Pain is part of endurance events. That’s a given. But as your challenges get longer and harder, how do you deal with the increase in suffering? As my own endurance events have grown from eight hours to 28 days, I’ve a little experience in how to deal with your pain levels reaching an all-time high.
In 2017, I took on my first continuous Deca triathlon (10 x iron-distance). This involved swimming 38km, cycling 1,800km and finally running 10 marathons, back to back, all 422km of it. All the disciplines had their own challenges, the cold during the 20hr swim and the mind-numbing back ache that was my constant companion on the bike leg. But it was on the run where I truly experienced an all-consuming, agonising pain.
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In the first five marathons, I was actually really happy. The relief that every triathlete feels when they finally get off the bike is quite literally tenfold on a Deca. I was elated to finally be on the part of the event that I really enjoyed. No more back pain or saddle sores, just me and my feet.
From the first few miles I got into my little routine, running certain parts and walking others. I broke the marathons in half. Tackling the initial 21km from 2am until 6am, then I’d have some breakfast. After that I would run another half marathon and my reward was a shower and a real coffee!
The afternoon would always be tough as tiredness kicked in. But, by 10pm, I’d stretch my aching body out on the mattress in my van, with my legs raised to try and help with recovery, and sleep. Then, just before 2am, my alarm would go off and my day would start all over again. And for those first few days, I felt like I could do this forever.
And then it started.
I sat on the floor of the crew tent and pulled off my socks and trainers and looked at my feet. They looked fine. In fact, I felt really bad because the feet of my fellow athletes, like Dave Clamp and Shanda Hill, were in tatters. I’d walked behind Dave early one morning and he made almost animal-like noises as he ran, because he was so consumed with the pain. And Shanda’s tales of slicing her blisters off and taping up the remains were keeping us all amused for hours.
But I’d no blisters or sores. No cuts or bruises. They just looked normal. So, what the hell was going on?
Every time I tried to run for more than 30-40mins, the throbbing would start. And it’d build and build until I could handle it no more. I would then have to stop, rip my shoes off and lie on the floor, crying in relief as the pain slowly subsided.
And I still had over 150km left to run.
This was the point when I had to let go of my plans, drop the comforting routine I loved so much and literally deal with one lap at a time. My day now consisted of doing as many miles as I could until the pain level became unbearable. Then I’d be forced to stop and lie with my feet stuck in the air, while I experienced the overwhelming rush of relief.
That relief was always short-lived as, due to the feet issues, my times had slowed down drastically and, if I still wanted to finish in under 12 days, there was no time for shower or coffee breaks anymore. All I did was run, walk and sob. But I didn’t stop.
That race taught me that I could endure more pain than I ever thought possible. I already knew that when things got tough, I could break the race down to whatever I could handle at that time. Be it one mile, one lap or even one minute. But the new lesson I learnt was lifechanging and I live by it to this day.
When everything falls apart, you have to look for the positives. This takes some serious practice and the harder the situation, the tougher it is. But since I started this, there’s only one thing that has happened that I couldn’t find anything positive, and that was the loss of a friend. Everything else that has happened, I look and I find at least one thing that’s good and that I can use to keep my mindset positive.
Once you develop this habit, you can use it anywhere and it’s particularly helpful in long, hard endurance races.
During those 50 hours I had remaining, when I discovered that the only pain relief that worked was crying (endorphins) and I would wear my sunglasses until it was dark so people couldn’t see me balling my eyes out, I had a moment I won’t ever forget.
It was the middle of the night, so I was almost alone, except for a few fellow ultra zombies stumbling about. I’d been wearing flip flops for a few laps, to let my hot angry feet cool down a little, when I suddenly decided just to take them off and walk barefoot for a while.
The feel of the cool tarmac on my throbbing skin and the quietness of the night just rushed through me. I suddenly realised that, yes, I was in some of the worst pain I’d ever experienced, but I was also coming to the end of an incredible event and about to finish a race that I never dreamed I could.
From then on, I forced myself to look beyond the pain and instead, really look at where I was. The race is held in Buchs, Switzerland, and is surrounded by mountains where the clouds hang so low sometimes, it almost looks unreal. I’d also look through a gap in the trees where you could see a busy road in the distance, and I understood that this would end soon, and I’d be at home again.
So, yes, I was still in agony but now I was looking up and really appreciating where I was and what I was doing. From then on, I refused to let my screaming feet distract me and turn my thoughts negative.
Pain and suffering are all part of endurance events, but when you learn to control your mindset and stop negativity, you’ll discover new limits that you thought impossible.
All you have to do is stop and look up…
About Claire… Claire Smith raced her first triathlon at Ironman 70.3 UK at Exmoor in 2006, and has since gone on to race Ironman UK, the Enduroman Double Iron, the SwissUltra Continuous Deca Iron, and the Double Deca Iron in Mexico. She’s also the founder of Brutal Events, organiser of the Brutal Extreme Triathlons. And up next for Claire in 2021? Just an unsupported 3,500-mile triathlon across America in May, and the Arch to Arc Triathlon in September…