Part 2: A Marathon Without Training - Lessons About TMS / Chronic Pain
Life Lesson #2: Our Bodies are Herculean
The following is Part 2 of a 4 Part Series. See Part 1 here.
As a coach empowering chronic pain / TMS sufferers to permanently overcome their pain, part of my job is to show my clients that their bodies are infinitely stronger than they’ve been conditioned to believe. That’s why I decided to “run the run” - completing a marathon of 26.2 miles / 42.2 kilometers without training. Read below to learn my 5 keys to success, how to apply them to your life, and what it has to do with overcoming chronic pain.
Our marathon would take place in Dingle, Ireland. It is among my favorite places in the world and my home base for three months as a digital nomad. Open the back door and you’re greeted with sounds of sheep, dramatic rolling hills, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Nestled on the southwest edge of Ireland, Dingle is about as far as you can get from the hustle and bustle of Dublin. It’s a place that has drawn creatives, Irish language lovers, and blow-ins from around the world. It’s not just for nature-lovers, either. The 37 pubs in the town of 2,000 people attract all sorts of clientele.
It was on a crisp Spring morning that Luke, who was visiting for a week, and I would set out on our marathon. Our route would take us around the stunning Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula – the most westerly point in Europe, and would consist of rolling terrain and a mix of trails, beaches, roads.
At 9:01AM, we were off. As we ran out our door, down our hill, and toward the back-country roads, Luke said, “boy, this hill is going to suck on the way back.” I laughed, silently thinking otherwise. We were feeling great, chatting, and enjoying the blips of sunshine. Sunshine in Ireland? This must be a good day!
A few miles in, we were already head of our desired pacing. Pretty soon, four miles of pavement gave way to the rugged and mucky Kerry Camino.
As we bounded up the trail, nimbly avoiding puddles and rocks, I was confident that no chronic injury would befall me. That wasn’t always the case; for years, my body was my prison.
Let’s rewind 13 years to a typical Northern California summer day. But for me, this day would be far from typical. My life was about to change forever.
As a semi-professional cyclist, I was out on a training ride, cresting the final hill right before a twisting descent back into my hometown. All of a sudden, I felt a lightning rod of pain in my back. As if someone was twisting my spine from end to end without remorse. I let out an audible shriek. The pain was so bad that any movement was excruciating.
I saw a chiropractor later that week, who said “Don’t worry - two weeks, and you’ll be back on top.” But months and many attempts at treatment later, my pain was getting worse. I eventually had an MRI and was diagnosed with severe spinal damage, likely from repetitive stress. My dream of becoming a professional cyclist was over, leaving me in constant pain, bedridden, out of college, on opioids, and depressed. (You can listen to my full chronic pain and recovery story here.)
For over a year, if I needed to be driven somewhere, I’d either be laying down in the back seat or sitting on my fancy back cushion with a cut-out for my spine. Any physical activity, like walking, would require ice and heat afterward. I ate my meals standing up. I carried my portable electrostimulation TENS unit anywhere where I’d need to sit longer than a few minutes. I feared this would be my reality for the rest of my life.
I thought, based on my MRI, that my physical pain had a physical cause. But I couldn’t be more wrong.
Chronic pain is chronically mis-diagnosed as physical. (Yes - you read that right). When we have physical pain, we logically believe there’s something wrong - some structural damage.
That logic makes sense… until we look at the science. Consider that:
2/3 of people with herniated discs have no pain at all
MRIs of ankles of marathon runners without pain show just as many physical issues as those with pain
A study of demolition derby drivers showed 94% were neck pain-free, despite thousands of high-speed, mostly rear-end collisions
Despite decades of research, medical advancements, treatments teaching people to bend the right way, back pain alone is still increasing 14x faster than the population, and is the leading global cause of disability, affecting over a half-billion sufferers worldwide.
The advent of medical imaging has helped create a “social contagion” where the common belief is that our bodies are paper-mache, brittle to the extreme degree, and susceptible to any adverse movement causing permanent structural damage. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Therefore, a key to recovering from chronic pain is to perceive safety in the body, because pain is often not often representative of structural damage, but is rather a danger signal.
Meaning: The brain produces pain to warn of what it perceives to be a threat. And just like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell, we can become conditioned to experience that sitting on a hard plastic chair triggers a full-blown pain episode.
After exhausting every physical treatment I could possibly find, I turned to my last hope, what sounded whacky: that emotional turmoil, not my ruptured spinal disc, could be causing my pain.
My discovery of TMS
I read the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Healing Back Pain from Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU, who had treated thousands of patients for back pain, and proposed the definition of TMS - Tension Myoneural Syndrome. The key tenet of TMS is that symptoms in the body can be caused by emotional turmoil in the mind.
When, after deep introspection, I realized that low self-esteem, anger, and perfectionism were ubiquitous in my lived experience, my back pain went away - never to return. The same has been true for thousands of others.
I became pain free, not by healing my body, but by realizing that nothing was wrong with it in the first place. The experience left me with a rock-solid belief that my body is stronger than I could have ever imagined. It was like a secret that the universe had whispered in my ear.
Having seen my own transformation, and how my pain could move around constantly, I knew that little aches and pains during the marathon were nothing to fear. I knew that my body, like yours, is herculean.
Back in Dingle, as my feet pounded the mucky trail, the feeling of safety from my herculean belief empowered me to actually enjoy what my body was made to do. Run.
Alec Kassin is a chronic pain coach and founding partner of Changing Work.
If you’ve been suffering with chronic pain and are serious about overcoming it once and for all, I have limited slots available in my 1:1 coaching program. If you have any questions about my story or just want to say hello, you can message me or set up a free consultation with me here.