For runners taught to embrace pain, the line often blurs.
Pop quiz: ytou’ve agreed to lead a Sunday-morning group run for a buddy, even though you’ve been sick for a week with “GI distress”. You wake up feeling no better, sit on the toilet, and, after finishing, stand up to see blood. Hmm.
Do you: (A) text your buddy, explain the situation, and apologise for having to bail; (B) drive to the group run, explain the situation, and apologise for not being able to join them; or (C) drink a glass of water, drive to the group run, and run 10 kilometres?
This really happened to me recently, and I chose (C). What was I thinking? (Was I thinking?) Did I decide to run because I was in denial? Or because I didn’t want to let my friend down? And what was up with the glass of water? Looking back, I think my decision to run can be explained with a single word: tough.
As in, I’m a runner. I’m tough. So tough, I’ll go for a run moments after shitting blood.
But was I really being tough? Or just…stupid? I’ve been chewing on this for weeks now, and I’m still no closer to an answer. Maybe there is no answer.
“The problem is, I don’t like feeling uncomfortable,” my wife told me once, while we discussed her 5K time and why she can’t improve it. When the going gets tough, in other words, my wife taps the brakes. At least where running is concerned.
It was a frank admission, and I had to admire her self-awareness. On the other hand, though… No! Racing is discomfort. We make ourselves hurt in training so that we can make ourselves hurt when we race. Running in general – and racing in particular – is about learning to manage pain and venturing beyond your comfort zone.
I explained this to my wife. She understood it perfectly, but wasn’t interested in hurting, if you can imagine that.
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The tricky part is that tough is a relative term. (As is stupid, come to think of it.) What I consider tough might be someone else’s normal; what I consider normal might be someone else’s tough. Or stupid.
Also, it can be awfully easy to mistake one for the other.
In the 1982 Boston Marathon, during their “duel in the sun”, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley famously duked it out on an unusually hot day. Their sprint to the finish remains one of sport’s most epic moments.
Salazar won – by two seconds. Soon after, he was rushed to a medical tent for six litres of saline solution, delivered by IV. As he told John Brant in a previous Runner’s World feature: “After [that] I was never quite the same. I had a few good races, but everything was difficult. Workouts that I used to fly through became an ordeal. And eventually, of course, I got so sick that I wondered if I’d ever get well.”
Salazar did get well, eventually, but his racing career never fully recovered.
Alberto is an outlier, of course; this is the same guy who, at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts, collapsed at the finish and was administered last rites. But all runners have our own “tough vs. stupid” calculus. In the end it’s up to each of us to weigh risks and benefits.
My own risk/benefit analysis told me on that Sunday morning that I was okay to run. And I was, by the way – it didn’t feel great, but I went slow and got it done. (“Stupid,” my wife later declared.)
As for my illness, a test ultimately identified the culprit as Campylobacteriosis – food poisoning most likely caused by eating undercooked poultry.