Why I Visited the Pain Cave, Got Sick and Feel Good Today
Three days after my first ultramarathon, ultra meaning anything more than a standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, I feel ok.
Actually, I feel better than ok.
Which feels odd.
I should feel terrible. Terribly sore, terribly sick, terribly tired and terribly foggy headed. I usually do after any traumatic event. The 50k “Way Too Cool” ultramarathon in Cool, California qualifies as traumatic, at least for me, at least normally.
I’ve trained and run two regular road marathons in the past. Each one, I got sick before running, wasted my body during the run, and got more sick after the race. I limped and waddled like a 90 year-old man the day after hip surgery following both races. “Recovery” from these races lasted a one to two weeks before the lingering effects eased to unnoticeable, background inflammation.
But today, three days after the longest running race of my life, three days after contracting an explosive stomach virus that left me unable to drink or eat after the race, three days after driving 18 hours back home, I feel good.
Which feels odd.
The Pain Cave
During the race, I entered the legendary “pain cave,” a place of darkness, disgrace and despair, a place you go to dine on heaps of self induced suffering. But I didn’t enter the cave until mile 24. That surprised me, because I didn’t train much for the race. The last time I ran? 3 weeks before the race. For two months, I ran only once a week.
Not surprising I blew-up and blew-out during the race. But surprising it took me so long.
Every step hurt there after. I knew I’d finish the race, but I couldn’t figure out how I might do it before time ran-out. I started breathing like a pregnant women pushing-out twins. It worked. I got a pace going; I could move forward without stopping. Downhills still hurt, but I could move into the pain instead of away from it.
What Happened Next
I finished. Collapsed for a while. Tried to eat something. Then started feeling queasy. You see, the night before the race, my brother-in-law, who also ran the race with my wife and me, woke-up around 3:30 am, got out of bed, went behind the paper thin walls of our Motel 6 bathroom, and emptied the contents of his stomach through the same hole those contents, only hours earlier, went into.
He couldn’t “politely” hide his retching for the benefit of his roommates. Instead, it sounded like the end-of-the-world kind of soul wrenching retching reserved for chemo patients, alcohol poisoning and ipecac swallowers.
Afterwards, he quietly went back to bed, woke-up with us the next morning, did the same thing again to the toilet, ate nothing before the race, raced the ultra drinking only thimblefuls of Pepsi at various aid stations, said hello to everyone he passed, jumped and waved for every camera he passed, puked one more time during the race for good measure, and beat me by more than 30 minutes.
I Didn't Suffer Well
I can not complain, nor lodge here in this article that I suffered more or better than he, because what I witnessed from this man, from this immortal beast of perseverance, strength, stamina and indomitable friendliness, was grace under extreme pressure.
Let’s be clear, my pain and suffering was NOT graceful! Usually, when I get sick, I get really sick. I never just vomit. I get sinus infections, sore throat, foggy brains, swollen lymph nodes, infected lungs and a minimum of two-weeks in bed recovering.
By the time I started puking after the race at the Motel 6 in Chico, California, I just knew that my system couldn’t handle an ultra race plus the hounds of hell issuing forth from my stomach without at least three weeks of absolute misery and sickness to follow.
Again, just to be clear, I wasn’t grace under fire; I wasn’t my awesome brother-in-law.
But, today, three days after the race, I feel great, not three weeks.
18 Hours In a Car
One of the worst things you can do after an ultra, besides contracting a stomach virus & not eating or drinking anything, would be sitting in a car for a long, long time. That’s exactly what we did. 18 hours in a car.
Despite all of that, I even went on a light jog after walking a few miles on the treadmill beneath my desk today.
Why? The obvious answer, I’m an idiot. Seriously, not training for an ultra takes ludicrous amounts of arrogance. The pain I endured, completely self induced. Totally could have been avoided. Though I tried NOT to get infected from my brother-in-law by not touching anything he touched, avoiding high-fives and hugs, I got the sickness. Driving 18 hours after the race, couldn’t have been avoided.
