Do we “suffer” as runners?

Some potentially controversial food for thought. This has been on my mind a lot.

In the world of ultra running, there’s a lot of talk about suffering and struggling, but mostly suffering. We all talk about it, we hate it, we love it, we glorify it. The challenge. The rawness of it. We suject ourselves to suffering time and time again. The strugglebus. The sufferfest. (There’s even a beer named “sufferfest” proudly promoted by many ultra runners.)

But what really is suffering? What does it mean to suffer? Can we legitimately call what we experience out there on the trails, running and racing, suffering??

So, here’s a few definitions for you. Thanks to Merriam-Webster.

Suffering: the state or experience of one who suffers. Pain.

And then…


  • to submit to or be forced to endure…
  • to put up with especially as inevitable and unavoidable
  • to endure pain, death or distress
  • to sustain loss or damage
  • to be suject to disability or handicap.

Something that really stands out to me in the definition of “suffer”, is that it seems to be something we are subjected to, that we are forced to endure, that is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s an uncontrollable state of undetermined duration that one cannot avoid or escape.

When I really think about it, I struggle to call what we do on the trails “suffering”. It’s gorgeous out there and it makes me feel so alive!! Most of the time I’m so incredibly happy! Yeah, it’s really hard work and I have my low moments out there, sometimes it is a huge struggle to get out and run or to run well and it can be discouraging… but I’m not suffering. (However, I am completely guilty of using the phrase at times and I’m not sure if that’s wrong or not… just doing a lot of wondering and contemplating here.)

Suffering has a lot of different connotations and maybe it is just that the things that I see and therefore associate with suffering are different from the next persons, and therefore my perception of suffering is different? I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience because each of us has our own very unique journey and challenges out on the trails…

But personally, the more I think about it, the less I can call what I do anything even remotely close to suffering and it actually hurts my heart to call it suffering because I feel like it minimizes what my patients experience and puts my running challenges on the same level as their horrific terminal cancer journey and it’s nowhere near the same! What I do/experience is NOT suffering. I see their suffering every single day at work. Real, raw, horrific suffering that impacts an individual (and their families!) and can be physical, mental, emotional and spiritual agony! Suffering as life is stripped away when all one really wants is to live! The suffering I see is completely out of the sufferers control, strips them of all control, and subjects them to a terrible journey with an uncertain timeline or destination. And suffering isn’t just for cancer patients – many people experience horrific suffering due to physical or mental or emotional hardships, or even suffering due to political climates, starvation, lack of housing, abuse, the list goes on…

We’re SO FREAKING LUCKY folks!!!!

I CHOOSE to run these mountains, these distances, these races… to be on this journey. To have these experiences. They did not.

I can CHOOSE to stop running at any time, to DNS or DNF… They cannot.

Endurance running is hard. It hurts. It’s the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life and some days/some races I am in a world of pain. But even when going up a hill is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and every leaden, exhausted muscle protests and my heart and lungs feel like they’re about to explode out of my chest, I know I’ll get to the top and then there will be a glorious downhill to recovery on, and if I really need to I can slow it down. And I still love it. We love it! We embrace the challenge and the hurt. Despite feeling exhausted or weak from the challenge, we know that we are strong, our bodies are strong, and we are SO ALIVE out there!!

Sometimes I do question my performance and wonder if I’m not “suffering” enough? I’ve never finished a run or a race feeling completely destroyed and sometimes I do wonder if I am giving it my all if I finish still feeling good(ish)? Do we have to be destroyed at the finish line? Does that mean we gave it everything? Can we push ourselves as hard as possible, to the very outer edge of our limitations but still be enjoying ourselves along the way and finish feeling strong? I don’t know… Maybe it depends on the day? Or the race? Or our goals for ourselves and for that run/race?

So many thoughts…

But to wrap it up…

Suffering (whether we experience the denotative or connotative form of suffering)… it does make us stronger, maybe wiser, hopefully more compassionate, empathetic, loving… I suppose it depends on the journey and the outcome… our perspective on it… and what we choose to make of it.


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