One morning, I was on The Ledge. I was running a 10K race when I found myself pondering the absurdity of my situation. I had one mile left to go. First place female was wildly out of reach, but if I hung on for one more mile, I could score a decent second place finish. The problem was, I was in extreme suffering. My legs felt like dead weights. Lactic acid was coursing through my body. I had just developed a side stitch. It took all my will not to hurl the lemon GU I chugged a couple miles back.
I Was On The Ledge
The Ledge is what I call that deciding moment in a race where your next steps determine if you will crash and burn or reach your goal. It’s race purgatory. Your goal is still in reach but it could easily slip away if you lose perseverance and mental strength. You are ravaged with physical complaints. Your mind, your biological bodyguard, screams for you to stop. You doubt whether you can do it. But to accomplish your goal, you have to ignore your body’s red flags and check engine lights. You have to run head first into the suffering. You have to decide, in that moment, whether you will lean into the pain or let go.
“What am I doing?” I asked myself, but with considerably more expletives.
For many people, the idea of a successful life is one that has the least amount of suffering. On this premise, most people strive for successful careers, health, friendships, power, and intellect. And then, there are the most curious of all creatures – runners and triathletes. We purposefully and relentlessly pursue suffering, and we do it with an intense passion. So, what gives? Were we born with a fundamental defect? Or, have we discovered a secret ingredient necessary for the fulfillment of a happy life?
It’s All Greek To Me
Everyone participates in endurance sports for different reasons. But I believe the underlying factor in all these reasons can be explained by a strange Greek word that sounds like it might adorn the label of an over-the-counter medicine – metanoia.
Metanoia is an ancient concept that has different meanings in religious, philosophical, and scientific contexts. My favorite understanding of the word is as follows: a transformation of the self and a fundamental change in thinking resulting from deep despair, suffering, and the destruction of the existing self. Think of a seed that must fall to the ground and die before it can become a flower.
Highs Require Lows
People talk about the runner’s high. But people don’t always contemplate the importance of the “runner’s low” in obtaining that high. When we race, we choose physical discomfort knowing there is a reward at the finish – a sense of accomplishment or betterment. But the suffering we experience is so much more than a means to the finish line. The suffering we experience changes us. It transforms us. From this suffering, we experience growth. We become stronger. We change who we are by deciding how we react in the face of difficulty. Race enough races and you will learn how to lean into the pain. Learn how to lean into the pain and suddenly you become “the person who can lean into pain.” We change what we believe about ourselves through forcing our own hands – in other words, proving to ourselves that we can do hard things.
When we take on a challenging task, we’re not simply allowing change to happen to us. Instead, we are taking an active role in our own transformation. We are the drivers of the change. This is true, even when we perceive we have failed or when we don’t meet a goal. Because feelings of loss and defeat are a different kind of suffering. And how we face this kind of suffering is important and matters just as much as any physical suffering.
So, in those moments of questioning, when we are on The Ledge and wondering why we don’t just take up baking or stamp collecting, it may be a small (or even significant) comfort to know that these are the moments that transform us. These are the moments we are becoming someone new.