Pain is a gift; never give up. On the team, we are reminded of this mantra at least once a week. Sometimes life gets uncomfortable, but you have to push through. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Push yourself during the workouts or you’ll never learn to push yourself during a race and endure the pain.
I latched onto this motto as soon as I heard it. My freshman season, I engrained this into my head, and it proved beneficial. I saw major improvements and raced well, and I chalked it all up to this motto. I told myself that if I could keep doing what I was doing, I would see so much progress.
One problem with that quaint thought I had: my actions weren’t sustainable. As much as younger me would’ve denied this statement, the pain I was experiencing wasn’t a gift. It was harming me, both physically and emotionally. And as much as this statement goes against the core values of the team, pain isn’t always a gift.
As I was getting more involved in the world of running my freshman year, I had begun to watch more professional runners and their races. I noticed one key difference between the athletes and myself, besides the high intensity of their training: they were all lean and thin, while I felt like I was anything but that.
I told myself that if I wanted to work my way up towards higher mileages and faster times, I would have to be disciplined (true). I would have to look like them (very, very false). I had to be in control.
How did I find this coveted control? Through setting detailed and specific training plans with the help of a coach? No, that would be too logical. Did I focus on perfecting my technique, so I could be as efficient as possible? I did eventually, but not at the time. Did I focus on my diet and nutritional health? Bingo.
Nutrition is most definitely important, don’t get me wrong. However, I warn you, dear reader and teammate, that combined with my already poor body image and prior relationship with food, the definition I had of “health” and what I thought I needed to do in order to enhance my performance was damaging. Throughout the 2019 track and cross country seasons, saying I was conscious of my diet would be an understatement. Every waking thought of mine was consumed by distress over caloric intake, macros, perceived quality of foods, timing of food intake, and much, much more. I became legitimately afraid of processed foods and fats, including nuts, avocados, and other nutritionally dense - but certainly healthy - foods. I started to give away parts of my lunch in order to avoid consuming “extra” calories. When I wasn’t home for dinner, which was (and still is) quite often during track season, I would replace my packed meal with a Clifbar, or worse yet, nothing at all. Instead of enjoying a Hog Island meal after a workout, I would still go to Hog Island to socialize, but bring my own food: “peanut dust,” as Coach Winters and Maria would fondly call my peanut butter powder sandwiches. Those sandwiches were disgusting, but I was too afraid to have actual peanut butter, so I found myself enjoying this dry, dissatisfying meal with a nice helping of kale. My stomach lived in a constant state of hunger, and the meals were proverbial torture for me. However, I kept telling myself that pain is a gift, and since I was feeling pain, I must be doing something right.
By the time cross country season rolled around, I was unsurprisingly performing much worse than I had during track. All my races felt more sluggish, and I found that I physically couldn’t kick it at the end of races. On a more personal note, I wasn’t seeing any noticeable reductions in my body size either. I was failing on so many different levels, and I hate(d) failing. More accurately, I hated myself. I tried harder to feel pain, and pushed myself more.
To even less surprise, the rest of that cross country season went even worse. I injured myself and couldn’t compete in the final races of the season. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t finish off the season, despite not enjoying it very much, for what I feel currently to be obvious reasons. I was angry with myself that I couldn’t do what I had set out to do. But most of all, I was scared. I was scared of what would happen to the little progress I had built, and I was scared of the changes in my body that could come about from not exercising.
Later that year, as I was mindlessly scrolling through YouTube’s suggested video, one video caught my eye. It featured a professional runner who had been recruited by Nike, and how her career went down the drain as she similarly tried to restrict her diet and eventually broke a part of her lower leg while racing due to low bone density caused by malnutrition. She commented on how she got to a point where when she stepped up to the line, all she could think about was hoping the number on the scale would be lower, rather than thinking about her racing strategy or even hoping her time would be faster. I had a sort of epiphany at the conclusion of that video. Our two experiences were eerily similar. I realized that running was no longer about running for me. It had become a tool for me to find control. Rather, I was using the control and pain necessary for running as tools to try to fix other issues I had in life and with myself. I had gotten to a place where I had found a twisted sense of comfort in the pain.
I felt so lost after that. I had no idea what to do, because I thought that any other method would mean giving up on the pain, and thus quitting. I won’t bore you with the details of how I came to my next thought, as many months went by before I learned the lesson. Ultimately, it occurred to me that giving up on a method doesn’t actually mean you’re giving up. Even if you are treating pain as a gift, that doesn’t mean you’re taking the only painful path, or the one that will yield you the most success. The pain you feel in the middle of a race is undeniably usually a gift; it means you’re working hard and putting your best foot forward. The pain you feel in a part of your body, however, is not a sign to keep trudging along that same path. It means something must change.
Since this realization, I have started to find a new path, one of good pain this time. I’m actually nourishing my body. When something physically hurts, I address it through rolling out or completing various strengthening exercises. Outside of running, I’m working on finding peace with my body. With these changes, workouts are going much better, and I’m finally building mileage instead of being chronically injured.
So, pain is a gift. This mentality will get you places. In the wise words of the Class of 2021 valedictorian Colin Murphy, “Avoid the easy road like the plague because the hard road is where all the cool kids are.” However, the hard road has many different surfaces and stretches. Scratching an unsuccessful method doesn’t mean you’re giving up on the goal or giving up on the pain. It simply means you’re finding the part of the road that works best for you. Never give up on that process. You’ll find beautiful things.