Confessions from the Trail: Welcome to the Pain Cave

What It’s Like to Run for Hours

Running an ultramarathon is no easy feat. An ultramarathon demands not just physical effort, but the intense mental struggle of putting one foot in front of the other, long after your body wants to quit. Pulling from the list of questions about ultramarathons again, here is a great one: “What’s it like to run for so long?” The answer is different for every person, but for me (and many others), an ultramarathon is a period of highs and lows as well as trips into what we call “the pain cave.” And at the end, you have something you have truly earned.

The name “pain cave” is not unique to ultramarathons. Some of you are probably smirking and snickering as I’m sure the pain cave could be a physical location if you’re into that kinda thing. (I won’t judge, you do you, boo!) For triathletes and some CrossFit fanatics, a “pain cave” is your garage which has been converted into your own personal gym. Bike, treadmills, and weights aplenty; it’s everything you need except that the unchanging small space gets monotonous when you have long workouts.

For ultramarathons, as well as other endurance sports, the pain cave is a mentality and state of being. It hits at different times and the best you can do is accept it and keep moving.

Here’s a quick look at what I think (and feel) throughout an ultramarathon:

Mile 1: It’s a liar. Your legs, feet, and back feel fine. Your pace is easy, effortless even. If you could run like this all day, you’d cross the finish line with a smile on your face. It’s all a big, fat lie.

Mile 2-5, first hour: Settled into my pace, my mind is fully functional and I’m focused on the run. Tempo, pace, the strain of elevation; I feel it all.

Miles 6-10, the second hour(ish): My mind starts to wander; I usually have an alarm set on my watch or phone to remind me to eat. This is *my* golden hour because I’m most mentally capable but not longer purely focused on the run. My best plot building happens here. Most of Pantheon and its sequel were written in this beautiful hour.

Miles 10-15, the third hour: Pain is starting to creep in and my focus comes back to my body. How fast am I running? How do my feet/knees/lower back feel? Have I been eating and drinking enough? This hour will probably set the tone for the rest of the race. If my head isn’t right to go into “the pain cave” and dig deep while in pain, I’m not going to make it. It’s also the time where my stomach has to be right as well. If I can’t take in food and beverages here or worse, they’re coming back up, I’m definitely not going to make it.

The Pain Cave – Photo by Tsvetoslav Hristov on

Miles 15-25, hours four and five: Fuck this, screw this, I hate everything! Oh god I love running! I’m flying! My feet have the wings of Hermes himself and I am flying through this – GD it, I hate everything! Between the pain, fatigue, and an ever slipping grip on reality, my mind alternates between hating everything and trucking along happier than a puppy with a ball. There’s no in-between.

Miles 26-30, hour six: You are now definitely running an ultramarathon. For me, all I can do its mentally chant I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it. That chant is on repeat for about an hour as I shamble my way through the final aid stations and ignore that every part of my body is in pain.

Mile 31, an infinite and immeasurable amount of time: The last mile is tough to explain. You’ve come so, so far, but thirty miles done doesn’t make that last mile any easier. Honestly, I try to divorce myself from all reality. I place one foot in front of the other. The best I can do is keep an eye out for the finish line so I can dry my tears and wipe the snot off my face before someone gets a picture of me staggering across the line.

70.1 miles and 8 hours plus 3 minutes after I started, I finished Ironman 70.3 Orlando (2010).
Honestly, I thought I was smiling when this photo was taken.

As you can now see, crossing the finish line for an ultramarathon is about more than physical endurance and nutrition. There is a mental endurance factor as well. You have to be strong enough to go into that pain cave and come out on the other side. Your body will keep moving much longer than your mind wants to allow. You spend so much time and mental effort convincing your mind that your body can go on, that you only hurt, and that you aren’t dying. I suspect this is why ultramarathoners get better with time. Some of it comes from putting in the years required to build that kind of stamina and endurance, but it also comes from living life.

Be honest, life beats you down, but every time you find the strength to stand back up and keep moving on, you build a little more mental resilience. The first three times I trained for a 50k, I thought I was mentally strong. After all, I had been trained “in the hardest of schools.” But it wasn’t enough to keep me moving forward. (Concurrently training for an Ironman has its effects, but I think I could have handled the pain cave better). Now, I’ve had some shit go down. I have seen the bottom of the hole and climbed back out. I’ve worked through my issues and have better coping techniques for mental resilience. I’m ready to go into the pain cave, battle my demons, and come out victorious.

I think many of us want to be tested. We recognize that our culture is soft, seeking softness and comfort in all things. The idea of willingly submitting your body and mind to this the antithesis of American culture.

But it shows you who you are.

Being able to subject your body to the battle with the course, to go into the pain cave, battle your demons, and come out victorious is something you can’t buy. You can’t cheat it. There is no short cut.

When you cross the finish line of an ultramarathon or other endurance race, you know you have earned every mile.

Happy trails!

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