Human Limitations, Physical Pain, and the Indomitable Human

Why do humans push themselves to their physical limits? Let's ask.

Disclaimer: This short essay contains a bit of exercise jargon in the beginning, but please stick with it. Group participation is important here.

Dante’s Workout (Or the Fresh Hell of 21.2)

Last week, in my forty-third year of living, I attempted the hardest workout experience of my life, one Dante might have included in his Seventh Circle of Hell. The workout, known as 21.2 in this years CrossFit Open, contains a good bit of jargon, but for those interested in the particulars, the rep scheme was as follows:

  • 10 dumbbell overhead snatches, followed by…

  • 15 burpee box jump-overs, followed by…

  • 20 dumbbell overhead snatches, followed by…

  • 15 burpee box jump-overs, followed by…

  • 30 dumbbell overhead snatches, followed by…

  • 15 burpee box jump-overs, followed by…

  • 40 dumbbell overhead snatches, followed by…

  • 15 burpee box jump-overs, followed by…

  • 50 dumbbell overhead snatches, followed by…

  • 15 burpee box jump-overs.

    Twenty minute time cap.

I entered Dante’s Seventh Circle unwittingly, unaware of just how difficult it’d be. And when I’d finally traversed the fresh hell that was 21.2, I writhed on the rubber tile, temples throbbing, lungs burning, legs swishing from side to side as if the motion might keep me alive. That post-workout pain—the sort where one believes his lungs might exit his bowels—lasted for nearly five minutes. When I could finally stand, I was nothing short of embarrassed. I’d taken myself past what I thought were my limits, and for what?

In the hours that followed, I found myself returning to the experience and asking myself the most obvious question: Why had I voluntarily taken on so much pain? I’m not training for a competition. There was no payday (not even a donut) waiting for me at the finish line. What’s more, I’d chosen to endure this particular regimen even though I’m not one you might call a “Physical Specimen” in any classical sense of the phrase. (In fact, a friend once told me I had “the body of a writer.”) I’d subjected my four-decade old body to a form of physical torture knowing the only reward was the satisfaction of having finished before rigor mortis set in.

Perhaps I am a lunatic.

Since that workout, I’ve been contemplating the purpose of pain, and not the sort that comes with a broken foot or broken heart. Instead, I’ve been mulling the pain we shoulder voluntarily, the kind that comes as a sort of discipline. I’ve been contemplating the shouldering of physical pains others might consider extreme.

The hundred mile ultramarathon.

The CrossFit two-a-days.

Scaling El Capitan.

Peaking every fourteener in the Rockies.

Why do some of us have such a hankering for hurting? For voluntary pain? And could this hankering have something to teach us?

Pain, Human Limitations, and Indomitability

I have come to relatively few conclusions. This is a new area of exploration. But I’ve formulated at least one hypothesis: There is something in us that longs for indomitability. And contrary to historical sociological tropes, this is not a “man thing.” This is, in fact, a human thing. (The women in my gym, for instance, endured the same pain, crushing my time and ego in the process.)

The indomitable urge—where does it come from? Does it come from the desire to be limitless, eternal? I don’t suspect so. After all, we all know we’re from the dust and to dust we shall return. We’re all going to die, which is to say our bodies will catch up with us at some point. In other words, the desire for indomitability and the pipe-dream of immortality are two different things.

Even more, does this sort of pain relate only to physical exertion? I don’t think so. There are some who engage in 40-day fasts as a form of body discipline. Some learn to regulate their heart rates through hours-long meditation sessions. Some endure cloistered solitude for weeks (or months) at a time. There are different physical limitations, each of which is pushed by some human who lives just beyond the bounds of normalcy (or sanity). This intrigues me.

I’m setting a new course of exploration. Namely, I’m beginning an exploration of those who are committed to pushing the edges of human limitations. I want to learn from them, emulate them (even if in the tiniest ways), and strengthen my own commitment to excellence because of them. There is only one problem: I need to find them.

Would you help me?

If you know someone who is pushing the outer edges of human limitations, please respond to this email. It might be your local adaptive athlete who, though wheelchair bound, never misses a day in the gym. It might be your local ultramarathon hero. It might be a meditative monk or a spiritual pastor or an insane free climber. Help me find these people, understand their stories, and learn from them.

In the months (maybe years) to come, I’d like to synthesize these stories so we can learn just how capable we are, regardless of age, ethnicity, ability, body functionality, spiritual background, or neurotypicality. Interested in exploring with me? The inbox is open. Share away.

Additional Inspiration: Running 100 Miles and 21.2

Enjoy this short film about ultramarathoner Billy Yang. And for an appreciation of the difficulty of 21.2, watch Tia Clair Toomey kill it.