Inside the Pain Face

Thomas Voeckler with the Pain Face

This post is going to be a community effort – in other words, at the end of the story, I need your own contribution on this subject -but first, read on.

Recently, while suffering mightily in a race, I actually pondered the question, “What do other people think about in competitive events when they are suffering?” Apparently, I think about blogging. But not just this, I was trying to stay focused, maintain my breathing and be aware of my body to see where/if I could either save some energy or be more efficient at my max for the distance. But all of this only goes so far, at some point the other stuff creeps in; doubt, anxiety, longing to be finished, and fear of being caught. From my years of being a competitive athlete, I know that all this stuff needs to be managed.

What seems like a lifetime ago, I was a young road racer living in Davis, California. One spring I did California’s Visalia Road Race in a full field of 100 plus riders. Alone, with about 8 miles remaining and one big climb, I got away from the group. There, on the last climb, I realized that all my training was for this moment, and we don’t get them so often.

I’d spent the winter riding obsessively, also alone, in miserably wet, foggy and windy conditions of California’s Central Valley. I vividly remember days riding on partially flooded farm roads, where each pedal stroke dunked my foot in brown water. I can still see the rain drops as they dripped from the rim of my hat while I sat changing a flat tire with soaked, wrinkled skin and numb fingers in the muck on the side of some country road. It was no surprise I was the only one out.

In Visalia I managed to stay away, I rolled over the top of the climb and began my descent knowing I had a chance. Inside my head came the voices, “A chase group is coming”, “They are better descenders”, “They are closer than you think”, “How will I keep it together for the flat section to the finish?” This is the stuff that needs to be managed. “Fuck all that, this is why I spent all those hours sitting in the rain and wind.” For perhaps the first time in my life, I was 100% focused on what I wanted, everything else dropped away. Inside my Pain Face was one thing only, determination.

At the bottom of the descent I took the last right turn wide, got out of the saddle and started sprinting the final section of straight road through a corridor of orange trees. Ahead was the finish line and some audible cheers from the meager crowd. With 200 meters to go, I looked back over my shoulder to see the chase group in full pursuit. Every rider was out of the saddle sprinting towards the line. My Pain Face turned into something else when I looked forward again, I was crossing the finish first. From not having anything in my head to having it all, that moment is mine.

Still in a full sprint, I did something that surprised no one more than myself. I didn’t stop, I kept going, straight to my little white pickup where I jumped off my bike, threw it in the back, grabbed my hidden key, jumped in and sped away. What could have been my first big victory salute on a finish line was saved for the privacy of my own car. Maybe I wasn’t ready to get outside my head, I wanted it all to myself.

Ultimately, unless you are a professional athlete, the outcome does not matter – what matters is what goes on inside your head, for that is what you really experience.

My Question to You

What do you think about at times like this? You ultra runners… what are your thoughts at mile 80 when you’re hurting and full of doubt? Or, the ski mountaineering racers on those long and painful climbs when there are someone else’s ski tips on your tails? And you bike racers in a break wondering if everyone else hurts as much as you do as you rotate through to the front? What goes through your head? Are you focused on your body? Managing the stress? Thinking about ice cream? Or are your thoughts scrambled, a little of this, a little of that?

Please, for all you athletes regardless of what you compete in, leave a comment here and let’s hear your thoughts.

Thank you in advance to those the contribute.


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Comments 17

  1. Post

    I’ll go first to kick things off…
    I’d like to say I am a focused athlete machine, but it is certainly not true. My thoughts are all over the place; from current pain levels, to nagging doubts and fears to songs in my head. At a recent ski mountaineering race I remember thinking a lot about how cool it is to hear people screaming “allez allez” and hearing cow bells being rung. At one point I remember having one of those drool strands coming down from my face that I quickly wiped away – then I thought about how easy it was to wipe it away yet you still see them a lot on people.
    Like this rambling comment, that is what is inside my head. Scrambled thoughts.
    Mostly, what I want to think about is nothing at all.
    But is it truly possible to be empty? Just performing?

