A Surprisingly Rewarding Relationship with Pain

by Whitney Dean

I used to run. I ran and ran myself down and ran myself into stress fractures and muscle deterioration. Then I found cycling. I road biked mountain canyons, cyclocrossed obstacle courses, mountain biked single tracks in the hills. I cycled until a few car strikes and wrecks took me out of the game. I almost lost my mind waiting for my body to repair itself and learned that the chronic pain of recovery far exceeds the acute pain of trauma. Soon, though, I was introduced to the sport of CrossFit, and I fell in love with suffering all over again.

CrossFit, a fitness regimen of intense interval training, body weight resistance movements, and Olympic weightlifting, the philosophy behind all of which asks why not just develop strength, agility, skill, and concentration as evolution has designed us to do?

Here, I’m a natural.

In CrossFit there’s a popular expression that you’ll pass out before you die, intended, of course, to motivate athletes to push through the discomfort and pain of fatigue. Not joint pain or injury, but the agonizing I’ll never make it pain of looking up at the clock and realizing I’m only halfway to the end of the workout. It’s a great sentiment, a solid affirmation that here on the competition floor, I’m just getting tired. In sports psychology it’s called mental toughness. In psychiatry it’s called resilience. In medical science it’s called threshold and tolerance. 

A coach once told me it’s all in my head.

"No pain face,” he shouted above the music. “Stop with the pain face."

With his hands he stretched the creases out of an imaginary face in front of his own. Pain face: the unattractive thing I do when I scrunch all my suffering to the center of my face and stop breathing. 

The evolutionary role of pain in my life that must be navigated daily is taxing. The success of my athletic training regimen is contingent upon my willingness to tolerate pain past the point of threshold. That’s approximately six days a week, often more, that I challenge my body’s relationship to my mind simply by picking up a loaded barbell one more time, despite my certainty that I’ll fail the attempt, knowing the next attempt will fail, then, impossibly, picking it up again. There’s feeling like I’m going to die and there’s knowing that I will.

Still, I know I will pass out before I die.

12 minutes to 5RM HBBS
2x5 @ 80% of above

For time:
50 Thrusters 95/65#
*EMOM 3 burpees over the bar

*RX+ = 115/75# for thrusters