The Pain Cave

It’s that place you go to engulf in a complete and raw brand of pain. It can only be found by ignoring that searing feeling inside you. You reach it when every voice inside has screamed for you to stop, yet you have silenced them all. This place is quiet, eerie, and horrific. It’s still but not calming. It’s excruciating and peaceful all at once. It’s both transcendent and brutally immediate. The agony is almost tangible. It is simultaneously the best and the worst feeling. If you can push through it, it is hugely rewarding and ridiculously satisfying. Your true self can be found in its dark corners. Mental and physical limitations come here to die. This place is the pain cave: you do not arrive here accidentally. You must seek it out, and you must plan accordingly.

We all make decisions that end up negatively impacting our lives, from ill-advised career decisions, to irresponsible financial decisions, to poor nutritional decisions—the list goes on. Our life goal should be to dig ourselves out of the hole we created through bad decisions and create a better version of ourselves.

My poor nutritional decisions started early in life. I grew up in the South, where the food is usually fried and always plentiful. My high-fat, high-calorie diet began to take its toll on me in my thirties, until one doctor visit changed everything for me. That visit is etched into my memory. After months of headaches, low energy, trouble sleeping, and trouble staying awake, I was certain I had some type of thyroid issue that could be easily solved by medication. When the doctor provided my test results, it was as though he was reading my death sentence: I was borderline diabetic with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a high risk of stroke and heart disease.

I knew then that a complete mental and physical overhaul were needed. I joined a weight-loss program, hired a dietician, purchased a bicycle, and started my journey. After much hard work and dedication, I lost the weight. I learned to ride a bike and how to run. I discovered a “new me,” but the “old me” seemed to be always lingering in the shadows.

I had to fight to keep the old me from coming back. The only logical thing, it seemed, was to do something only the new me would be capable of doing. For the new me, that was the Ironman, a long-distance triathlon. It starts with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and finished out by a 26.2-mile marathon run. All of this has to be completed within seventeen hours. I knew if I could accomplish something this outlandish, surely I could keep the old me from returning.

The Ironman is as much mental as it is physical. Because I knew I needed to be in the right mental state days before the event, my wife and I decided to head to out on the Wednesday before Sunday’s Ironman. We wanted to be as relaxed as possible by the start of the race. Despite our planning and preparedness, however, my first mental blow would occur earlier than expected.

Four months into to the yearlong Ironman training plan, I had gained five pounds. This was not catastrophic, but it did not help my mental state. I threw the scales into the closet so I could focus on my training. As time went on, I could tell I was getting heavier. Reducing my calorie intake impacted my ability to complete the long workouts of my training regimen, so there was no option but to continue with the high-calorie diet. After all, the goal was to complete the event, not lose weight.

Rumor had it all participants would be weighed at check-in. Surely that was just a rumor; why would they do such a thing? We arrived at check-in and got into the first line of the day. As I feared, it was a line to be weighed. I could already feel the disappointment I was about to be handed as I stepped onto the scale. The scale showed I had gained eighteen pounds over the last year. Eighteen pounds! I was devastated. At that point I wanted to just go home, but I had worked too hard to give up before getting a chance to start the race.

Race morning started at 2:00 AM for me. The race area didn’t open until 5:00 AM, but I like to get up early so I don’t feel rushed. I knocked out a few cups of coffee, had some breakfast, and started contemplating the day. My thoughts drifted away from the actual race plan and honed in on the gravity of the situation. This thing was a big deal, for many reasons. The new me was trying not just to live, but to thrive. If I failed now, would this be the end of the new me, or would I be able to pick myself up and try again? Was I putting too much pressure on myself? These thoughts were not helping me prepare for something of this magnitude. Nevertheless, I pushed those thoughts aside and prepared for the day’s race.

My wife and I arrived at the swim start at 6:00 AM. Around two thousand people participate in any given full Ironman—and there’s no good way to get that many people into the water at the same time. Instead, the participants line up in a single-file line, and two people jump into the water every two seconds. With two thousand people, it can take a while to get to the water. The line winds from water’s edge back through the crowd of spectators, who are friends and family of the participants. As the participants pass through the crowd, the spectators give high-fives and shout words of encouragement. The crowd is so thick that it’s almost impossible to not bump shoulders with those nearby, and the atmosphere is electric. A majority of the participants are there to prove they can do something they never dreamed of doing. That’s exactly why I was there. Knowing that these people in the crowd—these strangers—were treating me like a friend made for a very emotional send-off as I finally jumped into the river.

