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The wisdom of the pain cave

Courtney Dauwalter, arguably today's most outstanding ultra-distance trail runner, explained in an interview her relationship with what she calls the "pain cave". It's the inevitable low point runners experience during very long races. The moment when, drained of all physical energy, everything starts to hurt and the purpose of the endeavour begins to fade. The question of "Why the hell am I doing this?" plays inside the head on repeat.

Unsurprisingly, most athletes dread the pain cave and try to avoid it or push it out for as long as possible. The pain cave is seen as an obstacle - maybe the most significant obstacle - standing in the way of victory.

I found it fascinating to hear Courtney say her relationship with the pain cave has evolved over time. She no longer thinks of those low points as something to be avoided for as long as possible and then to be overcome as quickly as possible when they hit. Over her running career, Courtney has grown to accept the pain cave as an integral part of long races (which in her case can mean running 300+ kilometres at a time). In fact, she says these days she's looking forward to entering the pain cave because that's where the course for a successful finish will be set.

Few people run hundreds of kilometres at a time. And yet, most of us have probably experienced our own version of the pain cave: hurtful setbacks in our professional lives, the feeling of being lost, or having a difficult time finding motivation to accomplish the things that matter to us. Sometimes the pursuit of our ambitions can feel like an ultramarathon. My tendency has always been to either safeguard against low points or to leave my emotional pain cave behind as fast as possible when I couldn't avoid it.

And yet, taking an honest look at my life journey so far, those low moments have taught me more than the highlights and wins. The fear that I may not have what it takes to finish my Ph.D. degree, the feeling of not knowing where I want to take my business, the struggle to find a creative outlet; these were situations that didn't feel good. They felt awful. Maybe a bit like sitting in the mud with an upset stomach and blisters all over the feet three-quarters into an ultra-run, not knowing how to make it to the finish line. As unpleasant as they may be, I came to realise that I kept undervaluing these moments. And I wish I could have found a way to appreciate them at the time.

Does that mean I start to deliberately create low points in my life? No, and I don’t think I have to. Low points will come up anyway. But I've become less afraid to choose a path that is likely to include rough patches. And when I'm hitting one of those rough patches, I'm determined to appreciate them as a valuable part of my life - at least that's the ambition. If I can get to a point where I see the merits of my lows while being in the midst of it, I will have gained a lot. I will have reframed my pain cave as a place from where I can firmly set course towards my goals. Am I fully there yet? No. And I don't know if I ever will be. In fact, I expect this to be a process that'll keep me busy for the rest of my life. And that’s ok.


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