The Power of Suffering

Posted by on Aug 11, 2016 in Running | 4 comments

The Power of Suffering 

Thanks so much for inviting me here to talk with you today.

Special thanks to New York City Marathoner Kirsten for the invitation. 

Today I would like to talk about … The power of suffering! 

Now I understand that the first thing people think about when they think about suffering is listening to a presentation so I’ll try to keep this as painless as possible and keep the suffering to an absolute minimum … but I hope by the end of this you will have a much clearer idea of the power of your own suffering and how it can make you more successful… 

the dictionary definition of suffering is :- the bearing of pain or distress

So here’s the first question …

who’s travelled from Brisbane to Sydney or Sydney to Brisbane? 

how long did it take you?

I assume that was flying?

who has driven from Brisbane to Sydney ? how long did that take?

has anyone cycled it?

has anyone run it?

does anyone know the distance?

Well I can tell you the exact distance is … 949.5kms 

I know this number because I ran it in 12 days in June this year and broke the previous world record of 15 days …  


Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.15.45 AM

As you can see, this is a screenshot from the fitness application strava … does anyone else use strava here? ok so you know that if it’s not on strava then it didn’t happen! … I had several different runners accompanying me at different sections of the east coast between Brisbane and Sydney but if anyone was in doubt, here’s the proof  … 

Starting from the first day at the bottom, I was running around 80kms per day which was around 11 hours of running per day.

For anyone that checks out the elevation you can see that the first couple of days were quite hilly.

When people hear about my long runs, most people tell me I’m a little crazy or they tell me I’m a freak … my usual response is, “I just love to run!” … to me running long distances is my favourite activity … I love the feeling of making progress using only my body and moving under my own steam … when you run, you are constantly moving forward, making progress, sometimes that progress is fast, sometimes slow but you’re constantly moving forward.  


There are moments when I’m running that are incredibly special to me … There are times when I’m running through a beautiful landscape in Australian bush or chasing the moon through the trees at night that I feel Euphoric, completely blissed out, almost like I am born to run … sometimes I have out of body experiences and incredible transcendental moments where I discover truths about myself and my life. To me running is what I was born to do. I am a runner to my core and it is a daily activity that I cherish. 


But of course, despite my absolute love of running, completing an almost 1000km run from Brisbane to Sydney in record time involves some inevitable pain and discomfort …  


it’s not always blissful and euphoric ha ha … there are times when I hate running, when I’m full of despair and frustration … there are times when I’m exhausted and I feel that I can’t go on much further … sometimes I swear a bit, sometimes I am unpleasant to run with, especially on the hills … and sometimes I suffer more than I even thought was possible … 


and sometimes you can see the pain and discomfort in my expression … and sometimes these embarrassing photos get shared on facebook!  


Can someone tell me why I do this agin?? 

So the real question is … When is suffering a good thing? 


Well in my opinion, we humans are built to suffer … I believe it is only through incredibly challenging struggles that we overcome and invent new methods and new solutions. 

In my running I’ve learnt that suffering is often the gateway to incredible personal development. Suffering is our first port of call on the way to an incredible epiphany or new breakthrough.

So the answer to When is suffering good is simple … suffering is good when it’s over!! 


So lets consider some examples of this in our own lives … what’s on the other side of suffering??

Everyone in the room … just for a moment, could you please think of your proudest achievement …

Now as soon as I say that I’m sure there’s some of you thinking about your children and becoming a proud parent. For all the parents, I’m sure you’re very proud and your kids are wonderful but I bet with that particular achievement you’re probably still struggling. Being a parent involves lots of stages of being proud, then suffering again, then being proud again … it’s an ongoing timeline … probably a bit like a long run from Brisbane to Sydney. There’s suffering and joy at almost every stage …

Whatever achievement you have in mind right now, I bet any money your proudest achievement was the hardest thing you’ve ever done … I bet before you achieved it, it was challenging right down to your core … some of the most rewarding moments often involve digging deeper than you’ve ever had to go …  


So what does this show us? 

Suffering and hardship often lead to rewards, personal growth and fulfilment … 

Now this may not be true in every example but certainly in the Western World, most of our problems are first world problems … that is, more often than not, we are struggling with work related problems and family problems instead of struggling with basic needs like food and shelter … this doesn’t mean are struggles are less important or that they’re easy, it simply means we have a great opportunity.

The opportunity we have is the opportunity to struggle and suffer for something that will make our lives even richer. We have the opportunity to struggle with something we will get some reward from.  


I look exhausted in this photo. But it always helps to run with a man with a beard. Men with beards always give legitimacy to your endeavours!! Thanks Tim Locke!!

So now we understand that suffering leads to good stuff … what do I do to get through suffering?? … well the first thing I do, is I don’t trust my brain when I’m tired!!  


When long distance runners get tired, usually during events lasting longer than 24 hours of continuous running, they often experience seeing hallucinations. These hallucinations can seem very real. Runners call these “the sleep monsters”


When the sleep monsters arrive and I start to see these hallucinations created by my brain, there is also another part of me that knows my brain is not always right.

