Psychology of Pain and Ultras


Experience From -
Redding Runner , Mike Erickson , Blake Wood , Joseph Salwan , Dan Baglione , Shannon FG , Matt Mahoney , John Wood , Christian Hottas , Geri Kilgariff , Claude Sinclair , Brian Hever , Rich Schick , Troy Marsh , M Swanson ,

Redding Runner

Any thoughts on the relationship between the pain and misery experienced during ultras and the joy and longing to do it again that we feel as soon as the pain subsides?

For example, the following quotes from Laz' recent post:

"there isnt any way to avoid spending the greatest portion of the race in pain...
Most sports and hobbies are not like this. Granted there is some misery in most undertakings, but people don't play golf or baseball or take up knitting or model trains knowing that each time they indulge they will be miserable much of the time, anxiously awaiting the end of their ordeal.

Yet it isn't that we are all nuts. Many people go through extremely difficult experiences, can't wait til it's over, then later declare it was the greatest time of their life. I think of many college students I know who have gone on short-term missions to third world countries. These generally spoiled middle class white kids normally can't handle the slightest deprivation, yet they go overseas, work their tails off (under duress), eat pig slop, live and sleep in spartan conditions, count the hours til its over, and then come back and cry because it was the greatest joy of their lives and they want to go back.

Adventure sports are similar.

So what it the deal? Armchair (or professional) psychologists, what are your theories?

Mike Erickson

Hmmm, I don't think Laz is necessarily correct in his assessment:

"there isn't any way to avoid spending the greatest portion of the race in pain..."
Maybe I'm running my races wrong and should be pushing harder, but it hasn't been my experience to spend the majority of time in agony. Granted, it's not all ecstasy, but it's certainly not prolonged pain for the majority of the event. The real physical pain is in the days after the event when my legs feel like McGwire and Bonds have been doing batting practice on them.

Speaking solely for myself, finishing an ultra, particularly a difficult race, gives me an enormous sense of validation and accomplishment. It also satisfies some sort of quirky need for over-the-top ('extreme') self actualization that is beyond the scope of most humans.

In other words it feeds my ego like nothing else can. Any difficulties encountered during an event are quickly buried by the sense that I 'Beat that bastard'.

In the end, it all comes back to: Why do you run ultras... because I can.

Blake Wood

You might check out my scholarly article " Childbirth Envy: Why Men Run Ultras" that appeared in UltraRunning Magazine a couple years back.

Joseph Salwan Ph.D.

During the 1960's a psychologist by the name of Leon Festinger suggested a theory to help explain conflict situations when we experience cognitive dissonance. That is, whenever we do something we think we shouldn't we have to face the problem of explaining our actions to ourselve and others. Festinger stated that we are usually highly motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance when it occurs, and we do so chiefly by changing our BELIEFS or ATTITUDES to make them accord with our ACTUAL BEHAVIORS. So, if one is to participate in an ardous task (such as ultrarunning), then it has to be worth it, otherwise we experience dissonance. Anyway, I believe that is also explains the reason why fraternities and other organizations use initiation rites. After going through such an experience we have to convince ourselves that the organization is really worth it!

Dan Baglione

I liked Rod's 'on the edge' definition of fun. Even in my years of work in the Air Force and in the aerospace industry, I had the most fun when I was under the most pressure. What others regarded as a stressful situation I regarded as exhilarating. Having to make quick decisions with minimal information and with high ranking officers or company officials looking over my shoulder was exciting. Of course, you must be willing to risk making a mistake or DNFing. Without risk there is no challenge.

