Last week I ran the 10,000 meter race at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The 10k is the longest race on the track, a combination of endurance running and grueling speed — it's a test of pain tolerance and mental toughness just as much as of athletic ability. To qualify for the Olympics in the 10k, it is important to become a champion of pain.
Some pain happens like butter melting on toast, a slow thing over time. Or it is quick, like butter hitting a very hot pan. Either way, at this stage in my career as a distance runner, I generally understand that I can exert myself to my absolute physical limit and I will (probably) not die. The pain I feel during a tough workout or competitive race is like an expected guest at my dinner party; I know it will be there and I am fully prepared to open the door.
When I was younger, though, I did think that running might actually kill me. I had the desire to be an Olympian but I could not fathom or agree to the pain required to get there.
As a middle- and high-school athlete, I dreaded every single race. Not because I was anxious about finishing well, but because I was terrified of the pain I would soon endure. I remember crafting a very specific daydream that I entertained before every race in which an alien spaceship landed in the middle of the track. Nobody would blame me for leaving the race and going home after such an extraterrestrial disruption. But no matter how much I fantasized, the Martians never landed, and the starting gun always fired.
I have never been able to fully recall the exact sensations of pain I felt during those races, but I do remember certain details — gestures of pain. Salt-sweat residue chafed between my legs, my vision blurred with sunscreen, and I always became unpleasantly aware of the weight of my thick eyebrows, furrowed so deeply they fused with my poorly mascara-ed eyelashes, which looked rather like charred stalks of asparagus that had been forgotten in the oven. I ran as hard as I could at the whim of these cruel intruders. My body felt like an ant farm filled with swarming creatures excavating serpentine burrows, visible to everyone through my transparent frame.
Despite days of anxious anticipation, the pain still shocked me every time it inevitably arrived. I would scold myself for not being grateful enough for all the other moments in my life spent not in the pain of a race — for every leisurely second watching cartoons, eating fried calamari, and doing anything besides running, which hurts very much.
After every single youth race ended, even when I won, my joy at finishing the race was mixed with trauma over the pain I had just experienced. I would stomp from the finish line toward my dad, who I remember as having a camera for a nose, and report to him that seriously, this race could have killed me, and I simply could not go through this again. My dad, who knew running probably wouldn't kill me, replied from behind the still-snapping camera with a proud grin that hung just below the lens. "It's OK, Lex."
When I started to race at the university level as a freshman at Dartmouth, it became clear that I needed to develop a technique to manage my negative and fearful thoughts around pain. I could no longer afford to spend days leading up to races and workouts steeped in anxiety and dread; negative thinking drains energy. Pain and I had to come to a new understanding.
It reminded me of the time I got in a fight with a girl in middle school and our teacher quarantined us in a room called "the pod" for an hour to figure things out. Just us two eleven-year-olds. My adversary and I spent a good 45 minutes in silence, unibrows glaring at each other. In the end we agreed that we didn't want or need to be friends, but for both our sakes we would be civil.