Everyone has a different name for it, everyone has a different experience through it, and everyone comes out of it with a new outlook. Yet, what remains the same is the way there. It requires extreme discomfort, extreme physical endurance, and an extreme amount of mental fortitude to keep pushing deeper into this instead of away from this discomfort. This is the only way it can be reached. You can reach it in a marathon, reach it on a high-elevation climb, or you could reach it by simply walking a road, which is where we found it. Known throughout the endurance community, it has many names, such as pain cave, or the wall in runners terminology, or someone out there might even call it the moment of T-Pain, while singing T-Pain to get through it. We came to call it the Pain Well.
The Pain Well. It may look scary, but there is a world of beauty within, looks can be deceiving!
What is the Pain Well? Before we get into that, let us tell you how we found the depths of this never-ending well. We began our hiking season of 2020, with a quick thru-hike (thru-run?) of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. This trail system is about 444 miles~ and is almost purely all along a road system which is called the Natchez Trace Scenic Highway. We were coming out of the gates fast, we wanted to do this trail quick and we were in a time crunch. So, we set our sites on 12-14 days, coming in at the tail end of this, and finishing on the 14th day. That averages out to about 31.7~ miles a day, but within there we had (3) smaller days of 10 and than (2) 20ish miles a piece, so excluding those we were pushing around 37-40 miles a day. This pace regardless of terrain will take a toll upon anyone's body, but we had a special experience.
Our first day on trail, our mind was strong and ready, and we believed our body to be as well. We started, and did not stop hiking until the end of the day. Not one break, definitely a mistake, but we were just so happy to be out hiking again, we became lost in the sensation. This led us into about a 28 mile day, after starting mid-morning at the terminus. With the last 3 miles of this day we began to notice a tightness in our feet. We chalked it up to trail acclimation, and while uncomfortable, was still manageable to push through. We had experienced un-comfort many times before as our bodies took upon miles, this did not seem like anything new, in fact it was expected. What we did not expect however, was the intensity of the next morning.
We did not know it yet, but this sign would represent the entrance to our personal Pain Well.
Waking up around 5 A.M. thrilled for a day of more scenery, more miles, and more freedom, we shifted our weight into our feet. Alarm bells began screaming at us quite rapidly to not put any more pressure upon our right foot. We tested it, and could not even walk properly, but instead limped around camp to pack up. During this process, each small baby step around a 5ft tent was excruciating, let alone the 184,800 feet that comprise a 35 mile day, which was still on our low threshold of distance needed to cover each day. Our mind began to spiral. If we could not even walk around a 5ft tent, how could we possibly expect to do consistent 35+ miles for the next 13 days?! Trying to pull our mind out of the spiral, our tent was packed through extreme amounts of pain, and we decided we needed to walk no matter how painful. Hopefully it would be a tight muscle that would work itself out along the way. Thus began our dive into the Pain Well, every day, and every step. We still did not know what this meant yet, only near the end with few miles left on the trail, would we come to define our experience, into this bottomless well.
That first official morning of breaking camp and beginning hiking, was by far one of the most physically and mentally difficult mornings of our life. Never before had we questioned if we would be able to finish a trail. Our mind teetered on this question, but still would not go into these dangerous water, instead of will we finish, it became a question of how will we finish? We could not let our mind stray into a path of ifs but instead we had to focus it upon the how's. We had no idea how, but we did know that it would be done, but it felt absolutely impossible. It took us 3 hours to limp 4 miles this first morning. Even if we walked all 24hrs each day for 2 weeks straight at this pace we would not even come close to finishing, let alone passing out from sleep deprivation along the way. Yet, we continued, one excruciatingly painful step at a time.
Every mile marker was not just one mile closer, but even one step. We had moments of even being one step closer, made us believe we could do it, just because of that one step.
