My Pain Cave

I couldn’t sleep last night for some reason. After tossing and turning for a while, some random thoughts began running through my head. I began thinking about how many times I’ve been in the “pain cave.” The pain cave specifically refers to the physical and/or mental pain one pushes through at a particularly difficult race or when training for a race.

One of the most prominent memories of me spending time in the pain cave was during the only full marathon I ever ran, the Long Beach Marathon in California. It was unseasonably hot on that October day and runners were literally passing out from the heat all around me. I’m not sure how I didn’t pass out myself, although I did experience tunnel vision at one point during the race. I remember I kept telling myself to just look straight ahead and just keep moving because I knew if I stopped even for a second, I would never start up again and it would be a DNF for me. I was a young, inexperienced runner and yet somehow I found the courage to dig deep inside myself and keep on moving, despite the difficult race conditions.

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I was in the pain cave at this half marathon in Boulder, Colorado because of the altitude!

Another time where I was physically in the pain cave was when I was having problems with my iliotibial band on one leg and had developed iliotibial band syndrome, or ITBS. When I was training for a half marathon in Columbus, Ohio, I was coming back from having a baby and all of my ligaments and joints were not in the condition they were pre-pregnancy. I had the typical pain on the side of my knee that goes along with ITBS, which I quickly determined was from my tight IT band. It was excruciating to run more than a few miles. Once the pain started, there was no running through it. I would have to stop running and walk back home. This is around the time when I discovered massage therapy and foam rolling. However, too much damage had been done to my IT band and I literally limped to the start of the Columbus Distance Classic. I was in the pain cave pretty much from the start of this race. This is a race I obviously should have never attempted and by the end I was barely walking and certainly not running. After the race, I limped around for several weeks and learned my lesson to never toe the line of a race when I’m injured again.

Similar to poor racing conditions at the Long Beach Marathon, I’ve had my share of other races with poor weather conditions on race day, and I spent my time in the pain cave at those races. There was the Gold Rush Half Marathon, which I described afterwards as pure torture. It was hilly (one of those races where you run uphill, turn a corner, and never get to run back down hill), hot, and humid. This was one of my first half marathons, too, so I learned at an early point in my running life to push through the pain cave. Then there was the Laughlin Half Marathon  in Nevada, with extremely hot and windy conditions on a course made of loose gravel so I had trouble getting my footing. That was a race I was just happy to finish. Also there was the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon in Tennessee with all of its insane hills and easily one of the hilliest half marathons I’ve run.

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The race course for the Laughlin Half Marathon was supposed to be “scenic” but I thought it was a death march

Outside of heat and hills, I’ve run races where it was cold and rainy, like the Run the Reagan Half Marathon near Atlanta, Georgia. Not only was the weather poor (cold and rainy), that race was entirely on a freeway closed off to traffic, so it was also one of the most boring courses I’ve ever run on. I had to dig deep mentally just to get through that race. Then there were all of the races I ran when I was anemic, some of which I hadn’t been diagnosed yet so I didn’t know why I was so much slower than I previously had been. When I was anemic, just walking up a flight of stairs would cause me to be out of breath, so how I managed to run multiple half marathons while I was anemic is truly beyond me. I guess it shows how I can push through when I’m in the pain cave.

But why can some people push through when they’re in the pain cave and others have more difficulty? Does it have to do with our previous experiences in life? Does it have to do with a person’s pain tolerance in general? I know for sure I have a high pain tolerance and have had one for as long as I can remember.

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This half marathon in Mississippi was when I was anemic and struggled just to finish

When I was seven years old, I broke my leg when riding my bicycle. I was by myself, riding around my neighborhood, when I made a turn too sharply and the bike and I fell to the ground. I still remember lying there on the street screaming out for help and crying loudly for what seemed like an eternity. One of my best friend’s moms even opened her back door, seemingly saw it was me, and shut her door back again. To this day I’ll never understand why she did that because it seemed obvious to me that I needed help. Maybe she was just making sure it wasn’t one of her kids or maybe she thought my mom would come and help me since I was in the cul-de-sac that our townhouse was on. Eventually I got up and hobbled home but I insisted to my mom that I was OK. For three days I limped around while I swore to my mom that my leg was not broken. Finally, despite my pleas to the contrary, my mom took me to the emergency room, where they promptly took x-rays then wrapped my leg in a heavy plaster cast from the tip of my thigh down to my toes. Yes, it was indeed broken but for some reason it didn’t hurt that much when I broke it so I thought it must not really be broken. Sure, I was crying when it happened but that was more to get someone to come and help me. The real pain came two months later when they finally took the cast off and I had to walk again.

I’ve been fortunate to have only broken one limb my entire life and have only had one sprain- my neck when I was in a car accident in high school and had whiplash. That was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had. Every little movement would send sharp, shooting pain through my neck, even if I just moved my foot or some other part of the body not even near my neck. I remember sitting at lunch at school with friends with my neck brace on one day after that happened and tears were streaming down my face from the pain. One of my friends told me I really needed to go and call my mom to have her pick me up and that I didn’t need to “be tough” and go through this at school. My mom picked me up and took me to the doctor who prescribed a muscle relaxer that only maybe numbed the pain a little. To this day I still have problems with my neck and most likely always will but that’s a pain I’ve just learned to live with.

Then we move on to childbirth and delivery. I decided when I was pregnant before I went into labor to skip the epidural and pain medicine. I had a good friend who had done that and I figured if she could do it, so could I. How did that go for me? Honestly, while it was intensely painful, it was nothing I didn’t feel like I couldn’t handle. I used my breathing techniques from yoga and ones I had learned in childbirth classes and I felt like my breath is what got me through the worst of it. When they stitched me up afterwards, that was painful and I agreed to let the nurse give me a Tylenol for the pain.

I don’t say all of this to sound like I’m bragging, because I certainly don’t feel like I’m a badass or anything. Like I said earlier, I just feel like I have a higher pain tolerance than some people do. Perhaps it’s because of my life experiences, or perhaps I was just born that way, who knows? I do believe my high pain tolerance makes it easier for me to deal when I’m in the pain cave, though. Maybe it’s true what they say about what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.

How do you deal with it when you’re in the pain cave? When is a time when you were in the pain cave?

Happy running!

Donna