On running and suffering

“I like it, to suffer (…)
I really love to be out for many hours, suffering”
Kilian Jornet

Recently I was watching a video of Kilian Jornet recording one of his many ridiculous record attempts – in this case, skiing and running the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in a single day – and this quote stuck in my mind.

Jornet is a climber, skiier and mountain runner, and has become the byword for crazy, unthinkable feats at altitude. The Ethan Hunt of trails, if you like. In May this year, he climbed Everest without oxygen not once, but twice, in one week, and in July he won the Hardrock 100 even after dislocating his shoulder at 22km, pausing only to create a makeshift sling. He’s done things that people didn’t think were possible, and then done them again faster.

Jornet is, there’s no doubt, a physically impressive specimen. His VO2 max is exceptionally high, and while his lungs aren’t particularly large, they’re crazy efficient. Unsurprisingly, his body fat is minimal, while his legs are as strong as you’d expect from someone who spends each and every day running up and down steep inclines. His eye-foot coordination is also ridiculous. Apparently one of his training techniques is to run downhill, memorising the next section and then closing his eyes for up to 50m. I can’t imagine most of us would be comfortable doing that down a path in our local park, let alone on the Alpine terrain Killian uses as his training ground.

And while we can all of us train to make our bodies better and fitter and faster, I think what we can really learn from him – and indeed from all ultrarunners – is his tolerance of pain. It’s this that takes him so far, that has made him famous for feats of endurance and speed. For him, pain isn’t something to be afraid of or to give in to. It’s something to be embraced.

You see it in runners and athletes of all ability; this determination to push through discomfort, to achieve more than your body wants to, but it’s particularly present in those who enjoy running absurd distances. It’s one of the reasons men don’t have the same proportional edge over women in ultra races as they do in short or middle distance. Reaching the end of a one hundred miler can become less about pure physicality and more about mental stamina.

You can, of course, train your brain just as you can train your body. Long runs, and learning to deal with the pain and boredom of being on your feet for hours at a time serves your mind as well as your legs. When you’ve hit a low point, mentally or physically, practice positive thinking, pep-talks, controlled breathing and distraction techniques to keep yourself going.

One simple way I control my breaths and distract myself is to count inhalations and exhalations with my footsteps. In for 4, out for 4, in for 4, etc etc. Some people use thumb tapping, counting repeatedly to 10, or the old “I’ll run as far as the next lamp post and then see how I feel”.

Something else I do if I’m struggling is a quick mental check on my form. Shoulders relaxed and neck tall? Posture upright? Feet striking underneath, and not over striding? Arms loose and swinging? Core engaged? This particularly helps over shorter, sharper distances, to make sure I’m being as efficient as I can. It’s possibly less useful after dozens of miles when your legs are screaming and everything is seizing up.

To a non-runner, the idea of “managing pain” might sound slightly crazy. Why do it – and why do you enjoy it – if it hurts that much? But you can’t have the thrill without the suffering. If you’re going to reach your full potential as a runner, you know you have to be prepared for it to hurt. The trick is to remember that it’s almost always worth the pain.

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