Ultra runners: Masochists or pleasure seekers?
With every step on the trail I could feel the flood of pain. It would start at the ball of my foot and travel quickly up the sides, bringing about the nauseating feeling of separation at the arch. But it is the jarring pain beneath my heel that keeps my mind from indulging too deeply in this sensation. I begin to wonder why I keep going…
I never do have to answer this question because as quickly as it surfaces it disappears – that is, the question, the pain and my obsessive focus on its pathway in my body. Instead of pervading thoughts of grief, my mind seems to switch gears as I relax once again into my run and a state of enjoyment returns.
I do contemplate my experiences with pain and running as I know that it isn’t something that influences me to run less, to change activities or to quit en route. Several times the term “masochist” has been thrown my way by non-runners but I pay scant attention to their diatribe as I find incredible pleasure in my experiences with running long distances. This poses an interesting question as to our understanding of the term. Western perspectives tend to focus on the relationship between masochism and narcissism, or the pain-pleasure cycle as it is more commonly known. If the idea is explored further, looking to Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, we can arrive at a different understanding, one that delves into the mechanics of pleasure. It is particularly this concept, pleasure, that I find infinitely perplexing. Ultimately, I think that we need to come to a new understanding of its meaning in the West.
To begin, we need to understand pain. In a very interesting, yet somewhat outdated article entitled, “Masochism and Long Distance Running,” self-confessed non-runner Arnold Cooper asserts that long distance runners are masochists indeed, although this is not necessarily a “bad” thing. It all depends on an individual’s existing sense of identity and the way they go about further building that identity. According to Freudian thought, which was prominent in Western psychology in the eighties, the process begins with subconscious attempts to establish ourselves as separate beings from our birth figure. In fact, finding independence and building self-identity are activities pursued throughout our entire lives. They are not easy tasks though. Engaging in pain-conquering rituals is one way to gain freedom from the feeling of dependency on someone or something else. It is the mastery, not the avoidance of pain that represents a major achievement in self-development.
Ultimately, the feeling of mastery leaves us with a sense of pleasure. With this perspective on masochism, Cooper argues that long distance running can indeed serve as a relatively harmless method to achieve independence of the self. In this sense, pleasure can be thought of as a “tickling of the mind”. This is quite a different understanding than the sensory-based meaning normally associated with the term. A little tickle under the foot, for example, can bring a sense of pleasure. And too much tickle under the foot might just create a foot fetish!
Are the two really any different – mental and sensual pleasure? Is the ultra runner who abandons his family and responsibilities time and time again any better than the hedonist who seeks his/her thrills from carefree indulgence in sex, drugs, food or status symbols? Perhaps, as the pursuit of sensory pleasures can be relentless, unfulfilling and at great costs to the self, others and the environment, sometimes manifesting as gluttony or addiction.
Yet running can also manifest as an addiction. This represents the very fine line between healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards pain and pleasure. Ironically, runners’ approach to pain may indicate where they are in relation to that line. Physical pain can only be “conquered” so many times. We are fallible creatures. There is an alternative approach to dealing with pain. There is also another type of pleasure possible, one that might more closely resemble happiness.
Scientists are only beginning to explore the science of happiness and not coincidentally, are looking to the East to facilitate their understanding. What they have found is an area of our brain, the left prefrontal cortex that is primarily responsible for the experiencing of positive emotions. Neuroscientists like Dr. Richard Davidson have found that both the expectation of achieving a goal and the process of mindfulness meditation can stimulate this area and produce a state of happiness (for an explanation of mindfulness and its relation to ultra running, see the October 2005 article, “Approaches to Peak Performance”).
Given these insights, I think that viewpoints from Western psychology, like that of Cooper, are incisive yet limited on the topic of long distance running and masochism. “Pleasure” or “happiness” can be achieved without having to master something. In fact, Eastern philosophy, and particularly Buddhism teaches that there is value in non-doing, non-striving and non-mastery. Enjoyment is possible if we accept all things as they are and learn not to attach judgement to them. In ultra running, this could translate to running simply because one enjoys the experience from the physical act, to the trails and beyond. With this perspective, Cooper’s assertion of long distance runners as masochists is rather tenuous. It would mean that some people are motivated to run long distances not by a subconscious need to master pain.
Similarly, if we look to a Buddhist perspective on pain, we learn that it is the mind that judges the intensity of the experience and subsequently attaches a label to it (e.g. very painful, unbearably painful, hurtful). An event is an event is an event. Death and pain are inevitable experiences in life. Learning the transient, or brief nature of all events comes with the practice of mindful awareness. Letting go of our focus on pain while running is something many seasoned ultra runners are able to do. It is also through this process of becoming mindfully aware that we are able to achieve true independence from all objects/persons/events. Recall that healthy masochism can also lead to independence. In realistic terms, this means practicing the art of letting go of our incessant thoughts of pain (and other thoughts) that will eventually manifest as needs and desires. This applies equally to everyday life as it does to running.
This leads to another important point. I do not think that Cooper is exactly wrong in his assertion of long distance runners as masochists. I think that there are as many different ultra runners as there are apples these days. In the west, I think that the push to master our environment and our being is as prevalent now as it was in the past. To say ultra running is a substitute for meditation is far from the truth. It has its similarities but to truly engage in a process of identity building, and true independence, we need to understand this from many perspectives, not solely from a Western approach or solely from that of Eastern philosophy. Additionally, the path to true independence is itself a goal-less process. There is no destination. One starts on the path and learns as one practices.
Therefore, I think that there is evidence of ultra runners who are driven to master their experience. They may last in ultra running or they may go onto the next pursuit and never quite figure out why they can’t find enjoyment or satisfaction. Then there are runners who seem to run endlessly. These are the ones you will pass at mile 1 and mile 99 who still have that same look of simple pleasure on their faces.
- Shambhala Sun (magazine)
- Psychology of Running. Michael H. Sacks & Michael L. Sachs, Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., 1981.
Richard Davidson, Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/
Mind and Life Institute, http://www.mindandlife.com/