Last week I finished the Coastal Georgia Greenway 155 miler - a distance I’m shocked that I thought I could complete, and even more shocked that I actually completed it. Nine of us lined up at the Savannah start line early Friday morning and by 5 pm Sunday, eight had crossed the finish line - an incredible finish rate for any race let alone a largely self-supported 155 mile race along open roads. Early in the race I was lucky enough to share a few miles with Aaron Martinez, a documentary filmmaker/artist/veteran who was shooting for an episode of his docuseries “Struggle Beyond the Decade.” He mentioned that he wanted to run with us to better understand the pain, suffering, and strength of running an ultra marathon. He wanted to feel these things so that he could “better relate to those suffering.”
I thought about those words for next 100+ miles. This man was willingly suffering so that he could be better at empathy. I have heard dozens of reasons why ultra runners sign up for suffering - empathy has never been one of them. In fact, taking a step back I’m noticing how awful we all are at empathy. In ultra forums and instagram accounts I continually see the advice to “harden up,” “push through the pain,” or “suck it up,” - all great mantras to help finish an ultrarun, but all nothing even coming close to empathy. Which is shocking, this community should be full of empathy experts. We should be the most empathetic because we know not only how bad pain can hurt, but also how lonely pain can feel. The toughest part of this race wasn’t the miles, it was the miles alone. We can suffer far more together than we can solo.
During the last ten miles of this race I broke down. Like that day in the desert two years ago, I was feeling every ounce of pain, sadness, and doubt that run had to throw at me, wave after wave of raw overwhelming suffering. “Why did I come here?” I sobbed, “here” being that place of loneliness and hurt. Just like that day in New Mexico, my first instinct wasn’t to make the pain stop, it was to reach out to someone to walk me through it. Luckily this time my partner was just a few miles up the road. There was nothing he could do or say to help stop the suffering, he could just be there with me, step by painful step until it was over. He couldn’t keep me from hurting, but he kept me from hurting alone.
It was the same story for so many of the runners. It’s why when we start stumbling we reach out for a running partner. It’s why we beg our friends to come pace us through the darkest hours of the night. We are all comfortable in pain and we all know the importance of having someone with us - a knowledge and a skill that should make us the world’s best empathizers.
But all too often we fail at that very task. We are so obsessed with being tough or hard that we forget what it was like to suffer. We forget how in our darkest hours, in our heart of hearts we know it could have gone either way. We could have decided to stay in that chair instead of getting back on the road. We so easily could have convinced ourselves that the pain in our leg was something serious, something worthy of a DNF. We can lie all we want about how failure wasn’t an option, but we know that’s bullshit. Failure was and is always an option. We bask in the glory of overcoming pain without reflecting on how we moved through it, or how someone else moved through it with us.
We compare our pain, thinking that someone running a 50k doesn’t know suffering until they run a 100k, all the while someone who runs 100 or 200 milers is saying that same thing about us. Some of us have collectively decided that only the person who suffers the most deserves our respect and empathy. But don’t we know that there is no way, and no reason to compare suffering?
When I was in high school I asked our star cross country runner what it felt like to run a 15 minute three miler. I assumed being better at running meant it hurt less to run. He replied, “probably the same as it feels to you to run a 20 min three miler.” There is no way to tell but I suspect he was right, because if everyone is running their best, everyone should be hurting the same. All pain is unique, and everyone feels it in their own distinct way, but everyone feels it and so pain creates an opportunity to connect.
We can deepen and expand that connection by turning our shared suffering into empathy. There’s a powerful connection to the people who will sit in your suffering with you, to the people who recognize your pain and name it without silver linings or bullshit platitudes. These people don’t run from pain, even when it is not their own, even when it is awkward and uncomfortable. They often don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. These people walk right into that canyon and stay with you, guiding you out when you’re ready, not when they’ve had enough. That is an overnight pacer. That is a support crew. That is empathy, and we could all stand to give a little more of it, both in our running circles and in life. Runners, especially ultra runners, are pain experts. We know it, we’re not scared of it, and sometimes we even welcome it, and sure our ability to move through suffering and pain may make us feel tougher than others, but being “tough” is self-serving and short-sighted. I once wrote that inspiration isn’t ours to keep, and I feel the same about strength. It is time to transform our toughness to empathy, to help others move through pain, to crew and pace the loved ones and the strangers in our lives as so many have crewed for us.
And this has been one of my favorite lessons of all.