Running to Pain

There's actually a named phobia for the fear of pain. I guess that makes me feel better?

A few years ago I discovered one of my biggest weaknesses as a runner. And no it isn’t hills or being afraid to compete or anything like that (which are all weaknesses of mine, just not my biggest weakness by far). My biggest weakness is my fear of pain. I’m afraid to hurt. If I see pain coming my instinct is to make it go away. I’m not sure it would be obvious to anyone who knows me. I think people think I’m strong and tough, but deep down I’m a mega-wuss. But there’s a reason for it.

There’s a bike path I like to run on. It’s mostly flat, it’s quiet and not too far away. On a typical run there I park my car in the parking lot and run up a few rolling hills to the main path. I pass a mile marker and then in a mile and a half I remember something I always seem to forget when I’m not there. I see the sign. I feel a heaviness come over me. I’m about to enter the township where my dad drove his car over 25 years ago and shot himself. Ouch. Typing that hurts.

A bridge in the heart of THE township.

Back when I originally discovered my fear of pain, I don’t think I’d ever run on that path again once I saw that sign. But since then a lot’s changed: I’ve learned to confront that which threatens me. As I pass the sign and enter the township I always say, “hi dad” out loud. Instead of avoiding him I visit him and allow myself to miss him and feel the pain. It’s taken me a long time to get here.

He died when I was 11, almost 12. It was a long time coming and I knew that. He had struggled with crippling depression for most of my life. I remember the very early years when he was better and played with me a lot. I actually remember those years better than the years that came after. Children have a way of protecting themselves.

One of those happy times I cherished and still do.

I think worse for me than the actual suicide was the way my family reacted and the effect their reaction had on me. I do not blame anyone for anything and I understand everyone had the best intentions, but for me my family’s insistence on stoically moving forward as if nothing ever happened denied me a chance to grieve. For years, until my early 30’s, I did not grieve my father. When my family pretended it didn’t happen and refused to acknowledge my feelings of pain I internalized it all and ended up believing something was wrong with me. I was flawed because this happened. I was the problem because I couldn’t move past it like everyone else.  I would remember things like his tropical fish dead in the basement because everyone ignored them after he died and I’d feel incredible shame and guilt. I’d remember hearing him crying and talking about killing himself when I was home from school one afternoon and he didn’t hear me come in the door and wishing I would have gone downstairs and told him how much I loved and needed him. I’d remember hitting my sister because she wouldn’t listen to me when I was trying to parent her at 12 years old and completely incapable of functioning myself and feeling like I totally failed her.

So I’d push the memories away. If my dad popped into my mind I’d think of something else. When things reminded me of his absence I’d hate those things: stupid dad-celebrating sitcoms and father’s day come to mind.  I carried incredible pain deep in my heart but in my refusal to dive into it and deal with it weighed me down and made me angry, so so angry.

"Bite me DJ Tanner," I can imagine my 14 year-old self thinking. Image via

This deep unresolved pain hurt me enough, but the loss of my dad that no one seemed to acknowledge caused so much more heartache in my life than just the loss itself. As my mom worked full time and tried to get on with her own life, I was on my own for most of my adolescence and had very little in the way of life-training. How I longed for a dad to teach me things like how to balance a checkbook, make decisions about college, and pick quality boyfriends. These are just a sample of the many many things I’ve had to figure out on my own and I’ll tell you, without an adult walking you through these things you tend to make bad decisions!

After each bad decision I’d figure out something new and I slowly slowly learned how to cope. I struggled through my 20’s but just as they came to a close I met my now husband and things started to change for me. I saw a therapist who helped me become strong enough to face my pain and at the age of 32 as I planned my wedding and dealt with the gaping lack of a dad–seriously, planning a wedding is very tough when you don’t have a dad! Any time my wedding called for my dad to play a role I left a hole. I walked myself down the aisle. I didn’t have a dance with anyone other than my new husband at the reception. But to get to the point that I could do this I had to face what I’d been running from for over 20 years.

Walking myself down the aisle. One of the happiest sad moments of my life!

I went to the cemetery and I had a talk with my dad. I let myself acknowledge all that I missed about not having a dad. I imagined what life would be like with a dad. I let him and the pain into my life. And it was much easier and hurt way less than I thought it would. After the initial OUCH it really felt good to go there. And now when I miss having a dad or am reminded of my dad I picture him with me and what he might say and really explore what I’m missing and in doing that it feels better. It’s true.

Running from the pain of my father’s death was worse than his actual death. Not entering those feelings of pain, not accepting them and reveling in them caused me years of needless anguish. And now as I think about that I think about running and racing and how the feeling of pain of putting it all out there pales in comparison  to the pain of wussing out and wondering what could have been. Sure dead dads and racing are totally apples and oranges, but there is a major parallel here: I trained myself to be an expert pain avoider and now I must retrain myself to be a pain seeker if I want to even approach my potential, both as a person and in this sport I love.

