Loss is inevitable in life. Some people start dealing with loss at an early age. Others do so later in life. However, no one can go through life without experiencing loss. Loss can have many forms and true loss will impact an individual in both physical and emotional ways. We can lose family members. Or we can have our hearts broken. In either case, committing to accept pain – as a normal part of life – will help us grow and learn to move on.
In 2009 I suffered an emotional trauma when the relationship I had suddenly ended. 3 years later, while I was still recovering, my mother died of cancer after a long and hard battle. During this time, I turned the pain inward through running. It was my way to cope and move on. Shortly after, I met my wonderful wife Claire and life took an unforeseen turn in a very positive direction. All of this was thanks to learning to accept and process pain.
Almost everyone I have ever met has had some type of loss. Most people I know describe a death in the family or a heart breaking rejection – like mine. The symptoms are always very similar: low energy, low self-esteem, not much desire to move forward, a sense of being lost, sleep problems, weight/eating problems, back pains, sometimes, even chest pain. We know that many of these symptoms correspond with, and are triggered by depression and anxiety. Feeling this way, we often don’t see the “light at the end of the tunnel”. We may feel engulfed in darkness, worthless, and unloved. If the symptoms last a long time, the question of sanity creeps in as we feel less and less understood… “Helpful friends” tell us to stay busy, to find someone else, to go out and have fun, to experience life… If it would only be that easy… All of these feelings are experienced against the backdrop of emotional, and sometimes, physical pain.
But pain is a good thing. Pain is there to help us move on. Pain is there to teach us a lesson. So what should we learn from pain? How can we use pain to grow, to transform it into something positive and ultimately to move on?
My personal experience with pain in 2009 was eye opening. I was not new to pain as I have been exposed to it virtually all my life, from a life in martial arts, to military service in both wars. Along the way, I had to overcome a multitude of challenges. But this pain was different, it was the first time it brought me to my knees – the first time it manifested in physical ways.
My friends told me that the emotional turmoil I was experiencing will go away. But it didn’t. Instead, the pain became stronger with time with the realization of the loss and the lack of a viable solution.
My only option was to increase my endurance to pain and accept it as part of life.
I started running – an activity I hated – to induce physical pain in the hope that it would help me – even for a few seconds – to forget what I felt emotionally. In a short amount of time, I was running 6 – 7 hours at once, especially when I had too much time on my hands. That soon led to running ultra-marathons (races of over 100 miles in my case) where I could push my body and mind through pain and force myself to deal with it. During the races, I found myself analyzing why I am running, why I am pushing myself to extremes, why I have this desire to always push the limits. The answer was a bit complicated but can be summarized in one simple way: humans do not learn from pleasure, we learn our most important and lasting lessons in life through pain and sufferance.
Looking back at my life, I cannot remember a single instance where I had a wonderful time and learned something valuable about life or myself. I can however remember very clearly every instance when things didn’t go well — when sufferance and struggle where the operative words. All the lessons I learned were from those experiences. I remember the people. I remember the conversations. I remember the feelings. I would be a hypocrite to deny the most wonderful moments of my life; I cherish them and they will always be part of my heart. I am just saying they did not lead to self discovery, or to personal growth.
And personal growth happens unexpectedly. For me, it came in the form of a sense of focus, feeling more driven, and starting to see a purpose to life.
At that point, I had always believed that “hate” is a very powerful resource in an ultramarathon – and in life. Yet somewhere along the line, I realized that “self-hate” was actually the realization/acceptance of pure TRUTH. I ran my best races when I wanted to feel pain, to make myself hurt. Looking back I realize that deep inside I felt I wasn’t good enough, from mundane things such as being good enough to secure an invitation to a certain race or a certain job, to selfish-emotional ones such as good enough to make someone happy, to the altruistic ones such as good enough to prevent my mother’s suffering.
Rationally we know that most of the things/interactions in life do not depend on us alone, that no matter how hard we try if the other party is not willing to meet us somewhere and work together the action will fail. But deep inside, our soul does not seem to comprehend that distinction; it seems to be a very clear cut between success and failure which leads to the realization of the truth. That truth is very simple and basic: if I am not a stronger/better person today than I was yesterday (in every aspect of life), then I still have so much more work to do, so much more improvement to seek. Perhaps without this TRUE feeling there would be no progress, no evolution, and no ability to understand/appreciate beauty, love, or happiness.
One can probably run a marathon or a shorter race for an outside reason, but when running 100s or more mile races (with the exception of the truly gifted runners who can run just based on physical abilities), that reason has to be driven from inside. Similarly, one can probably accomplish minor tasks for outside reasons, but the really tough ones require a deeper –more internal – motivation. Finding that reason and being able to accomplish your goal creates light, and as it seems, that light draws others.
Not surprisingly at a race, I met my wife. I proposed at a race (Spartathlon) and married at a race (UltraMilano-Sanremo). At the time, I only knew she was a runner and a therapist. Later I learned she was drawn to running for similar reasons. Since then my life has changed where now, I feel loved again, I have hope for the future, and in the process I can make a difference in other people’s life through the Nana Endurance Training and the International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation. But our story is not unique. Many, many other ultrarunners have similar experiences (stories to be published in the future) and they all agree that learning to accept and manage pain is essential to self growth and ultimately happiness. We don’t all have to be ultrarunners to reach our goals or be successful – but we do have to learn to accept that pain is part of the process – and indeed, part of getting stronger.
Photo Credit: Ioana Nana