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Pain

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Music and Miles

This week is the 5th annual Firefly Music Festival in Dover, DE – my favorite music festival and one I’ve managed to get to for the past four years – and I’m missing it. I won’t be as dramatic as to say I’m heartbroken, but I’m really super bummed. I love music. I sound like a overanxious camel when I sing and I haven’t played an instrument since I was in high school, but man can I jam to some Bob Segar and Meatloaf. I love music. And not just the hipster underground alt rock and hip hop music that I’m supposed to love. I love that crappy 90s rap and twangy country. I love the bouncy pop and knock-off punk. I love a song you can dance to, cry to, run to.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the connection between music and running. For most, myself included, music makes the miles go by so much faster. There comes a point in any race where I need to pop my headphones in and go. Even here, I listen to my audiobook until I can’t stand the view of the treadmill or the sand anymore. Then I go to my favorite playlist, close my eyes, and go somewhere else. I don’t focus on the strain of my lungs or the ache in my feet. I focus on the poetry in the lyrics or the passion in a beat.

Music is a drug, a safe and legal one, and when mixed with running it’s potent – in the very best ways. It’s a sound track to my high. Music has a way of punching me in the gut. It has the ability to accompany a mood, amplify it, calm it or even overcome it. Sometimes all at once.  Just like running. Our whole lives have a soundtrack. And when a song from that soundtrack comes on midway through a run, that mile is dedicated to that memory. Because running takes so little brainpower, it’s hardwired in our bodies, you can devote your entire mind and spirit to that memory. You can reflect on it, relive it, and safely tuck it back into your memory. Music transports me to that first bus ride in Italy, to a long country road, to my front porch dancing, to that last 10 miles on the mountain.  More than that, it gives me back my emotions. I don’t simply feel joy when I hear a song from a joyful occasion – I feel the same joy - with all its specific nuances and context. Amazing grace doesn’t just remind me of the sadness I feel at the death of a loved one, it uncovers the exact sadness and love I feel hearing my mother hum it.

Music and miles are portals, free of space and time, a break to the past, the future, and the true present. Running strips us down to the core, the very basics of the human body. One foot in front of the other. Breathe in and out. Drink water. Eat calories. Move forward. When that simplicity is coupled with the complexity of music, something magical happens. All of it can come rushing in, you lose yourself and find yourself all at once.  It’s overwhelming to be sure, but what beauty you’ll find there. The capacity of the human spirt to feel all of those things, experience all those things, process all those things. The ability of the human body to cover those miles, to move that fast, to endure that suffering. To me this is the most terrifying and humbling experience. It’s how I feel when I stand on the bow of a ship. Like there is this incredibly complex, vast, and interconnected thing right in front of you that you know so little about.  And the deeper you go the more you realize just how much you don’t know, can’t know. All you can do is appreciate what you don’t understand and wonder at the beauty of it all. Turn your music up, put one foot down, then the other. Be humbled. Be overcome. Be grateful.

"I ran to be free. I ran to avoid pain. I ran to fee pain. I ran out of love and hate and anger and joy." -Dagny Scott Barrios

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The Utility of Pain

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The first time someone called me a masochist I thought they were crazy. Of course I didn’t like pain. Who likes pain? Hell forget pain, I didn’t even like discomfort. I was a hedonist by most accounts. I was certainly NOT a masochist. Still it’s hard to claim this when I continually signed up for increasingly painful endurance events. So I began to argue that I didn’t do these events for the pain, I did them for the lessons and the absolute joy I got from them. I said all of these while pretending that the pain was perhaps corollary to joy and learning, but not casual. Somewhere in the last week, maybe during a midday run in 100+ Middle Eastern heat, I realized that the lessons and the joy are not parallel to pain, but rather the direct result. A sunrise is never more spiritual than after a long lonely night. Sleep has never been more exquisitely well earned than after 100 miles. Part of it is simply appreciating things, providing the contrast of pain to pleasure. I firmly believe that the greatest pains in life are equally matched, or even dwarfed by, their counterparts – the greatest joys.

Think of the greatest joys in your life? Did a single one of them come without pain? A marathon? Childbirth? A great love? A inspirational friendship? A reunion with loved ones? Yoga? Dance? Art? The only joys I can think of that don’t come with pain are books and drinks with friends on a beach. And that last one often comes with pain the next day. Pain is a part of life, every day. Every stubbed toe or stiff back. Every ignored text or goodbye. The memories of loved ones far away or even gone completely.

So why seek out pain? I remember hiking with a man a year or so ago. I’m not sure I even knew his name at the time but somewhere lost in the desert waiting for the sun to rise we ended up sharing some of our biggest scars – his life in particular had seemed full of pain. I remember thinking, why is this guy lost on a mountain with 100lbs in his pack? If he wants to suffer he should just go home and live his life. Why seek out pain when there’s seemingly an abundance of it in the world?

Because, just like anything, you need to practice pain. Willingly exposing yourself to pain allows you to practice it, allows you to control it, to cope with it. I’m not just talking physical pain. There’s some true emotional and spiritual pain associated with endurance events as well. This is the most important pain of all to practice. There’s no other way to practice but to just feel it. You can’t fight it or numb it, at least not permanently. You can only settle into the pain, understand that with every step it may get worse. It may then all of the sudden get better. The physical pain may cause the emotional pain, or vice versa. It may cause joy. It may be the first of many painful episodes, a fresh hurt destined to be by your side for years to come. It may be the final scarring of an old wound. The ways you cope with pain over the miles, the mountains, and the mud are the same ways you cope in everyday life. Settle in and start listening to what the pain is trying to teach you – about your body, your spirit, and the world you inhabit.

These lessons you learn through pain are often the ones that stick with you. A burnt hand is a visceral memory that teaches you to be cautious around fire. Serious chafing reminds you to stock up on body glide. The pain of rejection or a broken friendship reminds you to be kind with your words. The loss of a loved one makes you appreciate those you have. When someone hurts you, you learn your capacity for forgiveness and compassion – and the strength it takes to exhibit both. The lessons you learn through pain and suffering are some of the cornerstones of your character.

One of my favorite lessons is that when forced to suffer, its best tosuffer with and for others. The pain you are willing to withstand for and by yourself - for money, ego, achievement, vanity - is a fraction of the pain you are willing to suffer with and for others.  There is no nobler cause than the one you take up for others. This is the idea behind Hero WODS, this is why Hero WODs are so exquisitely excruciating and why they are so often done in groups. I'm in no way equating the pain of an hour (or more) workout to the pain of losing someone, but I'm saying it's a way to practice it. It's a way to suffer and bond with others but like the bond - unbroken by death - a hero feels with his or her unit, squad, or family. It's a way to honor the sacrifice of men and women by sacrificing our time, our bodies, and most of all our comfort. Willingly withstanding pain is our small way of showing commitment and respect to a higher cause. In this case the cause is honoring the service, sacrifice, and legacy of others. It's a way to focus on the joy of knowing someone like the namesakes of these workouts. It's a way for us all to reflect on the lessons we can learn from them, ourselves, and our collective pain."

So this memorial day, if you’re so inclined, I urge you to practice a little pain. Go for a little longer run, (safely) do an extra set or extra rep. Feel the pain associated with a visit to a cemetery or a call to a Gold star family. Learn a lesson from this pain. Then be joyful. Cherish your lesson, your pain, and your joy. Know that while the pain for so many never goes away, it can and will subside. And in its place is peace and joy. So for the moment, settle into the pain.

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