk you practice, it’s hard to consciously persuade yourself out of those moments. Sometimes, terrible parts of your runs are just those... terrible parts of your runs. However, I do think that having an understanding of your passion for the sport helps in these moments, because you learn to appreciate them rather than dread them. You take them for what they are… challenging moments in a run that tell you that you are doing something right. Suffering means you are working hard, running fast, running far, running up hills or running into exhaustion. Suffering is a simple byproduct of effort, and therefore something to strive for as you grow in the sport.

So next time someone asks you why it is that you run, despite your miserable grimaced expression when they pass you on the streets, smile and say that it’s because it’s good for you. Go right ahead. I excuse you for lying. Quite frankly, if you said something like “I run because I choose to suffer” you’ll probably perpetuate a reputation of runners being a bunch of wannabe martyrs (a reputation I think we sometimes have anyway.) However, the next time a tough moment of a run sets in, take pride in the fact that that very moment is exactly why you laced up and hit the road or trail in the first place.
Happy Running,

Coach Jason Paganelli can be reached at

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