Some Field Notes on Suffering for Good
In late March I ran for 3 days straight, carrying a pack, in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas. And let me tell you—after a certain point every step feels like a kidney punch.
It’s either ironic, or perfectly appropriate, for a one-kidney guy trying to raise awareness for kidney donation, to take a constant beating in that particular spot. If nothing else demonstrates how resilient the human body is, it’s that.
That weekend I ran 71 miles, carrying a 21-pound pack, over 3 long training runs as a dress rehearsal for the first of my 4 Deserts race competitions. The first race will be in the Namib Desert, the second in Georgia (in Eastern Europe), the third in the Atacama Desert, the last in Antarctica. All beautiful, but what they have in beauty they lack in comfort. Each runner supports themselves through a brutal 155-mile race week.
So inside your pack is mostly food, some safety gear, and little else. I’ll aim to consume about 3,500 calories per day. But when you’re burning 5,000 to 10,000 calories per day, you’re starving.
In that food will be lots of salt that will promptly exit through my skin, giving my clothes the texture and taste of the world’s finest margarita rim.
That’s what makes this race so hard. You have to endure, sure, but you also have to know yourself so well that you can predict your body’s physical needs for the entire week. It’s as much about refueling as running, because if you don’t do the first part right, you’ll never get to the second.
That’s why I went to the Mojave. As beautiful as where I live in Colorado can be in March, it is certainly not desert enough weather-wise. Heck, it’s still ski season.
So I packed my bag just like I will for the Namib Desert, flew to Las Vegas, then drove out to Red Rocks National Conservation Area.
That’s where I learned I can finish this thing. It’s possible. Whereas before it was just an idea, a dream, it’s now real. Something I’ve practiced is something I can do.
I also thought a lot more about why. So on the flight home I cracked open a book of ideas on the subject, written some 2,000 years ago.
Musonius Rufus was a Roman Stoic, born about 30CE, in an Italian town between Rome and Florence. A philosopher, he was once mentioned on a list of greats alongside Socrates. So he was of at least some renown, even if he isn’t talked about often today.
He left us a series of lectures, recorded by a follower, about the types of behavior and attitudes we should aspire to in a well-lived life.
One caught my eye. I’ll relate them in selections below.
Musonius Rufus said:
“In order to support more easily and more cheerfully those hardships which we may expect to suffer on behalf of virtue and goodness, it is useful to recall what hardships people will endure for unworthy ends.”
“How much exertion [do] others expend for the sake of making a profit, and how much suffering [do] those who are pursuing fame endure, and bear in mind that all of these people submit to all kinds of toil and hardship voluntarily.”
“Is it not then monstrous that they for not-honorable reward endure such things, while we for the sake of the ideal good…are not ready to bear every hardship?”
Are we not inspired “when we know that we are suffering for some good purpose, either to help our friends or to benefit our city, or to defend our wives and children, or, best and most imperative, to become good and just and self-controlled, a state which no man achieves without hardships.”
He finished by reminding his audience that “we gain every good by toil,” and so urged them to “look upon every hardship with disdain.”
I’m no masochist. I don’t have some deep desire to feel pain. I don’t like it when my back hurts. I don’t like starving. I know I’ll miss my family terribly.
But I also know that good things can come on the other side of pain, and so I believe that sometimes running through pain is part of the path to progress.
About 100,000 people need kidneys in the United States. If 1K4D takes people off that list, it’s worth it. To suffer for good is worth it. Always worth it.