“It’s a Nice Day for a Run” and Other Strange Things to Say: Some Thoughts on Our Pursuit of Pain

It was the closest thing to hell I’ve experienced: my whole body hurt. A dull […]

CJ Green / 8.29.17

It was the closest thing to hell I’ve experienced: my whole body hurt. A dull buzz in my feet, knees, and head: a red-hot pain emanating outward, into my neck, arms, down my back. I sat down. I stood up. I walked in aimless circles, drank water. Nothing helped. After running along the James River, 26.2 throbbing miles along that winding golden ribbon, the only thing I remember about the water was afterwards, trying to distract myself with it, staring at the waves, the sun dancing off its surface. Not even that beauty, which on any other occasion might have swept me up…not even that could help.

An eye roll from the reader would be warranted. Why all the complaining? After all, I did bring this on myself. The funny thing is, I don’t know why.

I wasn’t alone. In those moments, something like a warzone played out around me, or a natural disaster: gasping people staggered down the road, through the finish line, collapsing into heaps among loved ones, eventually scrounging up the grit to take some photos with their medals, to shove some donuts in their mouths, and protein bars, and apples, throwing to the ground empty Gatorade bottles with hollow clatters. Someone, at some point, would clean up this mess, but not us. I drove an hour home on cruise-control and kept my mind off the pain by spraying windshield wiper fluid on the helpless drivers behind me, who then flew past and shot me nasty looks. The excruciation of that day was also mixed up with exhilaration. I wouldn’t trade any of it.

I was reminded of this puzzling experience while reading Brad Stulberg’s “Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports?” The answer: plenty of reasons. If you work in an office, or on the internet (ahem), then getting in touch with the physical world, digging your feet into the ground, is one valid basis. Another is setting goals, and reaching them. Personally, I enjoy just getting out and going to a new place that I could never otherwise reach: seeing that patch of road many miles into the woods, one that only runners know; to disrupt that fresh air, break through it, reshape it, make it my own, miles from home; to take that trail with me in my memories. Runners have these places to ourselves. If you’re catching a hint of spirituality, you’re not wrong: there’s an underground church of Tough Mudder-ers who, when they see my “Toughest Race on Earth” shirt, pass the peace.

Stulberg’s article, though, illuminates another, somewhat stranger motivation:

For a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research this past February, a group of international researchers set out to understand why people with desk jobs are attracted to grueling athletic events. They interviewed 26 Tough Mudder participants and read online forums dedicated to obstacle course racing. What emerged was a resounding theme: the pursuit of pain.

“By flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness,” write the researchers. “When leaving marks and wounds, pain helps consumers create the story of a fulfilled life. In a context of decreased physicality, [obstacle course races] play a major role in selling pain to the saturated selves of knowledge workers, who use pain as a way to simultaneously escape reflexivity and craft their life narrative.” […]

When you finish a race, you’re Odysseus once again secure in your marriage bed; you’re Katniss, pulling a fast one on the Capitol; you’re Harry Potter, standing triumphantly over Voldemort—scarred but self-actualized. You’re the hero of your narrative, the dark night now behind you.

“Triathletes who I interviewed for my research talked about how the pain that they experienced during training and racing was one of the primary reasons they did it,” says Bridel. “To overcome this pain and get across the finish line served as a significant form of achievement and demonstrated an ability to discipline their bodies.”

The great irony, of course, is that one of the main reasons people pursue education, financial security, and solid employment is to create comfortable lives. But for some, this can begin to feel like too much of a good thing. Endurance sports provide a necessary outlet, offering concrete measures of a job well done and the chance to deal with physical suffering—albeit in a voluntary, defined, and immediately escapable environment.

Considering all this, I can’t help but think of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, about a well-to-do American family’s uses and misuses of their everyday freedoms:

“[Patty] had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

The more freedom Patty has, the more she misuses it. That’s not to say that running is—necessarily—a misuse of freedom. But it is a strange one. As advice columnist Heather Havrilesky once pointed out: “For the privileged among us, freedom feels oppressive and oppression is like freedom.”

Here on the east coast, fall is coming. The sticky heat that keeps us inside, fanning ourselves over window units, is packing its bags. The trees are turning, and soon enough we’ll be saying things like, “What a nice day for a run.” But I’ve begun to wonder: if it’s such a nice day, why don’t we just enjoy it? Why cap it off with sweaty armpits? Not to mention the risk of shin splints, pulled muscles, and looking positively disheveled in front of God-knows-who. Why don’t we post up in a hammock, kick up our feet? On the one hand, I know how to enjoy pizza: I eat it. I know how to enjoy a show: I watch it. I re-watch it. How does one enjoy a day? It can’t be consumed. It just passes.

I can only theorize from here. In a world of suffering, to not be allowed to have any skin in the game, when so much of the world is victimized, to not be a “sufferer” is a form of suffering in itself; guilt wells, a sense of undeserving for the good things we have. So much of my life is spent keeping myself on the hook. No one, for example, tells me to feel guilty about watching endless interviews with Vera Farmiga: but I do. Everything is fine—today is a nice day—but the problem is, and remains, me. I am still me. That’s why I run.

Writing this, I’ve been searching for a word—sorting memories for it, rearranging my internal bookshelf, rummaging through the humming refrigerator in my head, throwing out leftovers; I’ve been running down the trail, looking for the Reason Why, the thing to tie it all up. Now it’s come to me, and it’s a good one to remember before you lace up your shoes. Atonement.