Pain Isn't the Goal

Susan Donnelly climbing a cliff at Bigfoot 200.

Here I was at Bigfoot 200, facing another rocky, steep climb.

Each step above me was two or three times the height of a stair step. 

On each step up, I could feel the separate fibers of glute muscle strain to point of failing.

But they didn’t.

I kept asking more of them and they kept delivering, climb after climb, like a team of horses that wouldn’t quit.

There’s a deep satisfaction in working all-out hard like this on a challenging course. Of working ’til you can’t work any more, fully expending yourself, and giving it your all.

I’m talking about satisfaction, not pain.

For anyone who's in ultrarunning for the long haul like I am, I'm clearing up a macho myth that gets thrown around with a lot of drama.

The glorification of pain.

As in, ”No pain, no gain,” or

“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” or

“It’s not who’s the best. It’s who can take the most pain.” (Steve Prefontaine)

The truth?


When I looked it up, the top definition of pain was “punishment.” 

If that’s why you’re running, stop reading, because I’m not about using my sport as a way to punish yourself.

I’m about using my sport as a way to do things like face your doubts and fears, grow your confidence, amaze yourself, and fully immerse yourself in being alive as the human you are with the miraculous body you've been given.

Real pain is an obstacle to finishing a race. It means you either need to stop because of an injury, or deal with the problem and keep running. That’s all.

What most of us are really talking about is discomfort. The physical discomfort of pushing your body and the mental discomfort of your mind perceiving that and thinking about how uncomfortable it is. 

Hard to deal with.

It’s easier to dramatize discomfort all out of proportion into the handy distraction of “pain,” like the monster under the bed, than to face it.

Plus, you get plenty of encouragement to glorify pain. Flip through any ultrarunning-related magazine and you see all kinds of headlines and ads about pain and suffering that aren’t about pain-relievers. It makes for great marketing.

Sure, you’ll likely encounter pain as an obstacle in a race, but that’s all it is. An obstacle on your way to a finish, not the monster under the bed, and not the goal. You’re trying to do something impossible despite it, not get wrapped up in it.

So, don’t fall for that worn-out macho pain myth.

Pain doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. 

It doesn’t mean you’re better than another runner.

And it doesn’t get you closer to a race finish or a better result.

I guarantee you’ll be in ultrarunning longer and get way more out of the sport if it’s about the challenge of working hard for something, believing in yourself, giving it your all, and doing something you weren’t sure you could do, instead of the amount of pain you can inflict on yourself. 

Deal with pain, don’t drama it.

It’s not the goal.

Susan Donnelly’s signature

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