Overcoming Pain and Suffering

“It doesn’t matter if you’re sprinting for an Olympic gold medal, a town sign, a trailhead, or the rest stop with the homemade brownies. If you never confront pain, you’re missing the essence of the sport” – Scott Martin

Suffering is bandied about a lot in cycling. It is a badge of honour that riders will wear when they are seen to be able to accommodate higher loads of it. Some people seem to be able to take pain like they are eating an apple in a deck chair, whilst others put their hand up and say ‘enough’ at the slightest difficulty.

On a long, and I mean a bloody long, endurance activity, such as an Everesting, a 24 hour race or anything with ‘ultra’ at the front, your fitness only gets you so far. In an Everesting for example, your legs will get you about 75% of the way there. After that, you will need a very strong mind to keep going.

How do the guys who can seemingly take endless difficulties get to that point? I’ve certainly put myself through some really difficult places, and come out the other side a much stronger man. How do I do that? Looking into it, there are a few techniques.

TRAIN YOUR MIND

People are scared of what they don’t know. First day of school, first time on a plane, first time descending on a bike. Your nerves are heightened, and your heart beats faster. But on the 20th time you do these things, you just don’t notice anymore, you are accustomed to the nature of what is involved.

It’s no different with suffering. To be able to work through the darkest pits, you need to have put yourself in some tough positions, and I use a few different methods for this.

Firstly, ride in any conditions, at any time. If it is freezing cold, blowing a gale, pissing down with rain and the sun isn’t up yet, then throw a leg over your bike and ride. If you’ve had a bloody hard day at work, and then at home your kids were a massive handful, then after dinner, when they are in bed, get out the door and ride. It’s about pushing back the boundaries that you impose on yourself. It’s about creating methods that allow you to start, and then to keep going, when the situation is screaming at you to get inside where it’s comfortable.

I have a load of methods for this, in addition to the two listed above. Hard intervals on the indoor trainer, hill repeats, back to back long days, fixed gear hill rides, VERY early starts, very late starts, double ride days. Anything you can think of that is harder to do, and that makes you uncomfortable, then do it. Absolutely do all of these things make your body stronger too, so this training will serve a double purpose, but a large portion of why I do all of these things to increase my mental ability to tolerate suffering.

A friend once told me “Time in the pain cave is time in the pain cave”, and I’ve thought of that saying a lot. I’ve always used it in reference to utilising off-bike sessions to help with pain management. I have a lot of tattoos, and definitely think a solid tattooing session is quality time spent “In the cave”, as one example. People often talk of how women who have given birth are able to deal with more pain than someone who hasn’t, and this is along those same lines. If you have a reference point for strong pain, suffering and discomfort, it becomes a lot easier to confront it when you feel it again.

EMBRACE THE OLD MATE

I have finished dozens of events that have gone longer than 3 hours in running, cycling and triathlon (humble brag….. so lame). On these events, you will encounter pain, and the first time at least, it really bloody hurts. But each time you ‘go to the well’ you will recognise the feeling from the previous time you encountered it. I think of it as saying hello to an old mate. In a marathon, he’s usually waiting somewhere around the 30 kilometre mark to join you. In an Everesting he turns up at around 4000 metres of elevation gain, and then invites more friends every thousand after that…

This pain is nothing to be afraid of. It is not harming you, it is not a sign that things are going wrong. It is a sign that things are going right, and that you are doing what you need to do. When Old Mate turns up, I can’t help but smile. Look, he’s a shit bloke, and he kind of sucks to be around, but you learn a lot from spending time with him, and in your whole life, you will only ever spend a handful of days total in his presence, so enjoy the moment.

STEP BY STEP

Whilst when Old Mate first turns up I smile, and enjoy the moment, after a while, I really wish he’d piss off. It gets to the point where if he doesn’t stop, then I will. But you can’t. You didn’t start, just so that you could stop when it got hard. Your fitness has up and left the room, Old Mate has over-stayed his welcome, the finish line is still a long way off over the horizon, and you are chowing down on huge bowls of pain soup. It is a state of misery and despair. The suffering penetrates the very depths of your mind, and can become all-encompassing. Everything closes in on you, and impossible becomes everything.

I’ve been here a load of times, and I’m still not 100% sure how I got through. It’s a load of things really. What I do know is what I decided to do at the time. There is only 1 thing that you can do if you want to keep going, and that is to keep going. Pretty bloody obvious. To do that, you need to break it down. Forget about the finish, that’s like looking down when you are scared of heights. Focus only on what is at hand. What is immediately in front of you to look towards, and what then comes after that? These are the only things you can think about, everything else will rain impossible thoughts down on you like a monsoon. Set yourself the target of the next town, the next hill, the next intersection, the next tree. These goals become shorter as you get more exhausted, but that’s okay. Break it down however works for you, but you must do this. To go long, you must think short.

So to prepare yourself for an event that will explore the depths of your soul, where it’s likely that you will get to a state where total despair will be clouding your consciousness, work on these 4 things:

  1. Get uncomfortable. Know what it’s like to be in pain and suffering, and pushing back against your doubts.
  2. Embrace Old Mate Pain when he turns up. He’s a bit of a jerk, but you don’t see him often, so enjoy his company.
  3. Keep fucking going, do not stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Rest, but don’t stop.
  4. Focus on what’s in front of you, and go there. Worry about what’s after that when you get there.

Do those things, and hopefully you’ll make it. THEN you get to really discover about yourself. Overcoming almost impossible-to-overcome obstacles, that’s a beautiful and rewarding place to be.

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5 thoughts on “Overcoming Pain and Suffering”

  1. Old mate is a bit of a shit bloke… Classic. Yes he is but damned if I’ll stop for a shit bloke. Well timed post with a mega ride planned for Easter the reminders are helpful.

  2. It’s funny that when Old Man Pain is in town the normally easy becomes impossible. What would be a light training session normally, has become an effort of Herculean proportions. Yet you know that when the finish line is within reach of your grasping fingers you will surge and find the energy to finish in style.
    This is the stuff that goes through my, all the while I keep going.
    As you point out, it doesn’t matter what games you play in your head, provided you keep going.

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