How Experiencing Pain Made Me a Better Person (and Runner)

Pain sucks. Trust me.

I’ve been through some pain. A run in with a car while riding my bike to work on September 16, 2011 introduced me to pain at a level I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I went over the hood of a car, landed on my left side and pushed my left elbow out through my triceps and shattered my humerus (upper arm) into five or six pieces. A paramedic who happened to be just around the corner and was on scene in less than two minutes was honest with me while I was lying on the road with my arm bent and pointed in the wrong direction.

“We need to move your arm onto your chest. This won’t be fun, but it has to be done.”

It wasn’t fun. It hurt like hell. But once it was moved, and my arm was across my chest and roughly back were it belong, it was better.

In the emergency room various doctors, paramedics and nurses came by to look at my injury. I remember on guy picking dirt out of the bone that was protruding through my arm. I learned that pain medication works.

An open, displaced, compound fracture was the official diagnosis. Dr. McKee put it all back together in a five or six hour surgery that night. Two plates, 13 screws and 42 staples.

The first night was long and tough. The pain was intense and it was impossible to sleep.

I spent two nights in St. Michael’s Hospital before they deemed me well enough to head home with a prescription for hydromorphone and instructions to start physio in a week.

The pain medication worked wonders. I could take 10 milligrams, and within 15 minutes the pain would fade away. Three hours later, it would return and it was time for another dose.

Physio is a special kind of hell

I started physio not knowing what to expect. It became clear within the first ten minutes of my first bi-weekly session that, like the moving of my arm on the road after the accident, this wasn’t going to be any fun at all. I would take the same 10 milligrams of hydromorphone on the walk over to the clinic. It barely took the edge off the pain.

Some days I would leave in tears. A “good session” left me exhausted and with a throbbing arm for hours. For months and months, twice a week, I walked over to the clinic and let someone stretch and twist and bend my arm for 30 minutes before sticking me with 15 acupuncture needles to aid in the recovery.

I figured I would be done and recovered by Christmas when the injury first happened. Then I thought maybe spring, and I signed up for the 2012 BMO Vancouver Marathon in May. All through the winter I thought of being done with physio and running a marathon to celebrate and declare that I was back.

I ran the marathon, and cried at the end because while I finished the race, I wasn’t done my recovery yet. The next day it was back to Toronto and a day after that I walked over to physio again and again for another three months.

By the summer, it was clear that I wouldn’t get my range of motion back no matter what we did at physio. I talked it over with doctors and my physiotherapist and decided to go back and have the plates, screws and scar tissue removed in another surgery that eventually happened in late March, 2013.

The day after the surgery I went home and a few days later it was back to the clinic for more physio and more pain. That went on for another few months until the progress stopped and I had to accept that my left arm would never be right again. That was that.

I still have pain from time to time. Some days my left hand goes numb because the nerve that runs through my elbow joint gets pinched. Changing weather (especially when rain or snow is on the way) leaves me with am annoying dull ache for a day or two. Every night when I try to get in a comfortable position to sleep with an arm that won’t bend the way it used to, I’m reminded of how I had to sleep on the couch for six months after the accident.

I thought this was a running blog

So what does all this have to do with running?

I’ve run 11 marathons and two 50km ultras. Anyone who runs long distance will tell you the same thing. It can hurt.

“Make friends with pain, and you’ll never be alone.” – Ken Chlouber, creator of the Leadville 100 mile ultra marathon.

I can honestly say that experiencing that kind of intense and frequent pain from my bike crash changed me. It made me realize that I was tougher than I ever imagined that I was. Initially I dreaded walking over for physio and often contemplated quitting it entirely.

But a strange thing happened over time. I started to look forward to physio. It’s not that I enjoyed the pain, but I started to embrace the process and the pain that was part of it. It was never fun, but it had to be done.

It was often awful, terrible pain. And I survived. And two days later I would go back for more and do it again.

I realized that if I went in thinking, “Bring it on!” that the sessions were way better and far more productive. Not fighting the pain and embracing the process meant more progress.

When it came to training, I started looking at my runs the same way. I looked forward to tempo runs on Tuesday where I could push myself and then come back on Wednesday and do it all again on sore legs.

Sunday long runs were a chance to explore how far I could run when my legs were yelling at me that they couldn’t run anymore. I became more aware of the difference between good pain that I should push through and bad pain that was telling me to stop.

More pain, more gain

Last March I fell out on a 29km run on Hilton Head Island. I was 14km into the run and I went down hard. It turned out that I broke two ribs in that fall, but I didn’t know it at the time. I ran 15km back to our place on the other side of the island after the fall, with each step becoming more and more painful as things tightened up.

The next week was rough. Sleep was tough, breathing hurt and running was basically impossible (of course I tried). The 2017 BMO Vancouver Marathon was already on my schedule and the flights and hotel were booked. I had eight weeks until race day and I could barely move, let alone run.

The day after we got back to Toronto I made an appointment with my physiotherapist. I told her what happened and we got to work to make running a marathon in less than eight weeks a possibility.

I fell on March 12 and started running again on March 28 and let me tell you, it hurt.

It began with an easy 5km run/walk on a Tuesday night. Then a harder 8km on Wednesday. Then 10km on Friday. Sunday was a painful and difficult 17km.

I embarked on a very aggressive plan to get two 30km runs done in April before starting the taper with a 23km run three weeks before race day. Those 30km runs hurt like no other runs I’ve ever done (including my first 50km ultra). But I ran them from start to finish and, like the physio sessions after my second arm surgery, I looked forward to the pain and embraced it as part of the process.

Marathon day came and I finished it with a really great first 32km and a really tough last 10km. I knew at the start line that the last quarter of the run would be a slog. And I started it anyways, ran to it and ran (and walked) through it to the finish.

Embrace it, overcome it

Pain sucks. But it’s part of life.

Jordan Peterson says about pain, “Pick up your damn suffering and bear it.”

In other words, this life we’re living sometimes sucks and it includes suffering and it involves pain. Suck it up. Pull yourself together and get on with it.

I think of this often when the running gets tough. Like in life, when things turn to shit, you have two choices. You can walk away from it and complain and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can toughen up. Take it. Embrace it. Run through it. Overcome it.

When I’m out on the marathon course, or even in the later stages of a really rough training run, one of the biggest motivations is knowing from experience that the best way to deal with the pain is to run through it and overcome it.

Just like when I walked out of a particularly horrible physio session after my accident, when I hit the finish line after 42.2km and some wonderful volunteer puts that medal around my neck, the pain sure as heck doesn’t go away.

It’s still there and sometimes it’s even worse than when I was running. But it has no power over me anymore. I’ve won. I’ve embraced the pain and invited it in. And it didn’t beat me. I beat it and took its power away.

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