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Chasing the Sunrise: Tough Lessons On Pain

A trip to the dentist teaches Tim DeBoom that there’s more than one kind of pain.

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This article was originally published in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Endurance sports are not kind to your teeth. I am convinced that is a fact. Years of chlorine eating at my enamel. Corroding sports drinks swishing around in my mouth. High altitudes expanding my fillings. And stressed-out grinding that cracks off cusps. That’s how I found myself in the dentist’s office week in and week out this past summer. I sat in that oddly curved chair, which is supposed to be ergonomic and relaxing, with sweat pooling in the small of my back. My body literally trembled as I waited for the next jolt. Novocain my ass! I was in physical pain. Real pain.

I like to think I know a thing or two about physical pain. To begin with, all pain is definitely not created equal. There is good, satisfying pain. There is bad, debilitating pain. Then there is real pain. Suffering over a mountain pass with your heart thumping out of your chest: good pain. Cramping in your gut so bad that you have to walk during a run or even stop completely: bad pain. Crashing on a descent ripping flesh from your body and cracking a bone or two: real pain.

Besides the sheer level of anguish involved, the difference between the good, the bad and the real pain is how you come out the other side. Good pain culminates with a gratifying celebration across the finish line or the satisfaction that a completed tough workout is going to get you to that next finish line faster. Good pain satiates you and leaves you yearning for more.

Bad pain can stop you in your tracks. It can even make you wonder why the hell you would ever “choose” to participate in something that could cause this level of discomfort. However, bad pain is short-lived, and you quickly bounce back. When you are forced to walk, stop or even DNF, you scold yourself for not toughing it out and immediately promise a triumphant return next time.

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Real pain is debilitating. It is transforming. You come out the other side in an altered state. Real pain can be further broken down into good real pain and bad real pain. The good somehow leaves you with a positive outcome, which, after some time, possibly makes you physically and mentally stronger.

Example: I guarantee that my wife going through the agony of labor to have our little girl would be classified as real pain. (I was there and I’ll vouch for that!) However, I can also guarantee that she is stronger today and would probably go through this pain again because of the joyous outcome. In all likelihood, this is why female athletes that come back after having a baby are stronger and tougher than ever before.

Bad real pain, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. It can scar you physically, and, more importantly, it can scar your psyche.

Example No. 2: Passing a kidney stone is usually classified as the most painful thing a man can feel. (No, moms, I’m not comparing it to childbirth.) Passing a kidney stone while racing in an Ironman surely fits into the bad—really bad—real pain category. Let’s just call it delirious pain. Again, I speak from experience. This was a pain that not only caused unconsciousness and a ride in an ambulance, but also took away my mental edge on the race course. My well of toughness got a little shallower that day, and I was never able to push myself to the depths in which I had been before. It also was the catalyst for me to never leave the house without a water bottle in hand again.

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That is how I passed the time while molded to that shockingly uncomfortable chair with my dentist up to his elbows in my mouth. I flashed back to the good, the bad and the real physical pain I’ve experienced in my life. What I would have given for a little good pain and suffering out on the race course. Even the bad pain of a full leg-locking cramp session appealed more to me than another five minutes in that chair. Passing another stone may have been a stretch.

After a month to reflect, I know it was real pain, but I am still trying to figure out if it was good real pain or bad. I know I won’t be voluntarily asking for another “crown lengthening procedure” at my next checkup, but hopefully, having gone through yet another bout of real pain, the next hypoxia-inducing climb on my mountain bike or even a skin-stealing spill on the descent won’t sting quite so badly.

Tim DeBoom is a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship and the last American to win in Kona.

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