  2. The time I really suffer, I think about nothing … or better I just don’t have time to think at something. It’s like my brain is totally empty and I just ride/race unconsciusly.
    It’s like some cells switch off the brain black-box so that I will not remember anymore the pain I do to my body in that moment, and that’s maybe the reason why after a tough competition at first you say NO MORE! But the year after you are again at the starting line.

    Of course there are exceptions. Interesting is that if you think about something during this moments, this will stuck in your brain forever. I remember here my first mixed road race with pro’s and Elite cyclists. I suffered …. oh my God how much I suffered and I had this only thought: “Chamomile tea!” (Don’t laugh) I finished the race, after it I stopped to the first bar and had around 1 Liter hot chamomile tea (and it was August with 30°C).

    And now, if you will see me after a race drinking chamomile tea you will know I really suffered!

  3. Great post, Dan. I took the headline literally and immediately thought of what I do in Bikram yoga classes: I look in the mirror and try to relax my face as much as possible and concentrate on balance. I don’t think it’s possible to be truly empty and focused, at least not for a a few seconds. The longest days I have in the mountains, I usually concentrate on the task at hand as much as possible, but a lot of the time I’m thinking about coffee or ice cream, or taking off my heavy boots, or whatever I’m going to do when I get done.

    1. Post

      Brendan, I remember hearing a long time ago that if you focus on your face, relaxing it, and even getting a real smile to spread from time to time, it allows your body to do its thing with less stress. To this day I still practice that when I am really hurting and the focus on the facial muscles does seem to help.
      Igor – I do remember the chamomile story. Here’s to some chamomile days in May!

  4. Heh, this is a great post, Dan!

    If a longlonglong run starts to become hard, I find myself focusing obsessively on all the forms of ouch that I’m feeling:
    “Oh my god, my hamstrings are gonna come undone.”
    “Jeez, I don’t think I’m actually breathing anymore. Is my face blue?”
    “If I died right now, that would be okay.”
    “Why do I do this to myself? Why, WHY?!”

    But, if the hardness doesn’t stop, a transcendence occurs where I don’t feel or think anything anymore. The physical discomfort and the mental anguish over said discomfort melt away into numb nothing. I do nothing to facilitate this except for just continuing to run. It’s like floating or flying or taking mushrooms or perhaps what purgatory is like.

    I suspect these are all survival mechanisms of evolutionary origin, but they remind me that the human body is a miraculous organism. I can’t wait to read what others say about their “pain caves.”

  5. It is funny that I was just asking a friend, future teammate, Sari Anderson, who is a very successful athlete, and mom what she thinks about when the going gets tough in a race. Is it what we are going to make the kids for dinner tonight or what? I think in almost every ski mountaineering race there is a point where I ask myself, “what am I doing?” It hurts, it hurts a lot, and often I want to quit. My most recent race where I came 2nd in the French nationals there was a pain barrier for sure. I thought a lot about when I gave birth to my 1st child, a very long long labor, a lot longer than an 1h45 min race and how it this race was nothing compared to that 19 hr journey. For me it is really important to keep a positive and clear mind, and avoid the negative distracting thoughts from creeping in. I have little mantras that I say in my head to keep my rhythm and cadence, like “go mommy go!” or “You are strong, fast & light.” or “never give up!” It is not often in races that we feel amazing, or in the “zone” as they say, but I did have that experience once this year and it really was amazing to feel really good in a race. I think we all want to have that feeling more often. And yes, I would love to hear what others think of in those tough moments. Surely the mind is stronger than the body in many ways.

  6. Great topic, especially as I raced Visalia a couple times myself (and have the woulda coulda shoulda regrets to prove it!)

    One of the reasons I prefer straight up road races to time trials is that I like the protagonist-antagonist struggle of a mass start. The direct competition actually quiets most of the chatter in my head as I am focused exclusively on riding as strongly and smartly (relative to the competition) as I can.

    In a TT I’ve historically been, simply put, a total headcase. No matter how how strong I am, I never feel like I am going fast enough, which sets of a cascade of negative thoughts. Everything from “this sucks!” & “how could I have ever thought this was a good idea?” to “I suck!” and in between. I’ve actually started revising my training plan in my head…in the middle of a TT.

