Recreational Suffering

November 8th, 2011 by Stacy

Recently, a friend and I had the following electronic correspondence in reference to a product review he wrote:

Me:  “…anyone who’s into self-inflicted pain…”  Sounds like runners to me.
Him:  Pretty much, yeah. Or cyclists who keep on injuring themselves …

A few days earlier I had the misfortune of living through what had to be, physically, my single worst day on a trail. So my thoughts have been carried again to the theme of suffering.

It seems obvious that pain is part of the appeal of running, but it also seems obvious there must be a line, at least for most runners, between courting pain and its lessons, and out-and-out masochism. I will admit that I do not personally think I have a very firm grasp on where that line lies. But that is not the same as having nothing to say on the matter.

For one thing, pain or suffering is too broad a term. Being cross-eyed at the razor’s edge of self-induced hypoxia is one sensation. Being implicated in events that turn intentions of a laid-back 3-hour outing into a 6-hour absurdist play is another.

Likewise, the lessons taught by the different forms of pain are not the same. Sometimes the pain teaches us we are stronger than we thought; sometimes it teaches us we are weaker. Sometimes the lessons are more nuanced or entirely ambiguous. What I was taught most profoundly by my recent painful outing wasn’t even about me, in a way: I learned I will almost certainly sometimes need other people and that they will sometimes come through in ways I would not have dared guess.

It also seems important to distinguish the pain we ordinarily experience through running from the suffering of those who are poor, hungry, sick, mourning and the like. Indeed, though I feel no guilt at the thought, the recreational suffering of a hard run sometimes strikes me as wealthy-nation self-indulgence. Sooner or later, we can all pretty much count on experiencing overwhelming pain at the point of circumstances not of our choosing. Whatever it is, running isn’t that.

By the way, my friend was certainly right about cyclists also having a taste for self-inflicted pain. (Even cyclists who lack my penchant for injury.) They also sometimes write really well about it:

The greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses; people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few friends these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms, she rewards passionately.
The Rider, Tim Krabbé

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