Shannon FG

I don't know how many elite 100 milers experience pain in an event, or even a shorter distance during a 50 miler. I would imagine they do, as anyone running this distance. For me, usually with a 50, there is no pain, just a roller coaster of feeling good and not feeling good. During a 100, usually mile 80 is pain, as perhaps it is reinforced by fatigue, but you know the pleasure of completing a 100 miler, so you hang in there. With Badwater there is ouch pain, like giving birth to a cow, sideways, Not that I've done that, but I bet that's how it would feel. During the race this year it was up and down feeling good one minute and the next I was down for the count. The summit was pretty brutal, and the return was definitely "pain management" as I had to deal with fatigue, blistered feet that felt like a bat was hitting them with each step, and then the heat at mile 250 and the winds, but when you've come this far, do you give up when you know the joy of the accomplishment. This is when I had to ask myself "are you a man or a mouse"? We have to expect pain doing what we do... In life there is pain and joy, as with everything.

Matt Mahoney

I don't think it is normal to spend most of an ultra in pain. If you are, it means that something is wrong or you started too fast. If you pace yourself right, it should only hurt near the finish. It is that way for every distance I have raced from 100 meters to 100 miles.

I don't think multi-day runs are any different. The longer the distance, the more important it is to remain comfortable. My longest race was 64 hours, and I did not hurt any more on the third night than I did on the first day. Then again, maybe it's different on a track. At the time, I was more concerned with being crushed by loose boulders.

John Wood

I agree Matt. A little bit of discomfort, maybe, but pain should not be present the first half. I experienced fatigue at WS this year because I'm not accustomed to running mountains, but the real pain didn't start until about 3/4 of the way, and then I just did an assessment on how I really felt. It was not trauma and not dibilitating; it was just extreme muscle soreness and I felt that I could live with it.

Although, I have only completed 3 100 milers, I generally felt high as a kite for the first 1/3 to 1/2 of these runs. If you are not having fun, why are you doing it?

Christian Hottas

15 Aspirin during 122 hours is just nuts! It won't help him more than 3-4 tablets but will probably make some serious stomach problems. I think that ibuprofen or piroxicam is much better (more effective and also better for the stomach).

The question for me is whether you have some pain during the race & because of the race or whether you have had it also before the race. In the 1st case you must have done something wrong during the event, maybe overpaced. It should be more effective to change your speed and race strategy. In the 2nd case, maybe with some serious back pain during the days before the race, I find it much more neccessary to treat the pain as I told you above. Here I would also accept some local anaesthetic injections. But only as a treatment of pain - just as everybody (runner or not) should be possibly treated. And of course only with drugs which are not on the list of banned substances.

Geri Kilgariff

Ultrarunners have a high threshold for pain.

Question: Is this acquired through training and racing, or innate to individuals who are attracted to the sport?

And if it's acquired, could the mechanism involved be used (i.e. simulated) for pain management in non-ultrarunners suffering from chronic pain?

Claude Sinclair

Running releases Endorphines and that in itself will mask pain. I once raced a ten miler and severely sprained my ankle at about two miles. I tighten my shoe lace and started back running. No pain until a few minutes after the race and had to be carried to my car. Was on crutches for two weeks. However, I ran out of endorphines several years ago.

Brian Hever

I read somewhere (one of Anthony Robbins NLP books, I think) that every life decision is reached as a result of which is stronger; the pain associated with doing something or the pain associated with not doing that thing. This pain (or discomfort) can be either physical or psychological.

For example, the psychological pain of remaining a tobacco smoker or an overweight person vs. the psychological and/or physical pain of quitting cigarettes or losing weight. The theory goes that only when the pain of the former is stronger than the pain of the latter will the subject successfully reach his/her goal. In other words, if you don't really WANT to quit, you won't.

I believe that the idea of not being able to run ultra distances causes the average ultrarunner great psychological pain which can only temporarily, if ever, be challenged by the physical pain endured during a race.

This theory may be supported by the feelings of panic that generally accompany a forced absence from training, even when no immediate running goals are being threatened by that layoff. I expect few have escaped the "pain" that comes with thoughts like "All my training is slipping away". Running/finishing through injury is another example.

For ultrarunners the real pain is in the comfort zone. Either that or they're a couple of M&Ms short of a bowlful.

