They call it the pain cave. I never heard it called that before. So I stopped and paused. Turned my head a little.
The pain cave? I was new to ultra-running and felt out of place as a group of seasoned competitors were talking about how they would feel in the race.
We were all gathered together the day before the race to talk through logistics. The race director was sharing the different segments of the race, where staff would be located, and what we needed to do if we ran into a bear accidentally.
Most people listening were in a good mood – laughing and joking, and sharing what seemed important to them and their crew.
I remember the words “pain cave” distinctly. I’m not a fan of tight spaces and so being in a cave seemed like an absolute disaster. After all, I had signed up for a race. Not a spelunking expedition.
I figured it out the next day.
It was a 5 a.m. start. And cold as hell. In the mountains of Arkansas. And I had never done this before. I was going to run my first 100 mile race.
There were 23 aid stations broken up by 3 to 5 miles of ugly terrain in-between. It might have been cold when the day started but it quickly got warm and then hot.
As day wore on, I noticed that the crowd got less talkative. Some people had earbuds on or were listening to music on a Bluetooth speaker attached to their hydration pack. Others seem to have a glazed over look at they stared at the trail ahead.
The hot midday sun turned a bit cooler as lunchtime turned into dinner time. More than 12 hours later I was still running.
And then I entered the darkness. Literally. I had started running in the darkness of the morning. And now I was running in the darkness of the evening.
My muscles were strained and sore.
I was uncomfortably dehydrated. No one was around me anymore. I was quite literally all alone in the middle of the mountains with only my headlamp and the promise of there being an age station a few more miles down the road.
There was no reason to continue except that I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. Every fiber of my being was screaming out in rebellion. Even my mind started talking nonsense to me.
“Why would you do this?”
“Is this even safe?”
Every step felt like torture. Self-imposed torture – which made it seem all the more crazy.
And there, in the middle of the Arkansas mountains, more than 80 miles into a race that I had never attempted before, I found myself in the middle of the pain cave.
Emotional. Physical. Pain.
I knew exactly what that seasoned runner was talking about.
And in an instant, it all made sense. I also remembered what the race director said the day before: “Have fun, people. Go out there and finish. It’s not about how fast you are. it’s about you making it back across the finish line.”
As the minutes turned into miles, I figured out something that I have never forgotten.
The only way out of the pain cave is to keep moving towards the light. To stop is to stay stuck. To give up is to stay stuck. To make excuses just slows you down.
It’s going to keep hurting until you make it through to the other side. It’s going to feel like everything around you is falling apart. Your friends are going to call you crazy. Your mind is going to trick you into thinking that what you want to achieve isn’t worth it.
You’re going to doubt yourself. You’re going to question your abilities.
In the end, the pain cave makes you tougher.
It’s what sets you apart from everyone else. It’s your secret to being unstoppable. Not because you’re a superhuman who isn’t bothered by the things that affect others. But because the pain brings out something primal inside you.
It refines you and makes you better. It shows you clearly how amazing you can be in spite of the obstacles that seem to be holding you back from where you want to be.
The pain cave isn’t your enemy, it’s your enabler.
Throughout my life, I have found myself in the pain cave all too often.
Most of the time, it has nothing to do with me running. It’s something a bit more insidious – usually a pain cave of emotions and financial worry, thoughts of inadequacy and questions about clarity.
What it all comes crashing down and I’m awake at 2:15 in the morning wondering why I’m here again and what to do to make it better, I’ve realized the power of being in the pain game.
The secret to being better isn’t to worry or whine, quit, give up, or blame someone else.
It is to turn worry into wonder.
- “What lesson am I supposed to be learning right now?”
- “How would I act if I knew that everything was going to be okay in the end?”
Instead of being frantic, I tell myself that I am fortunate. Because even though what I am learning will be uncomfortable, it is also the lesson I need to be a champion.
And perhaps the same is true with you.
Maybe you’re not struggling because you’re a loser and you keep making bad choices. Maybe you’re in the pain cave so that you can be the person you were meant to be.
So stop wasting your time revolting against it.
You don’t have to enjoy the pain to celebrate the progress you’re making.
It took me 19 hours, 29 minutes, and 21 seconds to finish my first hundred-mile race and learn an important lesson about pain, progress, and the only way to reach full potential.
I’ve heard Joel Osteen say multiple times over the years that: “What you go through, you grow through.”
But there’s a word missing from that sentence.
What you go through you can grow through.
The hard truth is that you can be in the pain cave forever. You can stay stuck, in a self-imposed pattern of whining and giving up. You can refuse to learn lessons that will make you better.
You can point your finger at everyone else and miss out on the valuable opportunity to become the winner you’ve always wanted to be.
Pain doesn’t need to bring you down. It can build you up. But that’s a choice. One you might have to make every step of the way for 19 hours.
In everyday life, you might have to make that decision every hour for a thousand consecutive days.
You might have to choose to get back on your feet a million consecutive times.
When you choose gain, you sign yourself up for pain.
So you have a choice to make. Do you want success or do you never want to feel bad?
If it’s success and progress and being a better version of you that you choose, welcome to the pain cave.