And just like  letting the pain of the loss of my dad into my life wasn’t nearly as ouchy as I feared (and in fact felt good), going to the wall and really hurting in races is the same way. Last fall I went for my sub-3 marathon goal even though I felt pretty crappy from the start. I had faith in myself and my training and I wasn’t afraid of the pain this time. I ended up bonking and having a miserable jog of shame to the finish and it hurt. It hurt bad. But, it hurt way less than the hurt I would have felt if I wussed out and avoided the pain.

It’s definitely a process. It’s going to take practice, but I’m excited to see where this new path takes me.

I would like to thank my sister, Cinnamon for being the best friend I could ever have and for being there all these years and forgiving me for being a terrible 12 year-old surrogate parent (especially for how I did your hair for your second grade class picture!)

I would also like to thank Ginger for giving me the courage to share my own dad story. Thanks, girl!

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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Wow. That’s quite a story and a level of pain I can’t even imagine. I think you’ve made remarkable progress throughout this. I love how running has tied into it all, too. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story!

    1. Thanks, MIss Z. Probably the single greatest thing about running is how it intersects with life and teaches us so much about ourselves!

  2. Suicide is just the worst, as you know i know these feelings as well. Everyone loses their parents at some time in life, but to lose them in this way just leaves such a gaping wound. I always sit there and think, especially now that I am a mom – wow he chose to leave me behind, how in the world could he do that. I too think of him when I run, it always hits me on long runs. I talk to him in my head as I tick away the miles. Before he left this world, he sent all of his kids a card, they didn’t say much, but my card had Mickey Mouse on the front and the saying in the card was – It seems like one thing, but in fact it’s really two, I think of you a lot and I think a lot of you – I find myself repeating that in my head on especially difficult runs, kind of like a mantra. I feel like a stronger person though b/c of it, to survive that sort of loss and come out on the other side and still be okay, says a lot. Wonderful post Salty and it reminds me of why I found you all those years ago! The first time you wrote about your dad I reached out to you since we had an unfortunate common ground.

    1. I’m glad you’re my friend and it’s always comforting to know that someone else can relate at least a little bit to this stuff. Hope your Father’s Day is a nice celebration and not too full of sadness this year!!!

  3. I thought for sure I’d be able to read this without tears since I know your story – boy was I wrong. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing. You are an inspiration.

    1. I remember when I first posted about this on my personal blog and how supportive you were. I’ll never forget it! THANK you for being there all these years!!!

  4. I remember you saying something about what happened when we were in Latin class one day. And, for some reason, I thought you were younger when it happened. Maybe it was the way you mentioned it because I thought you had lots of time to be able to talk about it with out breaking down. It was something I couldn’t imagine going through. Then, when you started therapy and blogged about it, I was floored that it had only been a few years before that day in Latin class.

    It has been amazing to “watch” your journey through your writing.

    Father’s Day is a jumble of emotions, I’m sure. I say, take a run on that bike path and celebrate the strength you have found.

    1. When I was a teenager it felt like this huge secret and every once in a while it would ooze out all nonchalantly. I like that plan for Father’s Day, but besides making some peace with my dad I also have real celebrating to do now a days. It’s still not my fave holiday, but it’s nice to actually have a reason to celebrate it, at least a little bit!

  5. You gals keep making me cry this week! Hugs girlie. Very proud of you for taking the time to emotionally deal with this and post it.

  6. Thanks for sharing Salty! You are very brave and I’m glad you found a way to write it…and in such a beautiful way.

  7. I remember you sharing this with me when we were newly friends in high school after a track practice one day. I thought you were (ARE) so brave. I was relieved to know I was not alone. My dad had Bipolar Disorder. I’m glad he never owned a gun. When he was low, he was really low. I had a wreck-less disregard for my own safety in my adolescence (and 20s) partly from the lack of parental supervision. I had an older sister who tried to parent me- bad plan! It is very hard to deal with the cards you are dealt with in life. You have overcome a lot, Salty.
    I’m off to run my practice 10K time trial before it gets too hot outside- I love Thursdays!
    Hugs from “the Nati”- Heidi
    Important resources:
    National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK
    National Alliance on Mental Illness

    1. Wow Heidi. I had no idea you had your own issues at home. I know your older sister and can picture her trying to keep you in line 🙂 I also went through a reckless phase after high school and into my early 20’s so can relate to that! It’s funny how through all of that we both came back around and became athletic professionals. Must be more than a coincidence! Hope your TT went well!

      PS Thanks for adding links for those mental health resources!!!

  8. It takes strength and risk to process this in the way you have. Yes, running and the rest of our lives joys and pains are always entertwined. Thanks for putting yourself out there.

    1. Thanks, Mark. You definitely know about that intertwining as evidenced by your book! I loved the story and really enjoyed relating so much to the main character in a novel. We’ll have a book review coming soon 😉

  9. This is such a moving, beautiful, honest reflection. I am at a loss for words. You are such an inspiring, positive, beautiful, and strong woman, Salty. Thank you *so* much for sharing your story with us.

  10. A very heartfelt post, Salty. Reminds me once again of the lessons we learn through running and the life lessons that translate into running. Xoxo.

  11. Gorgeous post. My father died when I was 11 as well, and I experienced many of the side effects you describe. There is peace though, if you go on the quest to find it; which you did. I did too. Here’s to us.