On Sunday I was writing an email to a friend of mine who also ran the NYC Marathon, almost a month ago now. I told her it had taken me a while to respond to her because I felt like I still hadn’t collected all of my thoughts from the experience. They are trickling in, day by day, and as they do, I think I’ll share some of them with you as well.

There was something I heard repeatedly from so many other runners; I heard it so many times that I know it has to be true for a lot of marathoners. People told me at the end of training that the hard part was over, that the race was just the cherry on the sundae, it was the reward that came with a medal at the end. Hearing this, I think I began to underestimate not only the difficulty I would have during the actual race, but also the effect that the day would have on me mentally, physically, and emotionally. You all were right–training was a whole journey within itself. I wrote about it for all eighteen weeks I went through it and I was never short on material. There was frustration and triumph and growth–and also, pain.

I know that the training led me to the race. I know it was all that hard work that got me to the start and enabled me to eventually cross the finish line. Still, the day itself was something entirely different. Things happened to me during that race. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I felt things I had never felt. Now, here I am–trying to unpack whatever all this is–Emotions? Lessons? Gifts? 

Until I wrote to my friend on Sunday I hadn’t been able to articulate one of the more uncomfortable feelings I have been walking around with since the marathon. When everyone talks about running 26.2 miles, they inevitably mention the wall–the point you reach during the race, usually between miles 18-22, where things start to feel impossible. After having finally gone through it, I now understand why accurately describing the wall is so difficult. It’s not until it’s in front of you that you fully comprehend that this is a road block you have never faced before, or even approached. Before it I thought, I’ve run when I’m really tired before, I’ve wanted to stop and then run miles past that. That’s all I thought it would be–running past what I felt like I could. I had been doing that my whole life. But this, was not that.

I reached the wall at mile 18, and ran with it in front of me all the way till mile 25. I felt all the things that everyone tells you you will. Everything hurt. No matter what I consumed my tank felt completely empty. The word ‘tired’ took on a completely different meaning. In fact I think at one point I thought to myself, you’ve never been ‘tired’ before, you need to stop using that word so often, THIS is tired. 

The wall to me felt like another world. When I recollect those miles I literally see myself stepping into some sort of time warp. The atmosphere is squiggly, I have no history and no future–only an existence in a universe I never knew was there. It was this other world that left me so discomforted. It opened my eyes to the fact that my eyes weren’t all the way open. To me, the wall was this anguishing realization that there was a level of human suffering that I had been sheltered from my entire life. My pain of course has been real, but unknowingly, I had overestimated it’s depth.

I think I’d started this realization of the different levels of pain in my normal life, but I’d largely left it unexamined. It was almost three years ago that my mother-in-law passed away rather suddenly, and I was left to grieve that loss and also be the primary comfort to my husband. So far I’d say that those couple of months have been the most challenging in our few years together. My husband was in an almost debilitating amount of pain, and there was nothing I could do to take it away from him. Most days it felt like I couldn’t even make it better.  Other days, I was sure I’d made it worse. He wasn’t himself. How could he be? For the first time in his life, he was existing in a world that didn’t include his mom. On top of all of that, we suddenly had only a couple weeks to pack everything and move into the apartment they owned together that she had lived in. An apartment we always knew would be our forever home, but didn’t think we’d move into for another ten or fifteen years. I think I called my sponsor every other day and through sobs started our conversation with the same line each time: I don’t know how to do this.

When my mother-in-law died I felt desperate and out of control, like there was nothing I could do to make the pain less. That’s how I felt during miles 18-25 too. When I trained for the marathon, I told myself all the time that pain was temporary. It’s true, it is, it was. But the race was the first time I had felt that severity of discomfort, and then had to mentally come to grips with the fact that I had to stay in that place for almost ninety more minutes. It was this impossible feeling–I was trapped in a cage, surrounded by four insurmountable walls. All I saw was steel and impenetrable darkness. Starved of the light–of promise, of hope, I began to feel weaker and weaker. I couldn’t see a way forward–yet somehow, there was something still alive inside of me that said keep going–one foot in front of the other. 

