Willingness to Suffer

The typical interview question will go something like this: “So why do you think you are successful in obstacle racing?”

Might as well look good doing it
Might as well look good doing it

It’s a question that has given me pause, and has stumped me for as long as I’ve been hurdling over walls and throwing myself under barbed wire. I typically will stumble through it with some answer about a mixture of speed and strength, and how you need both in obstacle racing.

However, it took me a 2014 CrossFit Open workout for me to finally realize the answer to the question that’s been there all along:

I’m not the fastest, and I’m not the strongest, but I’m REALLY good at suffering.

Perhaps almost too good.*

The ultimate in suffering
The ultimate in suffering

By way of illustration, let’s take CrossFit. Putting aside all the arguments for and against it (NOT going there…just…not…step off that Rogue soapbox), it constitutes the bulk of my training for obstacle racing. And for the past two years, I’ve competed in the CrossFit Open (which, by the way, there is nothing that will make you feel like a more mediocre athlete than to measure yourself by a score against the world’s top CrossFitters…but I digress).

Anyway, just like with races, I shine at long, high rep, panic-inducing WODs. Give me short and heavy and I die. My Olympic lifting form is wonky, I have a unsteady right shoulder from years of softball and rotator cuff abuse that refuses to lock out in heavy overhead lifts, and I blame my puny squat numbers on extremely awkward and long femurs.

I am, by all measurements, an extremely mediocre Crossfitter (sorry – “CrossFit athlete”). But with two workouts in this year’s CrossFit Open – the first and the last, I excelled, even with a max snatch and a max thruster 50-75% of the most women CrossFit athletes out there. So what was it about those two?

14.5'ing it
14.5’ing it

In announcing 14.5 (an absolutely awful combo of thrusters and burpees), one of the CrossFit talking heads said something about the workout being about a willingness to go to a dark place: a willingness to suffer.


What we do in obstacle racing is so much more than being fleet of foot, or having raw strength. It’s enduring the bumps and the bruises, the utter fatigue of a mountainous sandbag carry, or raw and bloody appendages, sometimes on an almost-weekly basis. It’s facing the unexpected and the unknown, and it’s confronting a new course every time you race with different terrain and different obstacles. It’s the mental game that comes into play in longer races, the ability to push yourself into that dark place, and to come out on the other side. It’s about testing your limits, and mentally blocking out the chatter. And it’s the willingness to go back out there, again and again, even when your body is thrashed and exhausted.

Of course, this is all fine and dandy and good to tuck away as an “a-ha”, but listing “suffering” as a strength on an application isn’t going to win you any awards. Unfortunately, being good at suffering is not going to make me that much faster. I’ve got some former road-racing speedsters I need to chase down nowadays. But I suppose if I excel at suffering in CrossFit, I can learn to suffer through speedwork? (heh…heh…)

Likewise being willing to suffer is not going to save me as I fall magnificently on my face competing at the North Central CrossFit Regionals this week (Go Team Foundry!).** But for a girl without much of a stellar athletic past, I think I’ve been surprised how much the ability to suffer can make up for the lack of other, more marketable, skills (at least for the time being).

And yes, it totally explains the Death Races. And World’s Toughest Mudder.

I’ve heard people ask: “how do I get better at obstacle racing?” Or Death Racing, whatevs. Sure, you can give answers about training and nutrition, but from my perspective – it’s the mental side that everyone should hone. It’s the setting aside of boundaries, the mental grit to not just survive, but to compete.

Bloody knees Ex. A
Bloody knees Ex. A
Bloody knees Ex. B
Bloody knees Ex. B

So here’s to suffering: I think all obstacle racers, to some degree, excel in it. Some of us may even thrive in it.*** And it explains why I never feel those damned bloody knees.

*One could argue, for example, an ability to suffer led to ignoring injuries until too late…hence, my recent months on the DL.

** And I LITERALLY will be falling my face, epically, during the max handstand walk event. And the strict HSPUs. Oh dear. Humans were not made to walk on their hands – God gave us feet for a reason. Epic dismounts for everyone! Side note – damn you, gymnasts *shakes fists*

***Now, let me be clear – I’m not advocating that being good at suffering is a GOOD thing, or a “normal” thing. It’s probably not the wisest move in terms of the whole Darwinian natural selection thing. It’d behoove most people to stay away from disease infested waters and carrying axes for 72-hrs. There are plenty of us oddballs out there to take this masochistic abuse – someone smarter than myself should probably be responsible for the fate of the human race.