I’m often asked why I do the events that I do; why I enjoy ultra-endurance cycling given the costs in time, effort and money. The answer is simple. I want to know what I’m physically and mentally capable of – and it’s only through suffering the worst conditions that you can get a real baseline.
Suffering is something we all think we want to avoid, yet in a society with more comforts than ever before we have seen a rise in people taking part in “sufferfests” – events specifically designed to challenge those mad enough to give them a go and test what they’re made of.
Suffering isn’t just something to passively endure; it can be used productively and is an important part of living, provided we find a controlled and relatively safe manner to do it in.
When competing in 24-hour races (especially those in the winter), the scene is set for you to really test yourself. On that day, you have one mission. You have 24-hours to push yourself to a point where you throw up, see things that aren’t there and fall asleep in the snow. But it’s the suffering we remember and what keeps us coming back… even after promising to never do another!
Below are three of the reasons on why I believe it’s important to push your mind and body to a point where they are suffering.
Understanding your limit
My passion is finding out what I’m made of and what I can do on any given day – not just for the days I’ve trained for and not how I perform relative to the next guy.
When undertaking events like this, you find out how much pain and suffering you can take and keep ploughing on through. You’re able to push through your pain barriers and – regardless of how delirious and sleep deprived you are – you keep riding.
At the end of the race you’ve learnt something. You’ve gained a real insight into what you’re like in a truly raw state and you know that no matter how bad it got, no matter how much you were suffering, you shook it off, dug a little deeper and carried on. You learnt that suffering is temporary and you’re better off for having gone through it.
Sounding masochistic enough yet?
Brain-drugs – exercise and pain
The brain has many tricks to keep you going and to make you enjoy the exercise, regardless of how much pain you’re in. This includes two of the main hormones the brain and body produce to get you through the thick of it: epinephrine and the endorphins.
Epinephrine is the scientific name for adrenaline and is released both during exercise and when you’re stressed. It readies the body for action in several ways, including increasing blood flow to your muscles and increasing your blood sugar level.
The adrenaline rush you get before taking on something as stupid like an ultra is huge!
You feel like your veins are on fire and you have a ton of energy. You can’t wait to start, even when you know how much pain is coming your way. When the pain kicks in, you keep getting topped up with a little more adrenaline; getting you ready for the next punishing hill, tricky descent or even to get you up again after the next crash!
When the pain really starts kicking in, the body reacts again, but this time with endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers. While reducing the sensation of pain, they also make you feel better about literally everything else! Interacting with the opiate-receptors in the brain, they make you euphoric. That’s right – you can get high on the pain and suffering itself! They are not only incredibly strong, non-addictive, pain-killers that act like morphine, they also come with a ton of other long-lasting benefits. They reduce stress, boost your immune system and even release more sex hormones!
The concoction of chemicals your brain produces after experiencing pain is good for you in amazing ways and you’re probably going to feel great long after the initial post-exercise high wears off. The euphoria you feel immediately after really pushing your limits is all-encompassing. It’s a state of blissful relaxation that you can only get after pushing your mind and body to a point that you’re suffering.
Whether it’s finally nailing a technical section of trail you’ve been trying to get right for a while or coming to the end of a long cycling tour, there’s a real sense of achievement when you finally accomplish something you found difficult. To an extent, the more difficult you find it and the further out of your comfort zone you are, the more rewarding it is!
What most people try to forget is the hardship that got you there. Would it have been so fulfilling without having had to slog it out in training and endure the crashes and pain? No, the amount of suffering is often used as the metric of how much of an achievement something is.
While it may not feel like it at the time, it’s always worth it for the sense of having achieved something great!
Suffering sucks – no doubt about that! But our relationship with it is a lot more complex than that. It gives us a sense of achievement; it gives us a baseline of what we can do; it proves that we can get over things we weren’t expecting; it makes us stronger – and it even gets us high!
The positive effects of ultra-endurance cycling, and suffering in general, last far longer than the time we endure it. So next time you’re suffering, realise it, acknowledge it… and know you’re better than it. You will win – you did last time and you will again!