Getting Past the Pain

Last week, the massage therapist reminded me of the truth of the movie quote, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Laying face up on the massage table, a clean, white sheet beneath, I slowed my breathing. The air, relieved of its outdoor duties, teased my nose with the aroma of cloves and other indistinguishable scents. With my shoes and socks paired in the corner and my shirt hanging from a hook on the closed door, I was ready to find some relief. Normally, we’d be listening to Chopin, but today a wooden flute rose, fell, and merged with cricket song above the bubbling of a stream. A Himalayan salt lamp cast a soft, pink glow, and that, combined with the few rays of sunlight slipping through the blinds, was sufficient to create a kind of twilight within the converted office.

Having taken the time to guide my legs through some stretches, bending and turning them along a few different planes, William started the real work, kneading my heal with the tips of his fingers and searching for the reflex zone associated with my lower back. As he probed, I sensed William nearing his goal, for the closer he got to one particular area, the more twitchy I became. William sensed it too, and when he’d pinpointed his objective, we both realized it, because as he applied the most pressure he could to this singularly sensitive area, I resisted the urge to jerk my leg away and commenced Lamaze. 

    The pain soon faded, no longer afflicting my heel or lower back, and William remarked, “Ahhh, Jake, you handle pain pretty well, don’tcha?”

“I suppose so.”

“If it were me, my friend, sitting in your place, I’d be wincing, cussing, and ready to get while the getting’s good. You savvy?” His last words transmuted into breathy laughter, escaping mostly through his nose and ascending the scale.

Growing up, I didn’t handle pain well. In fact, I avoided it as much as I could. With a father who could fix anything, we had cars that ran 300,000 miles or more and sinks that served us leak-free for decades. I vaguely recall a general contractor coming in to build a closet for me, but even then, Dad was at his elbow, framing and hanging drywall. That and the time when — sick of repainting the outside of the house each spring — Dad hired a company to hang vinyl siding, were the only instances I remember him paying someone to do the maintenance for him. Otherwise, Dad did the work himself. Mom often encouraged me to go give Dad a hand, but after watching for awhile with no real knowledge of what he was up to, I’d wander off. Worse were the times when he’d be lying under the car, a piece of cardboard between him and the driveway, and he’d ask me to hand him a particular tool.

“Jacob…Jacob…JACOB!”

I’d snap back to reality from wherever my mind had wandered. “Huh?”

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. Hand me that 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. And hurry up, this flange is threatening to invert on me.”

I’d look, mystified, over at his bucket of tools. “Which one?”

“I told you, the 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. You can’t miss it, it’s right there next to the Heimfleck calibrator.”

Eager to please, I’d pick a tool up at random. “This one?”

“No! the Jabberwocky spanner. To your right.” I’d have to take a minute to call up which hand I used to write with. Before I could, I’d hear the anger in his voice. “Jacob, did you hear me? It’s just to your right. Right there.” I could feel him pointing from behind me, but since I was facing the tools, I never saw which one he indicated. That’s when panic set in. I’d drop the tool I was holding and begin reaching for another. “What are you doing? I said to your right!” As though the metal shone with heat, I’d drop the new tool and fumble toward some others. “That’s an 11/36ths!” By then, he was reaching past me, one hand still holding the flange in place, two fingers of the other attempting to reach the desired tool.

I hope I had enough sense to finally realize which tool he wanted and hand it to him, but I’ll bet more than once, mortified at my incompetence, I just watched him struggle until he snagged the right tool for the job.

If I stuck around long enough, I’d also see what cost my father paid doing the work himself. Squatting on my haunches, I could see his furrowed brow, his mouth opened as he panted and groaned with the effort of loosening a component seized by rust. The worst was when something would give way unexpectedly. There’d be a bang, the clash of metal striking the driveway, and Dad sucking in his breath then releasing it in a series of exclamations barely discernable. He’d slide out from under the car, cradling his skinned knuckles or touching where the new gash on his forehead had just begun to bleed. There’d be grease on his hands and dirt all over the back of his blue flannel shirt. Ten minutes later, sporting a few new bandages, he’d go right back to grunting and groaning under the car. Due to experiences like these, I so associate manual labor with struggle, pain, and unpleasantness that I haven’t changed my car’s oil since moving out of my parents’ house over a decade ago, and if anything needs repaired, assembled, or installed around the house, my wife’s the one to do it. She’s the son my father always wanted.

In elementary school, I claimed I was allergic to pain, using it to excuse myself from anything I deemed too intense. Slight of build and more likely to pick dandelions than catch pop flies, I seldom participated in sports, preferring my adventures packaged in pixels or printed on paper. Even in my 30’s I scoffed at the suggestion of doing a 5K; running for more than three miles sounded like torture.

Now, after running several marathons as well as the Niagra Ultra 50K, taking a 50 mile bike ride for fun, and signing up to do the Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay, with a team of only six guys, I can say I know pain in ways that not many do. Even as I sit here writing, my back throbs because just yesterday, I threw it out and spent all day in bed alternating Biofreeze and a heating pad. It may sound strange, but the kid who avoided pain at all costs has grown up to become an endurance athlete, one who voluntarily endures prolonged physical activity and all the pain that brings just for the sake of doing it. Sure I get shirts for entering the races and medals for completing them, but I don’t do it for the swag. I don’t do it to punish myself or because I derive pleasure from the pain. I do it for the experience of getting past the pain.

I remember training for the first race I ever ran, the 2011 Columbus Half Marathon. I remember that months before the race, the muscles in my legs hurt so bad, I thought I’d injured myself. I remember hobbling my way to the end of the 2012 Columbus Half Marathon while other runners tried to hurry me along because, “The finish line is right there!” I remember going out fast the first half of the 2014 Freedom’s Run Marathon and how badly my legs ached the last few miles of that race. I remember a man in his 70’s telling me I was too young to allow him to get by me, and I remember the sound of his approaching footsteps forcing me to push hard at the end. I remember falling and getting back up. I remember broken toes and black toe nails. I remember finishing a 20K with a twisted ankle; the feeling of the sun beating on my neck while the heat beat up at from the blacktop on 90° days with no wind and humidity through the roof where it feels the run will never end. I also remember the needling of frostnip hours after a run in sub-freezing temperatures with shoes too thin and socks too absorbent. I recall all those awful experiences and smile because I put up with all that pain, pushing through it and letting it go out my ears to find I am capable. I can accomplish feats I once considered impossible.

I wasn’t born this way. I wasn’t ever an athlete. A friend invited me to join him for a race one day, encouraged my training, and stood beside me in the starting corral. Josh knew I could do what I thought impossible, and I began believing him.

You too can do what you deem impossible. One woman opened the Cat Café in Columbus less than a year ago and has since seen 109 felines find new families. I have a friend who wrote his first novel this year, taking a little time each day to do it. My daughter can now ride her bike unaided, and Lu Chao of China recited 67,890 digits of pi. Is there something you want to do but feel intimidated by? Find someone already doing it and join them. Keep taking steps toward it. Start small. Do a little at a time. Avoiding it will only frustrate you, convincing you that you are less than you really are. All of us can achieve the impossible. “Life is pain.” Embrace it and take the next step.

What do you think? Do tell.