Dropping a 20-Mile Race Is ‘Really Strange’
Is something physically wrong? Is it the perception of pain? Is there even a difference?
I didn’t cry, but she did.
Our paths crossed on a single track in Central Oregon’s high desert at mile 13. Dust caked my leggings where blood seeped through from my falls. On a dry, spring day without a cloud in the sky, it became my own mud.
For about three hours, the only whispers heard were that of the tall ponderosa pines swaying in the wind. I was surprised by my voice when I spoke to the stranger.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yeah, just some stupid guy,” she said, brushing back tears. “He ruined my whole day.”
“Well, I am not finishing,” I said. “My partner is picking me up if you need a ride.”
“I have to finish,” she said. “And you can too. I have an orange if you want it.”
In my mind, I lusted for the bright, stickiness of peeling back the fruit’s skin for the citrus beneath it. My stomach, in revolt, ached.
She kept running. I walked the other way and then sat next to an anthill.
A couple of weeks before the race, I was home in Seattle, visiting a comic book store on a rest day. Amid the monotony of the pandemic, it felt exhilarating to touch spines of books, smell stale pages, and roll my eyes at pretentious art bros while browsing the aisles.
A zine titled “Pain Is Really Strange” made it into my haul. The writer, Steve Haines, examines the errors our brains make when it comes to identifying pain.
Is something physically wrong? Is it the perception of pain? Is there even a difference between the two when it comes to experiencing pain?
In any case, pain is always real to the person suffering because of their experience, culture, and emotions.
“Reality is a tricky business,” Haines wrote. “We evolved to respond quickly to a threat and prioritize certain perceptions. Our brains make mistakes and our perception is malleable.”
With an 18-mile training day on the horizon, I thought about my own, seemingly chronic pain when it came to running. My tight tendons; my chafed thighs; my asthmatic lungs.
The thing about training for this race is it was already a redemption round. In October, along the same trail system in Sisters, I had a miserable time. Mostly, I was sorely unprepared as wildfire smoke in the northwest suffocated my hopes of adequate training. After I crossed the finish line, I cursed the hot afternoon. This, um, humbling note summarizes the experience:
“While shaking and standing over my own vomit, I should have known that like everything else in 2020 that this wouldn’t have been easy.”
So, I Google Spreadsheeted to the high heavens and created an arduous training plan for the spring’s race. I ran in the rain, slid through snow, fell on slippery roots, awed hungrily at viewpoints, and busted the hell out of my knee. I recovered from it all and kept pushing.
The zine nearly had me convinced if I could change my belief systems about pain, then nothing could stop me. But because I happen to write about science and have no chill, I read the source material.
Haines’ zine largely relies on academic studies and obscure publications that are over 20 years old, including the 1965 book, “The Science of Suffering.” I read part of it, and it’s both extremely racist and sexist. The book explores what anatomy professor Dr. David Wall calls the Gate Control Theory. According to Wall, depending on an individual’s experience, the body can either over- or under-react to pain depending on what our “gate” systems of pain tell the brain.
I reached out to three neuropsychologists about the credibility of the theory, none of whom had anything to say about it. Though Dr. Lorne M. Mendell, a professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, did a study deconstructing the theory.
“Although subsequent experiments and clinical findings have made clear that the model is not correct in detail, the general ideas put forth in the paper and the experiments they prompted in both animals and patients have transformed our understanding of pain mechanisms,” he wrote.
Not to totally discount the zine, because similar to what Wall himself said about his own theory, “The least, and perhaps the best, is that it provoked discussion and experiment.”
There is certainly science when it comes to the different factors we experience from within. Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set a Fastest-Known-Time record on the Appalachian Trail, asked Shawn Bearden, professor of exercise physiology at Idaho State University, about emotional and physical divide in her book, “The Pursuit of Endurance.” Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.
“Shawn,” I said. “When it comes to physical performance and endurance, is sleep an emotional need or a physical one?”
Without hesitation or qualification, Shawn said, “It is 100 percent emotion.”
Shawn felt sure that sleep is not necessary for physical recovery, it is a brain need, but one the brain will make a priority during a multi-week or multi-month endurance pursuit. I went on to discover that the primary reason for sleep is not to restore our body, but to restore our brain. If we want our body to recover, we need to stop moving, not sleep. In other words, sitting down will help your weary body as much as a nap will.
Later, she shared something that might be the most important thing for nerds like me to hear.
“[It] was more personal than what could be postulated and studied in a lab, and my internal discoveries on the trail were more important than the physical results. Science can help us determine what is possible, but it takes a whole lot more than reason to deliver the evidence of endurance.”
As the ants scurried beside me, I processed it all in the dirt alongside the Forest Service road.
“Uber for Ashli?” said my partner, driving up on the gravel road. Our dog popped up next to him in the window. They brought my brain gears to a screeching halt.
I got in the car, obviously deflated. My partner reminded me that two years ago, what I just ran would have been impossible, especially with my improved pace. Hell, even a year ago, it would be a stretch.
“Today just was not your day,” he told me. “Pain is pain.”
It was enough for me to savor the good moments of the day, like catching the Sisters Wilderness on the ridge of the course while listening to my shameful playlists curated by names such as DJ Kemyst.
Before we turned onto the highway, I saw the stranger bombing it, just two miles from the finish line. I waved to her. She didn’t see me, but know, we’ll forever share the solidarity of suffering this day, sis.