When I got to mile 25 I started to see the light again. As I approached the finish line, crowds of people, including my loved ones, cheered me in. As I crossed that threshold and was finally able to walk, the acute pain began to dissipate. I was offered water and gatorade and pretzels. Someone even put a medal around my neck.

I think I’m uncomfortable now because I’m starting to understand that there are people living in that squiggly atmosphere–that other world I only dipped my toe in for an hour and a half. A place where you fight to separate the mind from the body, a divorce necessitated by the impossibility of withstanding the intensity of all your senses together. I got to choose to expose myself to this level of pain, and I was rewarded for my bravery and endurance the moment I reached the previously known and agreed upon marker.

It’s not that I’m judging the different depths of human pain, but I am coming to understand the shallowness of my own suffering. By shallow I do not mean unimportant or not serious. I’m simply recognizing how far below me the state of the human condition has and can lie. There are men in our prison system doing 20 to life for petty drug crimes. There are refugees being sold as slaves in Libya. Rohingya women in Myanmar are being gang raped immediately after witnessing their husbands and children being tortured to death.

There is pain in this world that barely lets up–it remains acute. It’s bearers have no guarantee of a finish line. They are barely able to hope for care and nourishment at the end of their journeys; they would never dream of reward or reparations. And yet, somehow, these people still have that something inside them that whispers, keep going. They follow that bit of light–it keeps them fighting for their lives, grasping for another day.

And so while my new understanding of pain tilts my universe askew and demands that I analyze and accept the profundity of my privilege, it also rocks my world and gives me great hope. Suffering is deep. But humans are strong. 

I keep hoping that I will find out what I am capable of–before I am forced to know it.










header: cherry laithang

37 thoughts on “Pain

  1. Pingback: I’ve Got Nothin’ – cat h. bradley

  2. What a great piece! Isn’t it amazing how certain experiences in life can shape the way you view other aspects of life? I applaud your ability to analyze your painful experience during the marathon while contrasting it to the pain in the world we live.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is intense and sad. Condolences on your mother in law. Mine passed away in 2007 and I still feel robbed by her death – for my husband, my kids, myself – it sucks. As for the condition of human suffering….this is a big sticky jagged pill. I have to find balance in my life because part of me would love to join the Peace Corp and just help wherever I can. The other part of me is quite accustomed to the creature comforts including indoor plumbing, with hot showers and readily available tap water. I can sink deep if I let myself think of all the horrors in the world and that isn’t productive….so I do the things that are within grasp. I am a hospice volunteer – that is something I can handle and still maintain my family and my sanity. It’s refreshing to find someone so introspective and thought provoking who happens to write beautifully. I always enjoy your posts.

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    1. Thank you so much Bryce. Is it weird that you saying this is intense and sad is a great compliment to me? I think that is what I was going for–cause it’s how I was feeling–intense, and sad. I am sorry about your mother in law as well.
      I know you are exactly right in your talk of balance and what we can actually do to help in the world and bring down suffering. I think in practice, I am good at focusing in day by day, and being ok with only doing what i can do. But i also always feel like i want to use my voice to try and encourage other people to do the same. I don’t know that i do, but i know i have to try. The way things are going in the US, I think there might only be so long that we can turn our heads away from large scale horrible things. I hate that as a country, we might have to learn to have compassion the hard way–we might have to experience more serious pain ourselves. Time will tell.
      Thank you so much for reading and for your really thoughtful comments. I hope they keep coming! x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful and profound, Cat. Thank you. That light that helps us keep going. I think of that as faith. Not in the conventional religious sense, but more being able to hang onto the awareness that the light is there, whether or not we are able to perceive it in the moment. My sense is that this is what helps many to endure the unendurable and while changed by their experience, being expanded rather than shrunken in essence. Viktor Frankl is an exemplar of this, there are many others.

    And like you, as much as I appreciate and am stunned by the magnificent strength shown in such circumstances, I really hope I don’t have to go there in that way. My personal joke around that is that I’ve learned to read my c (cosmic) mail, so I can avoid getting hit in the head by 2 by 4’s. Not always preventable, of course.

