Lessons for life from a half-marathon with chronic pain.

The Royal Parks Half. I’m in that crowd somewhere.

This month, I ran a half-marathon, a huge milestone (well, 6-milestones, amirite?) after living with chronic back pain for over twelve years. Here, I’ve jotted some sporadic reflections on running, pain, and life from the eight-month process from signing up to actually racing.

Enjoy/endure.

1. Some pain is temporary

I overhead a young athlete I used to coach saying to his teammates: “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

I limped over to him and verbally ripped his head off. How much weakness did he think I had to lose? I’ve felt it most waking hours for ten years. Think before you speak next time!

In hindsight, it was just a slogan, and he was encouraging his teammates. But, in training for this half-marathon since February, I got to experience that temporary athletic pain he was describing for the first time in memory.

The good pain.

The pain of parts of my leg saying “Oh yea, I’m an actual muscle, hiya”, the pain in my chest as I cross into a new longest-ever distance, the pain walking downhill during peak training weeks.

At those points, I was an athlete. In those moments: pain is just weakness leaving the body.

The chronic-sufferer’s relationship with pain doesn’t work like that. In my journey, it’s four-years of trying to do anything to make the pain stop. (Hello, morphine), followed by eight-years of trying to turn the volume down enough to have a life. Pain is a constant, like gravity.

Being able to pick a smaller pain, the aching legs, the tired lungs, the sweat-dripping-into-my-eyes-sting and overcome it, was liberating, like stepping outside of a door that had been locked for a decade.

Oh, Athletic pain is wonderful.

I now understand No pain, no gain, and his clichéd friends. There are many pains.

2. FFS, Yes, I have considered my back problem.

I ran the half-marathon for charity, and training takes up a lot of time — so naturally I told people about it. About 45% of people responded thusly:

“Is that a good idea with your back?”
“How’s your back going to handle that?”
“Oh, I’d have thought that would be bad for your back…”

(In truth, I’d checked with the pain specialists that help me, and they encouraged it.) But if you think you’re the first person to wonder if my pain is going to stop me doing something — you’re wrong. And your questions are really unhelpful.

What are you expecting to happen as a result of you making that comment or asking that question?

If I try and fail, fine, that’s on me. But if I stop because I spoke to you once, and you shat all over my goals. That’s on you.

New rule: If somebody is doing something new, which, if successful would represent a breakthrough in their life. Don’t question it. 🤐

3. Self-doubt is Universal

Like all Chronics, I have good days and bad days. And I doubt myself.

“Who the fuck do you think you’re kidding. As if you’re going to be able to run a half-marathon, you can’t even manage the stairs today. Ha…
…And you’re too fat”.

Here was the good news though, as I met more of a running community, and others joined me in running journeys of their own. I discovered another truism: Like all runners, I have good days and bad days, and I doubt myself.

So, if you’re doubting yourself; you’re at least like all chronic pain sufferers, and all runners. And I’d bet all people.

4. Trust the process.

The best thing about running, is how rewarding the process is. When I coached American Football, I’d get my players to buy in to ‘the process’. If we keep plugging away, keep doing x and y, then we’ll get results. Unfortunately, while that was mainly true — there’s a lot of random in ball sports. Not so with running, oh no. You stick to the process, and you get 100% reward for 100% put in. The more effort you put in, the more faster you get. The more discipline you apply to your training, the fitter you get. One-to-one, glorious.

This is a pleasant reminder for my language learning, web development and discipleship: Once you develop a process, trust it. The results will come.

For me, as it was, the week before the race was full of self-doubt. A few runs hadn’t gone to plan. The day before the race, I injured my back twisting weirdly on a train. I was up until 2am. But, when race day came, there wasn’t a single second of the race when I didn’t know I was going to finish. The process paid off, all of those training kilometres were there, like extra rings for Sonic the Hedgehog, I had enough fuel in the tank, I was going to make it.

5. Body and soul are connected

When I ran, it improved my mood. When I was tired at the end of the race, my heart was full. When I do nothing for two days because of a ‘phantom’ pain in my lower back; I’m exhausted — physically and emotionally.

People have known all of this for years, now I do too.

6. Back yourself.

“…maybe I’d just had enough of the pain saying “you can’t.”

There’s a nice irony in the English language for me, that I just needed to back myself, against my back. About half-way through my training, and the whole way through my race, a rugged determination took over. Maybe it was hearing others express my internal doubts out loud, maybe it was the scourge of homelessness and the fact I was running for charity — maybe I’d just had enough of the pain saying “you can’t.”

Whatever it was, something happened internally that was deeper than the self-doubt, and deeper than the failed runs and the bad pain days — This is something I’ve set out to do. And I’m going to do it.