“Pain is weakness leaving the body!” Marines cherish this mantra—it’s a boot camp standard, a maxim that motivates soldiers to push their bodies and minds. Physical and mental discipline come with training: the strength to go beyond a threshold of discomfort into definite pain, to sustain that effort, and to triumph over adversity. With every passing moment of agony, weakness evaporates. The soul learns to relish challenge and accept the consequences, however extreme.
Unofficially, this phrase is attributed to Tom Sobal, a championship snowshoer who seeks out impassable trails and ultramarathons. A resident of Leadville, Colorado, Sobal lives under “rugged” (read: minimalist) conditions in the mountains. For Sobal, austerity and asceticism lead to a stronger self, a spirit capable of sustaining and surpassing bodily pain.
I first heard those words not at basic training or at 10,000 feet of altitude. I was 13 and in eighth grade, struggling to get in football season shape. Suited up in shoulder pads and helmets, my teammates and I crouched on the field, struggling to catch our breath. Coach Battle, a perpetually scowling man with a bucket hat squashed over his bald head, ran the practice. At his command, we rolled onto our backs and prepared ourselves. Leg lifts are an abdominal exercise designed to inflict the most pain possible—cramps radiate up the belly and obliques all the way into the shoulders, a throbbing ache that intensifies into searing radiation burns. Thirty seconds, a minute passed—when the mind detects discomfort, time extends indefinitely as the psyche narrows its focus entirely on the region of suffering. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” Coach Battle yelled, and we collective groaned, anxious for relief. But we didn’t give in—we endured. As an eighth grade, I learned that the body’s reserves of strength stretch down into a deep core, a hidden place somewhere between the heart and the spine. Discipline means becoming a mental machine, unstoppable even under seemingly insurmountable stress.
In 9th grade, I relearned the definition of pain during two-a-day soccer practices. After morning track work and afternoon scrimmages, I wanted to retreat under my blankets and never emerge. Then, however, I’d feel a sudden clenching in my stomach: an insatiable hunger emerging from the anesthesia of August heat. I would eat half a rotisserie chicken, mounds of Rice-A-Roni—that saline, brown, textureless manna—and the occasional broccoli floret. Nothing satisfies a hungry, pained body more than hunks of white meat glazed in fat and dressed-up in herbed skin.
As I prepare for my second marathon, I feel the need to fulfill those primal cravings—to pick apart a chicken carcass with my teeth. This Thursday, I enjoyed a half rotisserie chicken, yellow rice, and fried plantains. And some grilled veal heart for good measure. I remembered that the pain we feel is only our bodies, minds, and spirits growing stronger. Weakness loves the flesh. Weakness wants to embed itself in our bones, nuzzle up between our sarcomeres, and replicate in our genetic souls. The soreness of quadriceps pounding Central Park pavement, blistered toes and exhausted legs that won’t take another step; the mind that won’t quit, the spirit that won’t say no to another mile. We must draw upon that deep core of strength, keep running on the promise of rotisserie chicken and Rice-A-Roni for lunch. This is how we move forward.