I know the sleep monsters will disappear eventually if I’m patient and wait for my energy levels to recover.


I often say to myself, “this too shall come to pass” 

The Sleep Monsters are only temporary and my brain can’t always be trusted to give me the correct information.

Another technique I often use is considering the difference between physical pain and emotional pain.

Physical pain is all relative.


There are many times on my run when my legs are hurting or I feel like I need to sleep or rest. Sometimes the mental pain and struggle I go through during the tough races is intense. So much so that many runners describe long distance running as “Type 2 fun” … in other words Type 2 fun is when it’s fun AFTER the event instead of during it.

What I’ve learnt over the years is physical pain can usually be overcome and we can actually suffer and struggle a lot more than we realise.

The Navy Seals call this the 40% rule … 


now I’m clearly not muscly enough to be a Navy Seal and I’m definitely a runner and not a swimmer but this concept can teach us a lot about being successful.

The 40% rule states that when you are totally done and at your wits end and you don’t feel like you have a drop of energy or enthusiasm left, that usually means you are only 40% done … it sounds crazy but I’ve tested this rule extensively over the last 12 years in long distance running and I believe it’s true!!

Often during my runs when I will feel completely destroyed. When I’m an emotional and physical wreck. A shell of a human being … If I can push through that feeling, sometimes as quickly as 10 minutes later BOOM!!! I’m running feeling great and back on track again. I think of this as re-incarnation. I’ve died many many times on my runs, only to be  re-incarnated several times over.


What I’ve learnt from this experience is the difference between physical pain and emotional pain.

Paper cuts hurt right? … running a marathon hurts … cycling to work can hurt … having too many deadlines can hurt … even listening to a long presentation can hurt … but if someone tells you they don’t respect you any more, or they think you’re doing a bad job … or they don’t want to be your friend any more … this cuts far far deeper … emotional pain can cripple you in a way that physical pain is rarely able to … emotional pain can leave you stuck in your tracks.

As a result of this understanding between physical and emotional pain, now I embrace the physical pain.I’m ready for it and I anticipate it’s arrival. I invite physical pain into my runs. Physical pain is a friend that helps me move towards the moments of re-incarnation and total bliss and I would much rather have a little physical pain in my life than emotional pain … so to me physical pain is not such a big deal.  


I think people are afraid to suffer but personally I feel I have a good relationship with suffering. If nothing, if I’m totally crazy, then at least I have some great stories!!

Here’s some strategies I use to make friends with suffering and get success in my running 

When I’m suffering there’s two words I use for success … SHOW UP!!!

We don’t always want to be there and the dread and fear can be crippling. Just focus on those two words. SHOW UP … Often just showing up physically is 95% of the challenge. Once you’re there then you’ll forget why you were ever so worried.

A bit like this presentation today. That was easy! 

Another strategy I use is the concept of being the hero in my own story …

I use this one a lot. I like to think of myself as the hero in an ongoing story with me overcoming all of my obstacles. There’s a story of how I want things to go and I choose to write myself into this story as the person that can make it happen. Sometimes becoming the hero can take a lot of time and effort … there’s a lot of patience with your circumstances and with yourself … but I believe, on a long enough timeline, that anything is possible … and when the moment arrives and you are victorious and you get that big win, the feeling is second to none. Visualise that moment of you as the hero conquering the mountain against all odds. Even though everything is against you and you’re the underdog, take the steps you need to make it happen. Amazing things happen when you’re the hero!  


Another thing I do regularly is set goals for myself. I try to set realistic goals but I always set some unrealistic goals too!!

I love setting goals but it’s easy to restrict ourselves or limit ourselves by creating goals that are too easy. I set myself 10 realistic goals every year and then I also set myself 3 completely over optimistic, life changing galactic goals too. The unrealistic goals should be something awesome that you’re passionate about and will get you out of bed in the morning to chase a dream. If I achieve just one of these unrealistic goals then I’m over the moon. Make sure you set at least a few crazy goals every year. Even if they are crazy and unrealistic, you never know your luck in the big city!! 

Finally, break down your challenges and your suffering into manageable chunks

When I think about running from Brisbane to Sydney, even though I did it and broke the record, it still seems impossible … but if you break it down, I can run 10kms, then another 10, then another 10. If you break my runs down into small manageable chunks then anything is possible.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was built!! 


Thanks for your time 🙂 

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  1. What a well organized and well written presentation Joe. Really interesting and thought provoking. I am going to think about the suffering I go through with migraines from a different angle.

  2. Joe that is the best bit of writing ever. Thank you thank you. Xox lindsay

  3. These are wonderful insights about suffering and how to embrace it. You are going to be as super a dad as you are a runner.

  4. aww thanks so much my American family. We can’t fail to be good parents with so many wonderful people supporting and routing for us. Thank you so much for your lovely comments 🙂

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