    So after reading a book or two on mental toughness, I now just keep repeating a simple mantra in my head: “keep the speed up, on the edge” The edge is the burn at the top of the quads and if I’m there then I know I know I’m going as fast as I can and the rest will just have to take care of itself.

    And I used to never know what to say when watching a cyclist suffer in a race where I’m a spectator until I was watching my brother do a TT last season. When he passed me, pain face in full bloom, I shouted “later on you’re gonna wish you had gone harder so do it now!”

  7. I am by no means an accomplished athlete; I’ve done some races but never beyond middle of the pack. I really don’t have any great racing stories. The closest association I have to this post comes from my job. I’m a wildland firefighter in California. For the most part, this is a fun and exciting career. There are times, however, when you find yourself questioning your sanity. When it’s 110 degrees outside and you’re wearing 2-3 layers of full-length protective gear with 60 pounds strapped to your back and you look ahead and see only smoke and flames and you form your plan of direct attack. That’s the easy part, the part you’re prepared for. The Pain Face comes right in the midst of the coming minutes/hours. When it’s now hotter because you’re close to the flames, when the smoke is suffocating and your eyes and throat are burning. Tears, snot, sweat, and drool pour uncontrollably down your face as you struggle not only to breathe, but to advance the hose farther because the faster you get this over with, the sooner you can breathe again. The sooner the fire is out, the sooner the pain in your legs, chest, and arms will cease. But you can’t just block everything out and push forward, that’s how people get killed. You have to look ahead and know what you’re getting into, then look behind and make sure there’s not fire creeping around, then right, then left. You continue to charge ahead while you’re mind is racing: what’s the fire doing? Where’s it going? Am I being effective? Is there any aircraft coming? What’s the weather doing? What is my crew doing? Who just said what on the radio? And all this time you’re still nauseously choking in small breathes with blurry eyes and burning quads amid a 130 degree smoke screen and hoping to God there isn’t a whole lot farther to go.

    Then the main fire is out. The adrenaline starts dying down and you look back at the direct result of all your hard work and think “I’m never letting the rookie make chili-cheese dogs for lunch again. Ever.”

  8. Dan,

    Great post here and am really enjoying the comments, I think you’ve opened a Pandora’s box for endurance athlete discourse, my how we do love to talk about pain.

    Pain is a dance of beauty and the beast, passion and science. Have plenty of the first, and understand the second.

    The truth is that when I am “in pain”, I am the happiest, this is the place where I take my body to its limit. The release comes in knowing there is no harder effort possible for my body in that moment. When we train and race, there can be an anchor of expectation, analysis, and judgement. However, when the needle is pegged, and there is no more room to go harder, any negativity, doubt, or worry simply drops away, because in the pain cave, and the pain face, there is no room for these emotions, or to remember how many switchbacks are left until the top of the Giau, fortunately there are signs to remind you all the way up…

    As athletes we are surfers on a wave of our own making, the more we train, feel pain, and understand its role in sport and how it serves us in life, the longer we are able to ride, finding balance, excitement, freedom, and appreciation for the wave and the craft.

    I like to imagine a deftly handed surgeon, with a sharp blade, severing the pesky link between my brain and the rest of my body. The human brain requires around 60% of our available oxygen, so by imaginarily cutting the link I increase available oxygen for my legs and simultaneously decrease the thinking part of things, which is not useful in the pain face since by this point all body movement is instinctual and embedded deep in muscle memory.

    More science has shown that pain and pleasure are almost identical in the brain. I welcome the pain like a scantily clad lover, eager for the arousal, heavier breathing, taking off the clothes and the layers, starting to sweat, ceasing to think, enjoying the dance, and finding a rhythm of body and breath that even a falling building would not interrupt. The more I welcome it the more I can tolerate, physically and mentally, because I have come to enjoy her seduction, and how I feel when we’re done.

