By: Omid Fotuhi
If I told you that someone was willingly, and regularly, inflicting pain upon him or herself, you would likely think that person was crazy. You might be surprised if I told you that this voluntary self-subjugation to pain is a well-established and commonly practiced behavior that is highly regarded by most societies in the world. In fact, I am nearly certain that you have also engaged in this practice. I’m talking about racing in sports.
Here’s an illustration. In 1982, Julie Moss—a 23 year-old college student—decided to compete in her first IronMan Triathlon as part of her research for her exercise philosophy thesis. She chose the 1982 IronMan Championships in Kona, Hawaii, to make her debut. Julie did not have any special training beforehand, and had not anticipated doing well in the race. Nonetheless, shortly after the bike portion, she found herself with a comfortable lead over all the other competitors. With only a couple of miles left to go before reaching the finish line, however, she suddenly became severely dehydrated and her body began to shut down. She persisted with what little energy she could muster, until she completely collapsed a few hundred yards from the finish line. At a time when her body had completely given up on her, her conviction remained strong. She staggered and crawled closer to the finish line—even as Kathleen McCarthy (who had been chasing Julie for most of the marathon) finally passed Julie to claim first place.
Those who have witnessed this iconic moment have commonly called it “one of the most defining moments in sports.” When she was later asked about her race in an interview, Julie said “Everyone has a defining moment, mine happened to be on TV.” Julie’s final agonizing minutes continue to inspire many triathletes to this day. Truth be told, when I first saw the footage, I felt overwhelmed by Julie’s will to overcome the tremendous physiological and psychological obstacles with which she was so visibly struggling. But why is the idea of being able to endure pain so appealing?
At this point, you might object to my suggestion that racing is some form of perverse opportunity to experience pain. Rather, you might argue that racing provides an opportunity to improve one’s health. That may be so, but the fact remains that racing is intensely painful for most people who do it. Increasingly, this experience of pain is what most people think they need to feel in order to truly be racing. Somehow people have come to believe that pain is the only path toward progress—“no pain, no gain”, as the saying goes. And so pain and physical progress have become synonymous. If you don’t believe me then take a look at the surge of new forms of races that are popping up around the world whose main theme seems to revolve around the experience of pain (e.g., the Tough Mudder). In addition to crossing a given distance in the shortest amount of time possible, many of these races also have obstacles designed to test your will to endure physical and psychological pain. These obstacles can include jumping through fire, swimming in a pool of ice water, navigating through barbed wire, or even running through a maze of electrically charged wires that literally shock your body into submission. But even without all these new forms gimmicks in modern races, enduring pain has always been an implicit part of competitive racing.
Despite this fact, people love racing. Very few people compete in just one race and then decide: “you know what, I don’t think I’m going to do this again.” Most racers are repeat- or even life-long racers. I can’t think of a single person who has competed in only one race. Can you? It’s like an addiction: once you get a taste, you’re hooked. In fact, the desire to race again is often strongest immediately after finishing a race. And it seems that the more painful it is, the more people feel compelled to do it again.
If you’ve never done triathlons, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever want to attempt to do such a crazy thing; except maybe for the most elite athletes whose livelihood depends on competing (and winning) these races. Yet, this is not the case. Hundreds of thousands of “regular” people attempt to compete in these races each year. Furthermore, rather than getting paid for it, they are willing to invest large amounts of money and time to do so. In return, they are given a completion ribbon, have their time posted on some website, and have the pleasure of walking like a penguin for a few days.
So why do we subject ourselves to this kind of pain? Why would some (like Julie Moss) even go as far as to say that these moments of pain help to define who they are as a person? Why might a depiction of such an instance of agony be deemed one of the greatest moments in all of sports?
To shed some light on this question, I think it is helpful to understand something about our evolutionary process. At the core of the evolutionary process is the fundamental drive to survive and prosper. Over billions of years, traits that have increased the chances of survival have been passed on from generation to generation. Consequently, the bodies that we have today are the product of billions of years of evolution, and as such, our body is the most amazing thing that we will ever own. Perhaps the single most impressive trait that we, as humans, have—the trait most likely responsible for our survival and dominance over other species—is our ability to change and adapt to our environment. In fact, so advanced is this trait that we have the potential to change the physiology of our bodies within our own lifetime.
Consequently, whether we are consciously aware of this or not, we are increasingly motivated to explore the full potential of our bodies. We recognize that we have access to an amazing machine, and we want to test its limits. It’s like owning a Ferrari: you can usually restrict yourself to driving within the limitations of city driving, but every now and then you will want to take it for a spin on a race track—just because you want to see how fast it can really go. Similarly, we will continue to explore exactly what the limitations of our bodies are—or whether there are any.
Arguably, today’s top athletes are stronger, faster, and healthier than ever before. Furthermore, despite arguments that humans are reaching the limits of athletic potential, world records continue to fall. In swimming alone, 9 Olympic world records were broken in 2012, even though many of the previous records were set by swimmers wearing now-banned extra-buoyant suits. How then, are we getting fitter and stronger at a seemingly accelerated rate? The answer, experts say, includes a combination of technological improvements in sports, as well as a growing percentage of people attempting a larger variety of sports from an earlier age. All these combine to give the average person the opportunity to be more active, to train smarter, and to instill in them the motivation to become more competitive.
Unlike our predecessors, we no longer need to rely on environmental factors to dictate what our physiology will be. Rather, we now have the power to pick and choose the physical traits that we want our bodies to take on. Because changing our physiology is necessarily a painful process (e.g., muscle growth results from muscle tear), we have learned to embrace pain as a necessary step in the process of growth.
This motivation to explore the boundaries of our physical bodies is likely to continue for many years to come. As such, it is fascinating to wonder how this motivation to push our physical boundaries will shape our human evolution. What’s even more exciting is that we don’t have to wonder for long: we have the opportunity to see the potential growth in our bodies within our own lives—if we are willing to endure the discomfort of change. And there is no better stage to test the potential gains of your training than during races; much like a race track allows you to see how fast your Ferrari can go. Go test your Ferrari.