*This piece was originally written in August 2013 for a blog I had at that time exploring the intersection between sport, pain, and what it means to suffer.
Throughout my writing I have essentially used the words pain and suffering interchangeably. However, there exists clear differences between the two. Pain conjures up images of trauma, broken bones, and other acute situations whereas suffering has the element of chronicity, the persistence of pain. If pain is a criterium then suffering is a road race. One doesn’t need to lead to the other, nor does one obligate the other. I can be in pain and not suffer and there are also many forms of suffering (i.e, death of a child) that are not related to painful stimuli. In fact, pain is often used in religious and cultural contexts, to rid oneself of suffering. It is both cleansing and a means of transcending.
Suffering, is more specifically characterized as an emotional state. I believe, there has to be a temporal component as well. You don’t suffer for seconds. This emotional state is compromised of the elements for how we relate to suffering. Just like any other emotion these components are social, cultural, religious, etc. Of course, we relate to acute pain as well, but as it persists, this relationship changes, we become more aware of its effects on our body. Arne Johan Vetlesen, a Norwegian philosopher, writes “when I sense pain, I sense it as a feeling and when the pain is great, or its intensity violent and/or long-lasting, I experience pain as a state.” This state is suffering.
As an emotion, suffering certainly has negative connotations. Unless, we are masochists we do not derive pleasure from suffering. Then why as athletes would we voluntarily put ourselves into a state of suffering? I have had many days on the bike when my legs felt powered by Play-Doh and my ribs felt like conduits for capsaicin but I was not suffering. I have experienced the same hard days and suffered tremendously. So what was the difference? In hindsight, I believe it was my emotional state from the outset.
There were several factors that made me more susceptible to suffering at the Mt Hood Classic this past June. Going into the race I knew I was not 100%. I had just come off a stretch of nights at work, which always leaves me fatigued. The night shifts also didn’t help my sleep habits while out there. When you know you’re not feeling in top form, perhaps there is a subconscious expectation for performing poorly.
It was the final road race on Sunday that was the most challenging. The road race was 70 miles with 8200ft of climbing, and I cracked at the top of the first climb. The whole group fractured as the time gaps will attest.
With over 35 miles still to ride, I was tired. I became frustrated, then I simply got bored. It occurred to me as I started to ascend the second climb — suffering is knowing the end is not over the next hill. Although, I had already damned myself by looking at the odometer, I tried not to focus on how much further I had to go, but rather ‘popping a zit’ to get to the next rider. These short bursts of effort were painful, but the tactic shifted my frame of reference. They were surmountable battles that I knew still lay ahead. Even though my legs are still adapting to the extremes of Scoville units I feel my tolerance for pain is improving. Perhaps, this is due to trying to remove the element of suffering by not focusing on the next hill but rather the wheel just in front of me.