The most painful race I have ever experienced was my first attempt at an ultramarathon, in 2012. Way Too Cool seemed like a soft transition into ultrarunning: The famous race is a 50K, only five miles farther than a marathon. And while the Way Too Cool course is all on trails of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the route is not especially brutal. Starting just east of Auburn, California, it winds down dirt fire roads to the banks of the American River, before rolling back toward the finish along forested ravines and canyons.
For the first couple hours, things seemed fine. I was running quickly, toward the front of the pack. But as fatigue mounted in my legs, I began to have catastrophic energy issues. It happened fast—as if a plug had been pulled and my strength bled out, like water draining from a sink. “Hold it together,” I told myself, as I vomited up my pre-race breakfast. Other runners started moving past me, some giving words of encouragement. But I hardly noticed. I blocked out the scenery and the other competitors, focusing on keeping my legs in motion. I had entered the pain cave.
Pain is perhaps the most common experience in competitive distance running. If you want to achieve your best performances, you must be willing to suffer. In trying to podium or snag a personal best, your own physiology will fight against you. Your muscles ache, the lactic acid builds, and you slip into oxygen debt. So why do it? Why do runners willingly enter the pain cave?
The phrase itself—“pain cave”—has proliferated among runners and ultramarathoners, hinting at how much the experience of suffering defines the sport. Jim Walmsley famously missed a turn at Western States last year because, in his own words, “I was very much in the pain cave.” Ensconced in physical distress, he ran miles off course, ending what might have been a record-setting day. But Walmsley didn’t invent the phrase. When Timothy Olson won Western States in 2012, professional ultrarunner Dylan Bowman recalled that Olson “entered the pain cave to get through it and blew us all away.” Outdoor industry companies are now following suit. In a tweet this spring, The North Face marketed its apparel as helping runners “weather the triumph and the pain cave.” Sports magazines hawk gear to let you turn your basement into “the perfect pain cave for your budget.” Caverns of discomfort are seemingly everywhere.
Ultramarathoning does not hold a monopoly on pain—running’s subdisciplines are unified through deep descents into lactic agony. Racing a 5K is like taking a bath in discomfort. A well-paced half marathon feels like holding your hand in a campfire. The end of a marathon is particularly awful—the last 10 kilometers almost a deconstruction of the self.
This is why the metaphor of the cave is so very apt. When we hurt, the outside world becomes bounded and excluded, and we descend into a chasm of ourselves. And when things go especially pear-shaped because of a bonk or bad pacing, the contours of the pain cave turn jagged and sharp.
After years of subjecting myself to this masochism, my sense is that runners gravitate toward painful activities because they provide us with opportunities for knowledge. We think pain will reveal something, some evidence of value or commitment to self-improvement. We believe, for some reason, that arbitrary painful challenges will provide answers: Who’s the best? Have I improved? Am I tough enough? What am I doing with my life? In other words, we want to know the content of our character.
This is perhaps why the peculiar celebration of pain has always permeated distance running’s culture. We find something deep and metaphorical about the idea of running through pain, as if the endurance of discomfort contains meaning beyond angry nerve endings. We cherish stories like the iconic 1982 Duel in the Sun between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley at the Boston Marathon, a pyrrhic experience between two athletes at their physical peak that neither came close to matching again in their lives. We fetishize the agonies of the fictional Quenton Cassidy, who runs 60 quarter-mile intervals in Once a Runner and pisses blood afterward.
Pain forces us to confront disruptive, awful, and occasionally inspiring realities of the world around us. The pain cave is a place where we take stock of our courage and ask ourselves how much we are willing to give for the goals we’ve laid out. And that, I think, is why we willingly descend into it.
But such armchair philosophy was far from my mind on the trails of Way Too Cool in 2012. Over the last eight miles, I ran ragged in a state of physiological deterioration. As I lifted my body up the course’s steep climb near mile 26, the discomfort was so acute I could almost taste it. “Holy cow,” I thought as I staggered up the slope like a drunken bear. “This really hurts.” Friendly volunteers cheered along the trailside, but they seemed muted and muffled as I lurched by in my cavern of physical distress. My pace melted into a crawl. “What is it, exactly, that I am trying to accomplish here?” I mumbled to myself. “Something is totally off with my body. I really should stop.” I contemplated sitting down on the trailside. Maybe I could get a ride to the finish.
Then, amid the turmoil of the cave, some part of me quietly pointed out, “But if you stop, you will never know if you could have finished today. Aren’t you curious?” I knew this was circular reasoning: I would only know I could finish the race by finishing it. But I did want to know.
An agonizing hour later, I crossed the finish line, tottering through the corral like an overloaded boat about to capsize. I sat down and stared at the small bit of ground between my shoes. I felt fantastically awful. Somebody handed me a cupcake: “Way to tough it out, bro.” After a moment, I staggered off, cupcake in hand, to look for my car. I had learned in the pain cave that I could finish an ultra, and I knew I’d be back again soon.