Coming out of the water was like a near-death experience. I had been in the water for almost two hours. The passing barges had created constant, undulating motion on the water—more than I expected—leading to a bout of sea-sickness and nausea. By the time I made it to shore, it seemed I had forgotten how to walk. I started to shake off the fogginess and get my bearings as I stumbled up the exit ramp. The fog soon cleared as I passed through a sea of cheering fans—the same enthusiastic fans from early that morning, who had since had their coffee and were fully awake, had migrated to the swim exit. To my surprise, the atmosphere was crazier there than at the start. There were so many fans I felt like a celebrity; it seemed as if they were there just for me.

The cheers of the crowd seemed to carry me to the bike tent, where I changed out of my wet clothes and into my bike gear. As long as the bike ride was, I knew it was my strong point. My plan was to conserve energy and eat enough calories to ensure I would have the energy needed for the marathon. I finished the bike portion feeling strong and confident.

The final leg is the marathon: the start of the real challenge. Any Ironman finisher would say that the race truly begins with the start of the run. At ten hours into the race, it was time for the hard part. I was trying to suppress the thought that I was not a particularly good runner. Blocking that doubt and conquering the wall that I would inevitably hit was essential for my victory. My head was down as I concentrated on keeping my pace and putting one foot in front of the other. Only seven hours of pain separated the old me and the new me.

The first six miles went as expected. My legs felt good, and energy levels were still high. Each rest stop allowed a quick break and a moment to take down fluids and food. Miles six through ten, however, brought challenges. My legs became sore and stiff. My walks lasted longer, beyond the rest stops. This happened earlier than I expected: my plan had been to run the first thirteen miles before the extended walking began. As I approached mile ten, I knew I was in trouble. By mile fourteen, I could barely walk. Doing the math in my head, I realized I had exactly four hours to walk twelve miles. Twenty-minute-miles were doable, but that wouldn’t be enough. To beat the seventeen-hour cutoff, I had to walk at an eighteen-minute-mile pace. The clock was against me, and my legs did not seem strong enough to save me.

At that point, I was certain I would to fail. A wave of embarrassment and depression swarmed me. There were so many friends and family waiting and watching. Those not onsite were using Ironman’s online tracking system; they would see me fail in real-time. I didn’t belong with these athletic people—who was I kidding? I was just a guy who lost a bunch of weight and tried something stupid. There was no new me. Despite those feelings, however, I continued putting one foot in front of the other.

Mile fifteen called for a quick stop at the facilities. I thought that maybe if I sat down for a couple of minutes my legs would refresh a bit. When I came out, to my surprise, I found my wife looking for me with a huge smile on her face. She had walked from the finish line to find me. When she saw my defeated eyes, though, her smile turned to a frown. She hugged me tight, gave me a kiss, then—as all good wives do—proceeded to rip me a new one. She wasn’t about to let me quit. She reminded me that we hadn’t come this far just for me to quit. My orders were to sink deep into the pain cave, move forward, and gut this out. Game on, old me.

I realized then that when you reach the pain cave, you have to commit yourself to the pain that lies ahead of you. The worst part is yet to come. The only thing you can do is bury your head in the pain cave and come out the other side. Remember, you asked for this; it didn’t just appear.

The next couple of hours were a blur. My legs were numb, and my brain was fried. I must have looked like a zombie. I felt like I was stuck in a black hole. The only thing I concentrated on was my pace and that beep on my watch as each additional mile passed. I rounded a corner and saw a bright billboard with my name emblazoned across it. Beside my name were encouraging words and… “Oh, my God,” I thought to myself, “I am a half-mile from the finish line! What time is it, what time is it—how much time do I have left?” Only forty minutes left until the midnight cutoff. I was going to make it! Admittedly, I cried—right there, a half-mile from the finish.

I limped across the finish line like a king, feeling as great as if I had won Olympic gold. The finish line was packed with spectators, but I only saw one. I hobbled over to my wife and fell into her arms.

Hello, new me.