After watching a movie like Unbroken or reading a book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I try to imagine how I would cope with ongoing physical hardship. Would I be able to endure it? I hope that if my life depended on it, I could summon the strength. But who am I kidding?!? I’m a wimp. That’s why the psychology of physical toughness fascinates me. What drives people to push past pain in the name of sport?
I’d like to think that I have mental toughness. I’ve faced down situations that were emotionally and mentally challenging. Generally, I’m calm in a crisis. But I’m the last person who would seek out physical challenges.
Hike 10 miles uphill on a tough Rocky Mountain trail? Well, maybe if I were lost and that was the only way to find civilization. And civilization included a lengthy massage and fine cuisine.
Take a 75-mile bike ride? In my case, that would take days, not hours. Perhaps if I was guaranteed to win an all-expense paid trip for two to Paris I could push myself to do it.
Run a marathon? As in pounding the pavement, sweaty and delirious for 26 miles? I can’t imagine what would drive me to run that long. Even if a rabid mother bear was chasing me, I gotta think she’d get tired after a mile or two. And I would have collapsed and the bear would be snacking on me, so perhaps that’s not a good example.
I’m not knocking athletic efforts.
I know a number of runners, hikers, distance bikers, and others who like nothing better than testing their mettle. I admire their ambition and focus, but I truly don’t get what makes the hardship appealing.
As soon as I’m panting and my muscles are burning, I think, This isn’t any fun. Why am I doing this? I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.
I’m curious about the psychology of endurance.
The will to stay alive drove Louis Zamperini to endure horrible conditions. Cheryl Strayed was troubled and her self-imposed hardships were a way of gaining perspective and finding peace. If sheer survival or recovering from emotional trauma isn’t the motivating force, what drives distance runners, bikers, hikers, and other endurance athletes?
Fitness? That’s certainly a worthy goal, but you can be fit with a whole lot less effort than what’s required to train for and run a marathon. Plenty of people (like me) just work out or take an exercise class. I exercise because it’s good for weight control and my overall health, but aside from the health benefits, most of it isn’t that enjoyable to me.
Pleasure? I’ve read that runners, hikers, bikers and others who practice endurance sports get into a groove and experience a mental high. At some point the pain of exertion must diminish. I assume the sport must begin to feel good. I’ll have to trust you on that, since it’s never happened to me!
Certainly, the view you’d see after hiking to a mountain’s summit would be breathtaking. Maybe someday I’ll actually find out . . . but whenever I’ve hiked in the hills (and really, we’re only talking about a few miles at the most), I spent most of my time looking at the trail and figuring out where to place my feet so I wouldn’t trip over a rock or twist my ankle.
A sense of accomplishment? Obviously. If I could do any of the endurance sports I’ve mentioned, I’d be proud of myself. Is the sense of accomplishment enough to sustain you and drive you while you’re training? Because I have so little experience with it, I’m curious about people who say, Yeah I hurt, but I’m gonna get up tomorrow and hurt some more.
Maybe my klutziness has prevented me from discovering the joy of physical hardship. I can walk . . . and well, walk. If I sneeze while walking I have to come to a full stop to blow my nose. I can’t do both at once. I’ve never been great at any sport, let alone the ones that call for endurance. Perhaps if I weren’t so awkward, I’d begin to enjoy sports and then doing A LOT of something would seem fun.
For now, I’ll stick with my basic exercise—walking a few miles daily and doing yoga. But I’ll be cheering on all of you serious athletes and liking your Facebook photos of cool accomplishments. Athleticism is a nice place to visit even if I don’t want to live there.