The Big 3
But why am I still not paying the usual debt I owe after running-up a huge tab against the ultimate bookie, my health? Three reasons:
- I maintained a baseline over the last 8 months
- I optimized my nutrition, sleep and stress levels
- I put some health in the bank (so to speak)
Maintaining a Baseline
I realized this year, life is about movement. Some might argue, like in this TED Talk, our brain exists for one reason, and one reason only, movement. Another study basically found that he who sits longer, dies first (referenced here).
This winter, I filled part of my week learning how to downhill ski. The key to unlocking the secrets of effortless alpine skiing - movement. Not just any kind of movement, but specific movement.
To help me in live longer, realize the potential of why my brain exists and to master alpine skiing as quickly as possible, I got rid of my desk chair, started doing push-ups, body weight squats, planks and pull-ups.
That’s it. That’s my baseline. I try to push, pull and lift heavy things. What heavy thing specifically? My self. I walk everyday since replacing my desk chair with a treadmill. I do a few push-ups and pull-ups, planks and squats throughout the day. I go run once-in-a-while.
That’s my baseline. The minimum level of fitness that allows me to jump-off and do more whenever I want to. The trick is moving all day and stopping periodically to lift heavy things.
Optimize Nutrition, Sleep and Stress
I remember my first, thick, green frothy vegetable shake. I choked it down and then choked back the urge to regurgitate it back into the blender from whence it came! Like many, through the years my diet jumped from vegetarian to vegan, gluten-free to low acidity, from eating to my blood type to eating for my body ecology.
I always felt healthier than I did before, but I always ended up back in the same place: tired, sick, hungry and full of cravings.
However, that changed about 9 months ago. I started eating more fat, less carbs, more veggies and healthy protein. Otherwise known as primal eating, paleo eating or the low carb diet, like all the other diets, I felt better immediately, but the changes lasted. The changes lasted month after month. In fact, I kept feeling better and better.
Finally finding the right diet, the right micro and macro nutrient profile, I started sleeping better. Better sleep lead to levels of recovery and performance and enhancing effects far beyond my expectations. Sleep is the golden elixir of health.
With nutrition and sleep in place, stress in my life got handled better. I started monitoring my heart rate variability (HRV) in the morning, giving me a glimpse into my actual sympathetic and parasympathetic response systems. I became conscious of stress and took action - I’d nap, or practice deep breathing or reframing. Small things, but they work.
Putting It In the Bank
I don’t think there’s a study to back this up, but with months of eating right, sleeping well and optimally managing stress, I felt like I was putting health into the bank.
What I mean, my immune system got stronger, my stress management systems got stronger, I got stronger, like I was stashing heath away to spend at a later time.
That “later time” happened, and it seems my body coped. Could it do it again soon? Probably not, Could somebody else turn around and do it again? Absolutely. But not me. At least, not now. I didn’t deposit that much in the bank. I deposited enough, but not that much. Look at my brother-in-law; he ran a 50k after losing everything he had inside, dehydrated and sick, he ran a good race with an awesome attitude with plenty left in the bank.
If it was me in that position, my bank account might return, “insufficient funds.” Maybe, maybe not. Glad I didn’t need to make that withdrawal. But I took a large withdrawal. Now time to start depositing again.
For me, for years, I suffered from chronic inflammation, sinus infection, deteriorating health and diminishing cognitive acuity. For the last 9 months, I found a few keys to a few locks that opened a few doors to better performance levels, both physically and cognitively.
Eating right alone didn’t work. Eating right and moving right worked way better. Add to that powerful combination mindful stress management, significant gains became real, actualized accomplishments.
Heal and Then Go Out
But what do gains matter if I hid in a monastic like shelter, achieving health only when I could control the variables around me? For me, I had to walk outside of the compound, outside of the temple, outside the monastery and test my new found faith in my health.
An ultra 50k was my path. Large doses of suffering due to not training was my experience along the path. An intestinal bug that ripped through my GI tract was my test.
Today, three days after the run, I feel really good. That’s surprising.