There was no reprieve from the pain. Every time the right foot fell upon the ground, it felt as if we were walking on a fractured foot. Everything hurt. We tried all the mental tricks we knew, getting lost in the trail happiness, listening to a podcast, jamming out to music, following our thoughts down whichever path they chose, but the consistency and intensity of the pain, would wash away all strategies every single step. There was no escaping it. We still had hope it would become better but we had to tuck that hope into a deep spot within ourselves, a spot that would not speak and would not mention hope, but would be there nonetheless. This would probably be the turning point for us. Knowing there were no tricks to change the pain senses firing constantly, and knowing that this would be a consistent feeling freed us. It freed our mind to know it would not go away. While this sounds scary, knowing that each footstep for 444 miles will be an extreme amount of pain, in a sense it was quite scary but also had an immense sense of relief to it. Not relief from the pain but relief from the unknown. We knew what we were in for, we knew it would be with us the entire way, and we knew we would finish with it, no matter what.
Miles began to take less time, we began to find a pace in the pain. Never outside of it, but deeper within its embrace. Each morning would still take about 3 hours of digging into our well of pain, going about a mile every half an hour, which while still faster was not our 3.5-4 mph pace we expected consistently. Yet, after these 3 hours of digging deeper and deeper, our foot would began to open, the clenching of the muscles would began to find their rhythm. We had dug deep enough into the pain well in the mornings that it had become our norm, there was no experience outside of it, we were in the well, it was our home. Like any home, you look for ways to spruce it up and make it feel satisfying. If the pain would be a constant and a given, our mind could begin to build off this base feeling, and look around us inside the well. There was a beauty in here, inside of ourselves, there was no bottom and no top to this well only sides. We would not leave it until we were done, and we would never reach the bottom, it only ever got deeper. So, we took stock and began to notice the intricacies and delicacies of each thought or each brick in our well. Tracing the lines of the moments as if they were works of art, and losing ourselves in the raw beauty of a single and solitary feeling. We would not look up, we would not look down, instead we would continue to look around us inside the well, and see each moment here as a gift to explore, a gift to really see ourselves.
Finding our pace within the Well.
One especially painful day, it began to rain upon us. Our muscles now hurt from the excursion of consistent high-mile days, but this pain was a new sensation that was more relief than despair. It mitigated the intensity of the deep overwhelming pain. When you multiply Pain X Pain it does not always equal Pain². Instead it can sometimes equal a reprieve, and a breath from the same old pain. So, our mind had a freedom this day, still within multiple levels of pain, but there was a lightness to our minds. We were pushing strong miles, but wanted a break from the rain. We found this break underneath a bridge. As we shed out of our pack and filled our water bottles, a moment washed over us. We had been fighting this trail every single step and every single moment. Constantly questioning why it continued to brutalize us every step. But not for these 5 seconds. These 5 seconds would shape the rest of our hike. It was over before we knew it, but the feeling would play over in our minds for the rest of the trail. It was the moment we would reach to as the pain wells bottom would fall out on us, revealing it was deeper every single time. You can not drown when there is a line, and this was our line. It was one of freedom, of happiness, and of an unshakeable faith of knowing we were in the place we not only needed to be, but wanted to be. We wanted to be on this trail, and if in that want, there would be only a bottomless pain well, no matter. This was our choice, we were hear because we would not be happier anywhere else, this was our happiness. Get deeper pain well, get darker, show us more of yourselves and thus ourselves, we can handle it, we will welcome it, because no matter how far you bring us into yourself, we will always have this light to break through the darkness.
It may not look like much, but this little outflow underneath a bridge, was one of the most beautiful moments of all our hikes. The beauty in a moment is in yourself just as much as around you outside.
We can only express so much for each day about how painful each step was and how painful the journey was. We wore (4) pairs of socks on our right foot, each day to make a Macgyvered cast that would constrain and hold us together, we were waking up throughout each night as our foot yelled its protest even while breaking. How sometimes a 50ft extra walk to a water source would break us mentally because it was not 50ft towards the end but "unnecessary" steps when 1 footstep sometimes was too much for us to handle, how a few 5 minute breaks were all we could do each day and how the moment before we put pressure back upon our feet was akin to having to willingly choose to jump into shark-infested waters each time, how when we got to camp each night a feeling of relief and dread would wash over us at the same time, relief just in the simple fact we did not have to walk more that day but dread in still knowing tomorrow would bring no relief and neither would the night, We can only tell you about the moments that we looked upon a mile marker and saw only endless pain in our future, how waking up to go to the bathroom each night would bring dread knowing we had to even put one footstep out the tent to stand, and having to bring a reserve of strength just for 1 single step, how our mind would wake up in the mornings knowing every moment that day would never be outside of the pain well. We can only say so much on this fact, how every single thought, feeling, and moment revolved around us and inside of us until we were done.
