The length of a race’s “home stretch” comes down to the competitor, not the course. It’s proportional to the amount of pain you can read on a runner’s face.
For someone who still looks strong in the final strides of a marathon, the home stretch is so short it’s hardly worth mentioning. You might hear the odd “She’s in the home stretch!” from an excited aunt on the sidelines, but it’s typically not something said in the presence of fast people.
Slowpokes like me hear it all the time, though. At the 2013 Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon, I was told I was in the home stretch a full 10 miles before the finish line. “Hang in there,” a runner consoled me, unconvincingly. “You’re in the home stretch. You’re almost there. You’re gonna be … OK.”
His words were plucked straight from the dialogue of every war movie ever made, the part when the medic rushes over to the freckle-faced corporal who stepped on a landmine/took a bullet for his buddy /saved his platoon by falling on a live grenade.
“I’m done for, Doc,” gasps the dying soldier.
“Everything’s gonna be just fine, Jimmy, ya hear?” the medic sobs, knowing full well that Jimmy’s a goner. “You’re gonna be … OK.”
I felt every bit the goner Jimmy was, but unluckier – at least Jimmy didn’t have to finish this stupid marathon. I wanted to stop. Every bit of me was pained and exhausted. If it were possible to run away from my own body I would have, but for the fact it would have involved more running.
It was a lousy race. I shuffled across the finish line in the worst time I’d ever clocked. And I dragged my brother – who was bent on us crossing the finish line together – down with me.
But it was also a great race. In that final miles of that run, consumed the whole time by the fantasy of being anywhere besides where I was, it became clear to me that I wasn’t just feeling pain — I was suffering.
Ending suffering is at the core of the Buddha’s teachings. But that’s skipping ahead to the good part. The first step is understanding what suffering is.
Pain and suffering had always been the same thing in my book, not that I spent much time contemplating either.
Feeling trapped on that race course helped tease the two apart. The physical discomfort was bad, but nothing compared to the mental anguish I was adding to it by clinging to the fact things weren’t going my way.
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” It’s one thing to read it on a Facebook status, quite another to feel it in your bones.
The Buddha suggested it’s helpful to investigate our suffering, however slight or severe, and not just on a superficial level. The more solid a grasp we have on it, the clearer we can see how our choices contribute to it and what our options are for reducing it.
A runner’s suffering doesn’t compare to something really heavy-duty, say, getting walloped with a cancer diagnosis. That’s something I haven’t had to cope with. It’s tough to imagine how difficult it is to see any degree of choice in that kind of situation.
Perhaps it’s the optional, arguably trivial nature of long-distance running that makes the choice involved in suffering clearer. It’s a physical activity that so often begs the question: “Why the hell am I doing this to myself?”
For those with an interest in Buddhism, that’s one of running’s hidden perks. It’s a shortcut to suffering. It offers endless opportunities for seeing how we make ourselves miserable.
My favourite way to ruin a run has been to get caught up in the clock. A couple years in Jordan, Ont., I ran my fastest 5K yet, shaving more than a minute off my personal best on a glorious spring morning in the company of friendly, enthusiastic runners. And still, the whole day sucked, because I finished 18 seconds slower than the arbitrary goal I’d set for myself. Everything I knew about Buddhism at the time came from kung fu movies, so I didn’t think to look closely to see if perhaps my ego, not a pair of slow legs, was the problem.
And I’m really ripe for suffering when I can’t run at all. Being sidelined with an injury can quickly give rise to the delusion that I’m a qualified physiotherapist, that the stress fracture the doctor showed me on the X-ray is really a pulled muscle, and that I’ll be back on my feet in two days if I keep doing those new leg stretches I just invented. So I ignore the reality of my situation, head out for a jog too early, collapse after six steps, and end up taking three times longer that I should have to heal.
Engaging in Buddhist practice hasn’t magically flushed delusion and thoughts of ego from my mind. If anything, I notice them more. But getting better at recognizing them as they arise has helped me see how I contribute to my own suffering. At the very least, really tough days on the trail don’t torment quite as much as they used to. I still try to run through the pain when I can, but I’ve found it’s worth staying present for the suffering.