Choose your suffering…

I was reminded of this bit of wisdom over the weekend.

The human existence contains suffering – no matter how much we avoid it, dodge it, drug it or outspend it, it finds us. In fact in a few brief intervals of my life when I was not subject to a rather rigorous discipline of training or school or a demanding job where I was suffering regularly for a cause, I found that my whole day became saturated with a low level angst that penetrated all my activity.

When I retired from sport and was able to luxuriate in doing nothing for a few weeks and months while looking for a job I quickly found my days wasting away and then scrambling to send a few resumes by the end of the day which coulda/shoulda taken 30 minutes in the morning.

Work requires a chosen form of suffering in the investments of time and energy to the tasks that aren’t “awesome”. I “reward” myself at the end of a work day by saving my favorite tasks for last AND by allowing myself the occasion to write on this blog or  But… it is not enough. My body as well as my brain needs some physical form of stress to clear out the cobwebs and clear my mind.

Lately I’ve pretended that work stress was a substitute for physical stress – that the “suffering” I’ve chosen for work could serve as a substitute for putting in miles on the bike. I was wrong.

On Saturday morning I was tired. I had had a long week, late nights, big client deliverables. Each evening I barely squeezed in a short ride to prep for the coming big race in Elk Grove. Saturday morning came and instead of sleeping in I had to get up earlier than a work day to eat, then head to the race.

I was “on the rivet” every minute of those next 30 miles. I had a mouth full of pennies after the first half lap, tasting lactic acid and feeling the uncoordinated burn of a body not yet really in shape. It was a shredding debilitating pain and I convinced myself to finish at least one lap of 1.2 miles. After one lap I convinced myself to protect my pride and complete two laps. After two, I said, “one more straightaway” and made it. It slowed a little right when I intended to quit on lap 3. Again on lap 4. Lap 5 I got dropped, but a splinter group chasing hard brought me back.  Again on lap 10, then lap 14 and 16. I got dropped over 20 times and managed to reconnect often by hitting the U-turn at 20mph when the pack was taking it at 5mph. I ran the currents and eddies and swung up 30 places only to drop 29 on the next straightaway. I was suffering immensely. I wanted to quit, I even tried to quit, but always the race reabsorbed me.

And then it was over. I didn’t win. I was actually “last” – in that of the racers that finished I coasted across last. A few dozen had been “dropped” I suppose, but I did have a quiet pride about not quitting. I had turned myself inside out and was exhausted… but the great thing about the bike is you can immediately feel good again…Not sore, not fatigued, just “clear.”

I went home. I checked my bike. I had a small mechanical problem that appeared to be the equivalent of riding with the brakes on. My legs and lungs were lit up like a christmas tree and twitched all night, but when I woke up on Sunday and rode back to watch the final pro race, my synapses and fast twitch muscles were on fire – I rode the big ring to and from the race and averaged the fastest pace on a training ride that I have all season. Was it the mechanical fix? Or did the massive suffering the day before reactivate long slumbering muscle fibers?

I guess I can’t know, but I do know that when you choose your suffering and invest in positive stress that makes you stronger, the outcome is a kind of joy that is hard to find in the walks of everyday life. Riding home Sunday after the race was one of the best afternoons I have had in months – just me against the wind, wheels and sky.

At Craig and Kim's house - at the 300m line
At Craig and Kim’s house – at the 300m line
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3 responses

  1. John, you honestly have the best attitude of anyone I know on the topic of suffering. I seem to run from it, while you actually embrace it! I guess that is what separates Olympians and racers from weekend warriors.
    I repeatedly tell myself I need to get better at suffering. Paradoxically, for me, the only way to do that is to suffer more and more often. Hmmm. I’ll have to work on that. But I will agree wholeheartedly with you that when I survive a sufferfest of any sort, I feel re-charged, alive and kickin’ and ready to go for more.


  2. The first crit I ever did was a P1/2/3 crit at Superweek. I made deals with myself just like that. It was so fast I suffered like a dog the entire time. After the first few laps I told myself “This is so fast, I can’t do this. If I do 5 more laps and then quit with 25 to go that will be my victory”. Next thing you know I lost count. Sign says 22 to go. “Okay, I’ll quit at 20 to go”. Tongue dangling in the spokes, lost count again. Sign says 19. Getting dropped on the straights and catching up in the corners where I was railing them with no one in front of me. This is so hard. “Okay, I’ll go til 15 and that will be my victory”. Oxygen deprived, next time I see the sign it says 9. “Dang. I may as well finish now.” Gained enough confidence to move up on the last lap through the s-turns before the final straight and finished mid pack. My legs were so wasted I had to have help to lift my leg over my bike to get off. That taught me that the body can do way more than we think it can and even if we try to quit, sometimes the Universe won’t let us. And I’m with you John. That kind of suffering is fun. What makes that kind of suffering fun for some of us but not for everyone?


    • Hi Kelly – there are several interesting studies about physical pain and the release after it. As it turns out, if you submit a limb to an ice bath for 30 minutes or the pressure of a tourniquet, once it is over your body releases dopamine and other pleasure neurotransmitters in a pattern indistinguishable from pleasure or joy – in fact it is joy. Here’s the thing for me – arbitrary suffering or masochistic exercises don’t carry a backdrop and logical reasoning to justify them – so therefore we must choose a form of suffering that is good for us.

      Preferably 6 days a week in sunshine with a tailwind. It is odd, but the hardest training rides I have ever done have been in those circumstances – drafting cars, sprinting from lights. Joy and suffering intermingled… Aren’t we lucky?

      Miss you – I’ll be in B-ham for the 25th race – catch up then?


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