The 4 Socks that would create our Macgyvered Cast. Every single morning they became part of our hiking ritual.
The Cast itself. Both long socks interlayered over the small socks, and then wrapped around themselves on the bottom, to make movement of the foot almost impossible, our sock cast.
So, suffice it to say we found ourselves with 4 miles left to the end of the trail on our 14th day. We had already done 37 miles this day, but we needed to finish. Our mind and body were beyond ready. As we began to get closer and closer to the end, in our mind the definitive term for what we experienced began to take upon itself a name. It would become known as our Personal Pain Well.
The Pain Well, is a place inside of yourself. Just like a well it has an opening where you can enter at the top, but unlike any physical well there is no bottom. We realized this upon our journey, as each day our mind was fried with the mental strength to continue to go on, waking up day after day into this world. Yet, we did and we continued. We continued to go deeper into the well, every time we thought we had reached the bottom, where we could firmly stand upon our pain, it would go deeper, push us further. The well also began to take on another meaning to us, while it is called the Pain Well, there was something else in there with us. To reach into this well the entrance is pain, but to stay in this well there needs to be strength. We came to see each false-bottom as not only a entrance into a deeper realm of pain, but also an entrance into a deeper place of strength. One does not come without the other. Every time we would go deeper there would just be enough strength to reach the next level. When we got there we were depleted, with no reserve strength left to go on. Yet, that is exactly what was demanded of us. So, when we pushed into that next level, we would also find within it the strength to be there together.
The Pain Well, is a place that is earned each day. You know it is there, you know the pain awaiting you (at-least in part) and you know how to enter. What you do not know until you have been inside long enough is that you have to earn each new level again day after day. You do not start at the strength found at the deeper parts of the well each day, until you earn your way down, false-bottom after false-bottom again and again. You begin at the beginning, you work your way down, you have to continue to re-find what was found the day before. The amazing thing is even knowing that deep and bottomless strength is there after experiencing it, there is purely no way to obtain it or harness it besides starting at the beginning of the Pain Well. You have to continue to earn your strength each day, it is not a one and done scenario. You do not dig your way down through an especially difficult experience and it stays that way, the bottom moves back up and resets every morning. There is a beauty in this Pain Well. You now know it is there, and you now know parts of the journey you are going to take that day, and there is no longer a question of will you dig deep and there is nothing there besides pain to meet you? You know there will be strength, you have proven that, there will always be a companion for you inside the Pain Well, you can be confident in that. The hardest part now is to dig day after day always beginning anew.
The halfway point on the Natchez, mile marker 222~ An unfathomable amount of painful moments over, but still the same amount to come. Taking a breath and resetting the mind here, deeper into the Pain Well.
As the last 4 miles flew by, we chewed upon this fact. We had proven to ourselves we were up to the task to re-dig day after day. Now we had a name for this beast. This beautiful beast. It was a scary place to explore, but it was also extremely beautiful knowing it is always there waiting for us. Now that we knew how the well worked and the name to define it, we could recognize moments that we were here. We recognized these moments on the GDT this year in severe hypothermia. We began to look around us and no matter the scenery or physical place we were in, whether that is down on the roads of Alabama, or up in the Canadian Rockies of Canada, we found a familiarity. We had been here before, we saw the place for what is was, we were back inside the well. There was a freedom in defining the moments for what they were inside the well, and knowing with an unshakable doubt that while the journey itself through the well may take a different manifestation this day, we knew the route, we would get through, we would find the strength.
What is your Pain Well? What do you call these moments? How does your mind continue to break through day after day?
If you have not found your Pain Well yet, well let us tell you, do not be scared of it. It is there, the entrance is inside of yourself, and when you begin to explore it, there will be a raw beauty to the pain. Accept it for what it is and take your time, eventually you will find a familiarity and comfort inside, and you will be able to look around, it is beautiful. Good luck!