At mile 30 of the Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run, Luke Nelson struggled to focus as he moved along the beautiful, but difficult course. A month before he had completed Nolan’s 14, a 100-mile run over 14 summits in Colorado, so he knew this distance well. But his body was tired, he was hurting. He had entered the pain cave.
“I knew the race would be hard, but I had no idea how deep in the cave I would have to go,” the ultrarunner said. He finished in 22:46. The pain cave, while sometimes used to describe in-home gyms, is also a favorite phrase of runners and ultrarunners. It’s the place Scott Jurek pushed through when he set the Appalachian Trail speed record in 2015 and where Swiss runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess was when she staggered over the finish line at the 1984 Olympic Marathon.
We’ve seen it over and over again in races where runners are pushing their bodies, stumbling, crawling and falling to get to the finish line. “It’s a state where all you’re thinking, what consumes you, is the physical pain at the moment,” said Jason Koop, director of coaching for CTS, an online coaching site. “You’re not able to comprehend anything else that’s going on or how much further you have to run. Pain is the all-consuming thing.”
Runners are no strangers to pain. According to a 2015 survey, the study found runners said their pain level was at about a 5.5 on a scale of seven after they finished a marathon. Another study found that 96 percent of runners surveyed after the Western States Endurance Run experienced some form of GI distress.
Ultramarathon race guidelines warn runners of a range of risks: heat stroke, dehydration, renal shutdown and hypothermia. “Every time I run a 100-mile trail race I encounter the pain cave,” says professional ultrarunner Jeff Browning (aka Bronco Billy). “I think what’s important to understand in a long-duration endurance sports, like ultramarathon, is that the pain cave is inevitable. It will come. Bank on that and accept it.”
Nelson said making it through the pain cave means you have to keep moving, even though it hurts. “It does no good to stop and wallow in despair,” he said. “Keep things positive. I can find the humor in the absurdity of running very long distances. I also tend to pull a lot of inspiration from the beauty of the place I am fortunate enough to run in.”
Another tactic to surviving the pain cave Koop says is “making friends” with it. “The important thing is to recognize it’s a normal part of hard training or really long races and adventures,” he stated. “I make friends with the pain cave. I have even said to myself, ‘What’s up old friend?’”
Often runners will sign up for another race not long after completing a particularly grueling race, and that ambition could come from forgetting just how painful the miles were, according to some experts. In the same 2015 survey of marathon runners, runners were surveyed months later on how they “remembered” the pain. On average, they logged the pain at a 3.2 on a scale of seven.
But mostly what seems to bring runners back to the starting line is a desire to push the limits. “I love the pain cave,” Nelson said. “I think as runners we are very fortunate to be able to explore the fringes of our potential as humans and the pain cave is the pathway we take. It is certainly fair to say it is an obsession, and one of my preferred pastimes.”
While many runners know the depths of the pain cave, they also need to know when the pain becomes less of a barrier and more of a danger to the body, Koop said. “We’ve all heard of athletes that have pushed themselves too hard,” he shared. “It’s sometimes tough to tell, but our bodies have mechanisms of telling us when to stop. I think it’s extremely important for athletes to know where that limit is.”
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If you know that balance, said Nelson, you can conquer the pain cave and go back for more. That’s why, in September, Nelson will run the Tor des Geants—a 330K Italian trail race marked by extreme weather conditions and high altitude.
“Once you have a taste of what it feels like to have your body rebel against the mind, it is addicting,” Nelson said. “Soon enough you’ll find yourself returning often. If you find yourself in the pain cave, and as a runner you probably will, keep moving, smile about how absurd it is and crank up the punk rock in your headphones.”