I was never a runner. I have always been active, always in motion but was never a runner. As I look back on my childhood, every memory I have of running ends poorly.
I remember running the obligatory 1 mile in gym class as a child. By ¼ mile in, I inevitably had to stop, heaving and gasping for breath. The remaining ¾ miles was an embarrassing combination of running/walking/stumbling until I finally finished, usually minutes after the rest of my peers.
I also remember playing soccer. I loved soccer. I loved the dribbling, the kicking, the scoring. I hated the running. They tried me first at midfield, position that involved the most running. Let’s just say, that didn’t last long. I moved on next to play forward (a little less running) and finally back to a position on defense (the least running, except for goalie which was already taken) and still was panting and miserable before we hit halftime. By high school, I threw in the towel, quit soccer forever, and moved on to volleyball. At that point, I was convinced I was not meant to run – ever.
“If you want to choose the pleasure of growth, prepare yourself for some pain.”
– Ritu Ghatourey
Fast forward 30 years later and here I am, a runner. I have now run 5 half-marathons and more 5k and 10k races than I can remember and you know what? It still sucks. It’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and it never gets easy. My experience this past weekend only served to carve that truth even that deeper in stone. Yet, I still run. Of course the obvious question, and one that I get asked over and over by friends, family, and strangers alike is “WHY?”
Why in the world would I choose to do something that is so downright painful? Well, the reality is that one of the reasons I run is because it is uncomfortable.
People often talk about the value of going “outside your comfort zone”. That sounds like tipping your toe in the water. I would argue that for true growth, you not only need to venture outside of your comfort zone, but reach out and embrace discomfort.
3 Types of Discomfort: Physical, Social, and Emotional
For me, there are 3 types of discomfort when I am in a race: physical, social, and emotional. Now, this perspective on discomfort is based solely on my experiences. I am sure if you read the scientific literature, it is a gross oversimplification of the concept. However, for me, I can neatly divide up my discomfort into each of these 3 buckets.
The first type of discomfort is what I call “true” physical discomfort. As a runner, you get to experience plenty of this type of discomfort. Your muscles hurt, your lungs burn, you feel overwhelming fatigue, and on and on. Some days it feels like with every mile you log, you also log a new ache or pain.
The second type of discomfort is social. This is the discomfort felt when you have to engage and interact with other people. Now for some, this doesn’t qualify as a source of discomfort at all. Actually, for many people, social interactions are a source of great pleasure. For me, however, this is definitely an area where I struggle.
Running, by nature, is an individual activity and can be a great fit for individuals like myself that battle with social anxiety. However, on race day, running definitely becomes a community event. Hundreds of people packed in at the start line, hundreds of spectators lining the course, and hundreds more race volunteers and staff. Just thinking about that many people raises my anxiety level into the red zone.
The third type of discomfort is emotional. As an individual with anxiety and panic disorder, I find that most of my emotional discomfort has its roots in fear. Irrational fears play on a continuous loop in my head as I run. Will I disappoint my friends and family if I miss my goal time? How will I cope with the embarrassment if I don’t finish? What if I have a panic attack in front of all of these people? These fears of judgment, inadequacy, and embarrassment all vie to overwhelm me as I race.
Discomfort: Perception vs. Reality
I experienced all 3 three types of discomfort during the half marathon. Looking back on the race, I can start to put my feelings of discomfort in better perspective. Let’s explore my perception of discomfort, or fear, versus the reality.
Fear: This is really going to hurt.
Reality: It really did hurt, but only for the last 5 miles.
In the half marathon this past weekend, I experienced plenty of physical pain. By mile 8, my right foot was throbbing due to a very unfortunate crack it took to bookshelf a few weeks before. Good news, the bookshelf was fine. Bad news, my foot… not so much.
As the miles past, the pain layered on, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I reached the finish.
Fear: I am not going to be able to deal with all of the people.
Reality: It wasn’t as bad as I thought.
I always struggle at the start line when everyone is packed together. In a race, runners line up according to their predicted pace, the fastest in the front of the pack and the slowest in the back. I am neither particularly fast nor slow, so I usually line up right in the middle. Perfect for me from a racing perspective, horrible for me from an anxiety perspective. So this time, I tried a new strategy, I started in the back. No crowd in the back of the line. I felt good and relaxed at the start. I probably added a minute or so to my time starting behind the slower runners, but it was worth it.
Fear: I am not going to hit my goal time and I will disappoint my friends and family.
Reality: I didn’t hit my goal time and nobody cared.
I am very fortunate to have wonderful and supportive friends and family. As I crossed the finish line, I had a 10-person cheering section getting me through those final few steps. I was greeted in the finish area with hugs and high-fives. The rest of the day was peppered with texts from friends congratulating me on the race. If anyone cared in the least that I didn’t hit my goal, they certainly didn’t show it.
Fear: I am going to have a panic attack and embarrass myself in front of all of these people.
Reality: I had to stop running for several minutes at mile 10 because I felt a panic attack coming on, but I got through it. I don’t think anyone even noticed.
When I “hit the wall” around mile 9, my anxiety began to skyrocket. I knew my hopes for a personal best were gone and I worried I would not be able to finish the race. My anxiety started to build upon itself as my fears played through my head. By mile 10, I felt the telltale signs of a panic attack coming on – dizziness, nausea, and cold sweats. I knew I needed to stop the escalation of my anxiety. I stopped running, breathed deeply, and thought positive thoughts. Two minutes later, I was feeling better and started back with a slow jog, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.
Why Discomfort is a Powerful Tool
I don’t think anyone would argue that experiencing discomfort is not a pleasant experience. At the time, it feels downright awful. But when it’s over it is truly liberating. So, what happens when you allow yourself to be uncomfortable?
You Learn Patience
Discomfort is a temporary state.
You Gain Perspective
Discomfort allows you to reframe catastrophic thinking. Whatever your fear, things usually it isn’t as bad as you think.
You Learn to Cope
Discomfort is unpleasant. As human beings, we are designed to want feel pleasure to minimize unpleasant sensations. When we are uncomfortable, we develop new strategies to deal with the discomfort.
You Grow as a Person
Embracing discomfort gives us freedom to try new things, meet new people, and expand our horizons.
Next time you feel uncomfortable, don’t run from the feeling – reach out and grab it. I promise, you will be happy you did!
Lesson 2: The Power of Gratitude