running pains

Two days ago the dog and I ran a short route through our local trails in the mountain foothills just above our home. This run was notable because it was the first snow of the year, coating the path with a soft icing as more flakes clamored to do their part. It was cold; snow stuck to my face and coated the dog’s fur as we left behind our pair of respective footprints.

It’s treks like this that remind me that the venture of trail running is a stupid idea. This sentiment was further corroborated by a run I made the previous weekend — the hardest of my entire year — up desert canyons, through sand, hand-over-hand up over rocks, along cliffs, through freezing creek water up to my thighs, and all climbing a total of 1800 feet over a 13 miles course. To top it off, the race marshall and course designer is a woman who described falling on that very trail a few years prior, tumbling 60 feet vertically downward from a cliff where she would lie for two consecutive freezing nights. The only reason she survived was because her dog led searchers to her incapacitated body below the trail. She wished us all well as we made our way up the rocky slope; no dogs allowed.

There’s discomfort in these kinds of runs: the cold, the hot, the tested physical endurance, the strained mental anguish. These sometimes get collectively captured as “pain,” and this was the gist of a story done by RadioLab to investigate why a certain group of Kenyan runners are so dominant in distance running. One of the ultimate suggestions was that these Kenyans were culturally and naturally selected to endure pain. The example given is a ritual in which a teenage boy would have to be circumcised with “a sharp stick,” tying the foreskin into a knot that the penis was then forcefully pulled through. And also, people beat you while this is happening. I have some of my own cultural and personal disagreements with the ritual, but I’m especially certain that it’s probably not an adequate explanation for the success of these runners. For one thing, that kind of pain is such that “pain” could not possibly, adequately describe things. Further, the things that a runner feels are in a whole different category of discomfort (as well as elation, but that’s another story), the kind that makes you long for a cold beer or a warm bath or just simple reprieve from muscular distress. Still, on that long run through the desert, I would occasionally flash upon that RadioLab story, and I’d mentally note to myself: At least no one’s cutting and knotting my foreskin with a sharp stick.

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