Forty miles in. I have been running for eight hours. Again my calf screams a warning, and I wonder if I will make it to the finish line. I question everything: Should I have eaten that burrito yesterday? Was my training enough? Did I set out too fast? A hundred miles is a long way to go. How did it come to be that I have such a strange hobby? Ultrarunning—what kind of person runs 100 miles for fun?
There is no getting around it: Running this long can feel awful. As I am running, I make a list, perhaps as a further exercise in masochism, of all the ways I am suffering. My muscles ache, tighten and burn, the discomfort slowly spreading throughout my body. My stomach has been clenched for hours now, braced against tides of nausea. I am hungry, but eating might just make the cramps worse. My ears are plugged. My armpit is chafing, and on my toes I feel blisters sprouting. I am bored, sleepy and lonely.
There is no getting around it: Running this long can feel awful.
I calculate how many hours I probably have left—and immediately wish I hadn’t. I know that as bad as things feel now, they will feel worse later, especially after dark. And in all this, I cannot help but dwell on the much better races of my past. The suffering is physical and mental, sharp and dull, here and there. And yet, it is joyful.
We tend to think of suffering and joy as mutually exclusive—where there is suffering, there can be no joy. But in long-distance running, I have experienced what I can only describe as joy in suffering. And I am not the only one. Endurance athletes often talk about “going into the pain cave” and “hurting so good.” The U.S. Olympic runner Adam Goucher once remarked, “For something to hurt that bad, and feel so good, it’s just inexplicable.”
It is inexplicable, I think, because we harbor too simplistic an idea of what joy and suffering mean. Joy is not synonymous with happiness and suffering is not the same as pain. Joy is instead a deep sense of well-being that springs from the feeling that things are right with the world. And while suffering might involve pain or unpleasant feelings, it is more fundamentally about submitting to a process of change. Properly understood, there is nothing mutually exclusive about joy and suffering; we can feel alright about submitting to change.
The suffering is physical and mental, sharp and dull, here and there. And yet, it is joyful.
Why do I submit myself to the suffering of ultrarunning? I find myself asking that during every 100-mile race. So far I have set out on eight of them, and I have only managed to finish four. In the last race I attempted, I found myself shuffling along—forget running—a few hours after nightfall, getting progressively slower. Old injuries started coming back to life, haunting me. With each step, I could feel my body coming apart. And at some point, I realized that things were no longer alright, that I was causing some serious harm. That even if I kept going, the clock would catch up to me, and I would be cut from the race anyway. I stopped after 63 miles, feeling utterly defeated.
In running, as in life, our task is not to eliminate suffering once and for all but to change our relationship to it. This theme pervades the New Testament. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt 16:24–25). Jesus calls us to that same sort of joyful suffering. Those who seek to avoid suffering in an attempt to “save their life” will find that they have not lived, while those who answer the call to suffer will have life in abundance. We are not to be saved from suffering but to be saved in suffering.
Why do I submit myself to the suffering of ultrarunning? I find myself asking that during every 100-mile race.
I have learned from ultrarunning that we do not experience joy in spite of the suffering involved but precisely because of it. My most joyful moments in life have been while running 100-mile races. It is in those times that I feel most truly alive.
Taking in mountaintop views, with their endless miles of splendor, which can only be reached by climbing. Hearing the song of bullfrogs, which can only be heard at midnight on a remote lakeside trail. Walking among the stars, far from civilization, up high, on a clear night. Feeling a new daybreak, the sky slowly turning from black to purple to pink to blue and with it a wave of energy that overcomes me—so even though I have been out running all night, I feel as if I have just woken up. Experiencing myself as part of the trail, thinking that I am not so much running as being run. The gratification that comes with sensing that things are indeed alright, that even though I have come a long way, even though I am tired and sore, I can keep going for much longer.
I am suffering all this time in each of these moments. There are pains that, once they start, remain with me for however many hours the trek takes. There are mental demons that return again and again. But within these experiences is the joy of being.
The early Christians of Jerusalem were told, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:1–2). Here the connection between suffering and joy—and even running—is made clear. The lesson I learned from ultrarunning is that suffering, taken up willingly, makes true joy possible.
The lesson here is not that you must run an ultramarathon to find joy and the good life. We do not have to go out of our way to suffer; it will surely find us. But the simple truth that Jesus lived and shares with us is that suffering can yield joy. Suffering must be undergone and embraced, again and again. Doing so brings us both closer to humanity and closer to God.