Rich Schick

I would say the answer is "C" all of the above. I think that people who do ultras are predisposed to have better pain tolerance and then acquire further pain tolerance with experience. The ability to tolerate pain in my experience is directly related to how much fear the pain generates. If a pain makes you fearful you will perceive it as being a worse pain.

I do medicine for a living. The people who seem to have the worst pain tolerance are the ones who always think that whatever pain they are having is probably caused by cancer or some other catastrophe. If they get a minor back pain they immediately think they have a ruptured disk or a broken back. The least stomach pain is appendicitis or cholecystitis or colon cancer. The least twinge of pain in the chest is a heart attack. These perceptions are not related to education or intelligence levels. Its just how they react mentally in response to pain. No pain comes from a minor cause and thusly no pain is a minor pain.

I think that most ultra runners lean towards the other side of the pain spectrum. Whatever problem they have "is probably nothing" until proven otherwise. Pain and fear are not inevitable companions. Through running ultras they learn more as to what types of pain they can safely ignore. They come to understand when they are really in trouble versus just having a bad stretch. They know what kind of pains will just go away with a couple days rest. The better they understand what pains are not the result of a serious condition, the better their pain tolerance becomes.

Troy Marsh

Interesting topic. One I've pondered for some time. I was actually looking forward to the "painful" experience during this year's WF. So I studied some Zen philosophy and others and here are my personal conclusions:

  1. Pain is all relative and individual and up for private interpretation. Some folks thrive on being hung by hooks by the skin of their backs. UR's like to push through adversity when the voices inside say stop. Some whimper at a sliver, others may run with their patella dislocated.

  2. There is meaning in suffering. Sometimes to experience the highs we must experience the lows. As for me, I thrive in the experience. There is nothing like feeling totally alive. I suppose one who has gone below many things can also feel more joy than one who hasn't. There's a whole new world out there for the experiencing. That's why I love the four seasons of running and may even take a trek to Death Valley next year for a "fun run".

  3. Pain can be a miserable experience. But the mind and spirit are more powerful and will rise to the occasion if we let it. Our minds can take us places where pain is minimized. I ran on rose petals not rocks during my worst moments.

  4. A higher power can and often does intervene at our lowest moments if we let it. Can't really explain it.

  5. Pain is a good teacher especially if you deal with it in others every working day. It is there for a reason but don't get in line to experience it. Just be ready when it comes.

  6. Misery likes company and it helps to whine together once in a while.

M Swanson

I have to agree that 'pain' is the wrong word. what I feel the last fourth of a tough race isn't pain, but it is a form of misery.

I think of the guy who used to pound his head against the wall for an hour a day, when friends asked him why he said, "Because it feels so good when I stop." Let's be honest, that's part of the joy we feel at the finish line.

But on further reflection, I think the big thing is the victory over fear. Pain is something we fear. Before racing I feared pain a lot more than I do now. Now that I have made myself miserable, and having done so made myself run through it when I could have relieved the misery by slowing down, I'm a lot less afraid of pain than before- at least I'm less afraid of temporary pain.

In answer to Geri's question, I think the greater threshhold for pain comes as a result of running through it and overcoming the fear.

Most of you know the history behind Outward Bound Survival Schools. It's based on the discovery in WW2 that soldiers who were raised on farms survived longer on liferafts than those raised in the cities and suburbs. Those who were raised 'soft' thought they had reached their limits and gave up long before those who had tougher lives.

It isn't the physical pain that we develop a greater threshhold for, it's that we are less afraid of it and thus it has less emotional hold over us. "Been there, done that, no big deal"- whereas someone who rarely has to deal with pain, and then only involuntarily, fears it and is dehabilitated by the fear.

Thus also the joy. We have faced our deepest fears, albeit on a somewhat artificial level (not the same as struggling with cancer, etc), and have overcome them. We faced the inner demons and emerged victorious. Result- euphoria, well-deserved.

Then again, I've never run a 100M, so what do I know about pain?