Finding The Pain Cave
How to unlock your prehistoric superpowers
October 10, 2020
Rather, it is about a dark and uncomfortable place that exists inside us all. A place that is so primitive and prehistoric, you must intentionally ignore all logic and reason in order to find it.
This article is about the first time that I stumbled into The Pain Cave. It was pitch black, I was on mile 10 of the Joshua Tree Half Marathon, and I was running uphill in 4–5 inches of deep sand.
Let me start by saying that I don’t get mad very often. Most of my friends have never seen me visibly upset, and only a select few have seen me truly pissed off. But on November 2, 2019, during the Joshua Tree Half Marathon, I was fuming.
I guess it’s because I felt lied to. I had signed up for the race under the premise that it would actually take place in Joshua Tree National Park (this seemed like a reasonable assumption given the name of the race), and that we would be running on normal dirt trails. I ended up being wrong on both assumptions.
The race description on the website mentioned “a fun night under the stars” and claimed that it was many people’s favorite race of the year. What was not mentioned was that we would be running on an old fire trail (entirely outside of the national park) and that it would be covered with deep sand.
Did we mention the deep sand?
I received an email 5 days before the race that informed me of the deep sand. No joke, the email said the following:
- Bring a headlamp as the race will begin at sundown
- Beware that there may be a little bit of sand covering the trail
- Bring a reusable cup to fill up at hydration stations along the route
- Watch out for the deep, deep sand
- Snacks will be provided at the finish line
- It will be very dark and did we mention that there will be lots of sand?
OK — so I am exaggerating slightly, but I remember reading the email repeatedly because I thought they were making some sort of inside joke that I wasn’t aware of.
I had trained for the race thinking that I would be running on normal trails. Instead, I found out that I would actually be running in half a foot of loose sand. This scenario roughly equated to training in an Olympic lap pool for a swim meet, only to find out that I would instead be swimming the race upstream through some raging whitewater rapids.
My (overly) competitive nature
I had just passed the 3-mile marker and things were going relatively well. I had successfully made it through the first few miles, almost all of which were uphill.
As the trail began to level out I remember realizing that I hadn’t been passed by anyone yet. I had been so focused on slogging uphill through the sand that I wasn’t paying much attention to all of the people I had been weaving through. To be honest, my main motivation for passing them was because they kept kicking sand into my eyes.
I was enjoying having some space to move around when a guy suddenly blew past me. The following two thoughts instantly clamored for my attention:
- Hey, that guy looks like my best friend Dan!
- Screw you Dan, I am not going to let you beat me!
This is probably a good time to mention that I am extremely competitive. Especially when it comes to challenging my friends to feats of speed, strength, mental acuity, etc.
Simply put, I love to win.
The jury is still out on whether I take things too far sometimes, but let’s just reflect on the fact that I had challenged a complete stranger to a battle royale solely because he looked like my buddy Dan.
Life in the fast lane
It turns out that Dan’s doppelganger was one hell of a runner. He ended up finishing 12th out of roughly 2,500 people, which meant he finished in the top 1%.
As someone who had trained minimally for this race, I had zero business trying to keep up with him. But my competitive nature forced me to keep pace with him as long as I could.
I somehow managed to stick with turbo Dan until mile 10. At this point, I was running on fumes and had already expended more energy than I knew was possible. And when he decided to turn up the heat on his already smokin’ fast pace, I almost started crying.
Dan 2.0 took off into the darkness and suddenly I was all alone. I quickly realized that I had been able to see only because his headlamp had been illuminating the ground in front of us. Unfortunately, the majority of my own headlamp’s light was being blocked by the bill of the hat I had decided to wear. Great decision.
Also, the “starry night” mentioned in the race description wasn’t quite as illuminating as I anticipated because it was a cloudy night with no moon.
To make things even worse, it felt like I was carrying at least three tablespoons of sand in my eyes which had conveniently wedged itself under my contact lenses.
If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly
By the time I reached mile 12, I’m not sure if what I was doing could be legally classified as running.
My form had evolved into a mixture of a freestyle swim-stroke and a rare form of interpretive dance. I felt like a pirate with two peg legs trying to navigate the ball pit at the local Chuck. E. Cheese.
As I stumbled blindly through the darkness and the deep sand, I was sure I was going to fall. Somehow, I kept managing to link recovery after recovery as I continuously tripped forward.
It was in the midst of all my pain that a mantra popped into my head. Long beyond the point of caring how I looked, I began chanting one sentence over and over again.
If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you are probably concerned about my mental health. I know I certainly was at the time. And you must be wondering what the heck my mantra meant. Let me explain.
I figured that since I was already in so much pain, I might as well see how much further I could push myself. The only way out was to keep lunging forward into the darkness. And since quitting wasn’t an option, I decided to cross a threshold of performance that I previously thought was impossible.
It was this demented and borderline masochistic logic that allowed me to locate a dark and quiet place within the innermost part of my mind. This place, where logic and my physical limitations ceased to exist, is what I call The Pain Cave.
Turning pain into fuel
Time spent inside The Pain Cave is difficult to describe. I’ve only achieved this altered state of consciousness twice, and the other time was during a challenge where I ran 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours straight.
Once inside The Pain Cave, anything is possible. When I entered it during the Joshua Tree half marathon, it didn’t matter that my legs had completely stopped working properly. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see where I was going, or that I was blacking in-and-out of consciousness.
The only thing that mattered was shattering all of my perceived physical and mental limits.
During the last mile of the race, I don’t remember much of what happened. I have no idea what the finish line looked like or if I passed anyone on the final stretch.
There were two things, however, that I will never forget. The first is what it felt like to be suddenly overcome with a raw, prehistoric power that caused an internal shift in regards to my pain. It wasn’t that this shift caused the pain to go away, rather it allowed me to begin converting the pain into high-octane fuel.
The second, and more bizarre memory I have, is that I was subconsciously pounding on my chest George-of-the-jungle style as I catapulted myself towards the finish line.
Crossing the finish line
The best part about the finish line was that there were snacks. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I wolfed down two cartons of chocolate milk, a banana, and a protein bar.
And then I threw up everywhere. Twice.
As I pulled myself back together, I noticed a few people walking over to me to make sure I was okay. I was shocked that one of them was trying to give me a high-five and even more surprised when he said “13th place, nicely done man!”
I managed to smile awkwardly and make an acknowledging noise that was somewhere between a groan and a cough. My brain was too tired to process what he had told me and it wasn’t until I saw my time that I realized what I had accomplished.
As the night progressed I found out that I had indeed placed 13th out of roughly 2,500 people, and that I had somehow managed to place first in the 20–24 age range.
I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely happy, but what made me chuckle was the real reason I had run so fast. It was a mixture of my overly competitive nature, paired with the fact that I was angry at having to run 13.2 miles in the dark on a trail covered with sand.
Attempting to keep up with Dan’s twin had pushed me beyond all of my perceived limits and allowed me to enter The Pain Cave. And once I was there, I wanted to see what I was truly made of.
Admittance into The Pain Cave
While I wouldn’t wish an extended stay in The Pain Cave on anyone, I do hope that one day everyone finds it. We are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, and a brief trip to The Pain Cave will prove this.
The Pain Cave is a dark and terrible place, but it reveals a part of ourselves that is lying dormant. It is a place where we can go to transcend traditionally recognized human capabilities and to overcome the seemingly impossible.
It is here, that we come face to face with every limitation that has ever been placed on us (either by ourselves or others) — and emerge victorious.