    And, from Arnold Schwarzenager years back, you must take the minute to watch this clip, his talk, logic, and look of pure joy on his face sums it up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMjG2s6UOaw

    These moments become etched in our memory, whether from a race or in training, vacation or a spirited commute across town.

    Lastly, I know that as an athlete I am fortunate enough, physically, financially and lifestyle wise, to be able to CHOOSE to put myself in a situation of discomfort. There are many for who the choice is not voluntary, and for which the pain can be life-long.


  9. Toward the end of an ultra or a long day in the mountains, I almost always have my headphones on, listening to metal or something high-energy (e.g. Rammstein). When I’m not thinking of maintaining my pace or not tripping, my mind usually latches onto different things for a few seconds at a time. I may focus on the music, or a snippet of imaginary conversation, or some other more- or less-inane thought. When I do not have the headphones on, I often recall a short musical clip and imagine it on repeat.

    In an ultra, I focus on my eating and drinking schedule. In the mountains, I take in the scenery and look for good shots. When I can, I often also calculate my average speed, time left, time to the next milepost, etc.

  10. Dan, I was definitely not trying to figure out what other were thinking as I was suffering behind you in this ski mo race recently! I was just focusing on following your skis and setting myself small goals: this spectator on the right, this tree up there, the top of this steep section… until you dropped me, centimeter by centimeter. Then it was a matter of not blowing up and controlling the guy behind me (who did blow up big time, lucky me).

    But it is definitely on the bike, my first sport, that I can push myself to my limits, especially going uphill. Probably because I do not need to think of my technique and can just focus on the feelings in my body. Sometimes I have a song in my head (a Maceo Parker tune, don’t ask me why!), sometimes I watch my computer and try to keep a certain speed or heart rate… And when it gets really tough, I just tell myself that I am doing this for fun and I am here because I want it. It helps!

  11. For me I find myself counting down from ten, a legacy from my rowing days. But I often find at the extremes of my limits I have a rhythm of a song that fits my cadence or breathing. I can’t explain it any more than that…

  12. I am a skimo racer and when ist gets really hard in competion i just think the other racers still fell the same pain inside.Ok sometimes i think what the hell im doing here,why can`t have a “normal sunday”. But this is just a moment and you have do switch back in race modus. When you in really good shape it will be a other art of suffering, a art of suffering that can be a little funny. I think the key for this “funny suffering” is how much passion you put in your sport and of course you need a very strong mind in your head!
    This races or trainings when it really works gives you special felling!
    So allways think when your sufferin behind some ski tale or in summer on the backwheel of, the guy (women) suffering too.

  13. Dan,

    That moment that you speak of, the moment of pain and doubt, I find extremely satisfying. It is the moment that tells me I am giving everthing I have to give. If possible, I dig deeper. Anything less would be a wasted effort. And to finish having given it all, no matter what placing, is the highest achievement I can aim for.

  14. You enduro people….. you need like a gazillion hours to boil it all down – such masochists. We climbers, especially sport climbers, get right to the lactic acid hurt in about 5 minutes. I personally do a lot of swearing at myself and realize how much fun I’m having. If you can just keep doing moves when you hurt and think it’s unlikely you’ll succeed, one at a time with good execution, ; you frequently end up surprising yourself and clipping the anchors. Then again you also take some really big falls if you’re in the zone and pushing through clips.

    It’s those priceless little jewels of falling into the moment, the movement, the pure animalistic go, that will clear your mind for days, even weeks, and let you take that really relaxed deep breath at the end of the day.

    Getting back to the basic and the simple for a few moments–and taking a little break from your own consciousness.

  15. This is really interesting. I’ve just started planning what cross country races I will be entering this Summer and you have reminded why I do it!
    I think the moment where you feel like you have nothing left to give and you somehow search inside yourself to keep pushing on is amazing. It’s at that point where I stop thinking, it’s a kind of meditation – I normally have some sort of mantra that I just keep repeating that fits my wheel cadence and it gets me through.
    It’s the calm at the end of the race that I love, when you know that you have gone to your limits and not given up.
    Can’t wait to start racing again this Summer! 😀

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