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    1. I think I think of that light as faith too Steph. It’s something we are able to hang on to. I love how you say it–“being expanded rather than shrunken”. That is going to stick with me. I can apply it to a lot I think. When I go through something tough–is this going to shrink me or expand me?
      I am so glad you understood me at the end there–that I hope I don’t have to go there in that way. It feels good to be understood. Thank you. x


  5. Beautifully written Cat. You were able to describe your own pain journey and come out of it with an even stronger understanding and compassion for others who are suffering terribly on an hourly basis around the world. Your gratitude shines brightly lovely lady S xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Saoirse. I have to say it’s a much more comfortable place to not really understand that pain. I feel like people in my country especially would rather look away from everything and pretend things aren’t happening. Something tells me though that with the decisions our government is making, there will Be grace consequences and we won’t be able to look away anymore. Life will be right in front of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Damn Cat – I live for Fridays and you made me tear up on a Friday lol
    So beautifully written. I’ve never run a marathon but will be in November. What a roller coaster I’m in for huh? Your comparison to the real world was amazing. Make me never want to utter the words “I can’t do this” ever again. Thanks for sharing and congratulations once again on completing the race!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Cat, you are definitely in for quite a ride. I can’t wait to follow along!
      Something tells me you don’t say “I can’t do this” too often. You seem like such a “CAN DO”person. That is definitely going to help you in training and in November.
      Thanks so much for reading-you know I’m always glad to have you and your comments especially.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Erin!! I read through your marathon story last night and it made me so happy!! I don’t know how the hell i missed it–it said it was from the 13th?! I was looking out for it, not sure how that happened. Anyway, so glad to have read it–will get to commenting later but just wanted to say big congrats on #2!! x

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This was so beautifully written…I have never ran that far and I am in that place where I know pain is temporary. My heart breaks for those that do not see the light at the end of the pain, ever. Keep writing! You have earned my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Most people don’t know what they can do until they are faced with doing it. I know that when my dad was killed I had no idea that I could speak in public about such a thing, and with such passion. You will always be stronger than you realize. But that doesn’t mean you can’t know that you’re strong…just that you’ll never know HOW strong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean Dawn, and honestly I am grateful for all of the things that have happened in my life that have shown me what I am made of. I know you are right. That last sentence is kind of just an honest plea–one I don’t really want to admit. I’ve learned a lot of big lessons from events that were really really painful. It has me trying to look for the lessons and learn them without needing the painful tool. I know–life doesn’t work that way. Wishful thinking ;).


  9. This marathon may be an eye opener for me too! I try to ‘turn off’ my brain in those everything hurts moments of a race. I figure that if my body couldn’t keep going then I would fall over so it must be in my head. Great post, Cat! : )

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am anxious to see what your experience is Amanda. I think what surprised me was how I really had that “control” of my head until I got to that point. I thought I was so mentally strong–and i mean, I am, i think. Just plenty more room to grow for me, that was clear, lol.
      Hope you’re feeling good today!! x

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hit. Nail. Head. I was nodding so much reading this. Endurance events do make you realise what the body can cope with, and be capable off. We are such a strong species! We’ve had to be! We wouldn’t still be living on this planet if we had gone ‘This is too hard’ when the first winters hit or diseases started spreading. We survive. We push through.

    I do get angry and sad though when I hear people say, ‘I could never do that’. Yes you can! We are all made of the same stuff, its just finding that drive. That determination. We are all capable of amazing things, if we just try.

    Anything is achievable.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. “We are all made of the same stuff.” Hit. Nail. Head. YOU. Seriously. I think that was part of what I was trying to convey here that maybe I didn’t!
      Also LOVE that you brought up our adaptation to this planet. We survive. That’s right. We survive.
      Much love girl. x


  11. Ugh you describe how I felt for most of my last half marathon:( No wonder I haven’t run a race since!
    The human body, mind and spirit is amazing and I’m astonished daily by some aspect of it!

    Liked by 1 person

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