on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the magical threshold of endurance

When I first set up my mastodon profile I wrote an introduction toot. I didn’t think too much about it, preferring to write whatever that came to my mind feeling true about me at that moment. Part of it said: “recently i’ve gotten into cooking and running – they both require endurance“.

Upon writing it I felt like I’ve touched upon something that greatly resonated within my self. I realised activities that bring me a deep sense of presence and groundedness are those that require a cultivation of endurance. 

It is the enduring of slowness, or rather of things happening rather slowly. I definitely had some form of attention deficit which is a long-running source of frustration for me because I had difficulty waiting for anything. Since life is a lot of waiting, and waiting is a torture, life became a torture. 

Some people deal with this by filling up their mind and time with more and more things so they will never have to experience even a split second of a pause. Isn’t that the attraction of the infinite scroll?

I was like that too, and probably still would be if not for my health. I was also increasingly aware of my mind getting more fatigued and frazzled. Why wouldn’t it be after being bombarded non-stop with information that I mindlessly consumed because I couldn’t bear the thought of facing the starkness of an empty moment?

I discovered the subtle joy of endurance by accident. I picked up both running and cooking for health reasons, not because I wanted to have endurance. Both activities felt like torture at the beginning stages, and I stopped doing them so many times throughout the past decade or so because I didn’t enjoy them at all.

But I had many accidental stepping stones along the way. Doing food delivery, learning to meditate, cycling, etc – things that require the practice of waiting. I never managed to have a regular meditation practice, but every attempt chalked up experience points. We forget that failures contribute to the learning process. There is something magical about the way our skills improve on a subconscious level.

We’re never the same person each and every time we pick up something we’ve previously failed several times. But our minds believe we are, so we tell ourselves: why bother to try again? I guess this is why physical exercise can be so life-changing. The point of exercise above a certain intensity is to fail – failure is what that brings progress. Once we realise and truly learn this, we are able to look forward to failing and not associate it with negative feelings.

This is the most obvious in strength building, but also plainly demonstrated in endurance exercises. As a beginner runner any amount of distance will cause distress and pain, especially if we don’t know how to run. It was unenjoyable for me for a very long time over several attempts, and I believed runners were masochistic. I remember the very painful soreness of my muscles – heck even a 2 hour hike caused my muscles to be sore for days after, that was how unfit I was. Every time we attempt a longer distance it brings forth feelings of failure: fatigue and distress. We may end the run feeling defeated, like wow that took so much out of us, is it even possible to try it again? But without the willingness to endure these feelings and sensations, we will not be able to experience the reward of going the distance.

I thought the point of running is to build up a tolerance to that sort of physical discomfort. I think that is still true to an extent, running does become uncomfortable after a certain mileage regardless of one’s fitness – I am sure it can be quite uncomfortable to run a 100km ultramarathon. But after building a certain level of aerobic fitness there is a magical threshold where running feels effortless, therapeutic and joyful. An experience I would never have had if I didn’t try and try again.

Sometimes after a stretch of joy there will come a period of boredom that comes with monotonous repetitive motion. I look up and I see a stretch of pavement that seems to go on forever. That sight can be daunting: everything seems to pass so slowly, there is still so much distance to cover, my mind is so bored. Then, there is another magical threshold where the slow passing of time becomes a peaceful stillness like I am in another world where I am part of the world and the world is part of me, that same never-ending stretch of pavement invokes feelings of: wow I wish this would never end.

image of a pavement that never seems to end
wow when is this going to end vs i wish this would never end

That’s the thing about activities that require endurance. They will feel tedious and frustrating at the beginning, or they wouldn’t require endurance. There is developing the endurance for the activity itself – i.e. enduring the fatigue of running long distances or the monotonousness of chopping vegetables, and then there is a meta endurance that can be developed to endure the attempt to endure. This is mostly mental, to be able to continue doing something regardless of how we feel about it in that moment, to not give up because we feel frustrated.

My previous experiences taught me that the feelings of frustration are mostly temporary, that the experience will feel radically different once I breached the magical threshold. This sort of meta endurance seeps into other parts of life. Meditation is supposed to instil this in us, but it was learning to run that was the most potent for me. Running longer distances is literally about containing one’s feelings while putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly, there is almost no other skill required – just take one step at a time. Yet being able to put more and more of these simple one-steps together confers very obvious improvements to one’s fitness, which alters the feelings of the experience. Those beginning runs were unbearable, then they became tolerable, and now they are enjoyable. Then there is the data: the gradually lowered heart rate while running at the same pace, being able recover faster from longer and longer distances through monitoring heart-rate variability. The rewards are obvious and easily demonstrated, not an abstraction. Running is one of the most positive feedback loops I have in my life, and the positive outcomes that arise out of it becomes a sustaining reservoir when I attempt other things that require endurance. Instead of physical one-steps at a time, I try to take psychological one-steps at a time in other areas of my life.

Maybe most of us don’t realise this, but we miss out on a lot of life when we are incapable of experiencing time slowly passing. It can feel good when time passes so quickly that we don’t notice it, but that’s not the same as piling our brains and schedule with so much that life becomes a messy blur with no distinct shape or colour.

Being able to sit still during long periods of time passing slowly may not magically make us happy, but being unable to tolerate this during unavoidable circumstances will definitely make us very unhappy. Because of my intolerance to boredom and waiting I was unable to learn a lot of new skills I wanted to, because a lot of skills involves being able to endure going nowhere for large amounts of time and making countless mistakes along the way. I was also unable to acquire certain new experiences because “they seem so boring”. Even the idea of purely listening to music without doing anything else seemed boring. Everything becomes boring once our minds become used to having something grabbing our attention every micro-second. Sooner or later, only tiktok is not boring.

How many of us can sit at a beach and stare into the horizon for hours? This will probably seem like an unattractive proposition to many. But being alone with our selves in the stillness of nature can be a life-altering, enriching experience. It will also make us less afraid of being alone, which has its own positive consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still very easily frustrated and intolerant. But I do notice the differences in my responses to stimuli, or the lack of. I am still not a happy person as I’ve repeatedly asserted in my writing countless times, but there is a new spaciousness that comes with developing my endurance. There is a marked contrast between what I could not tolerate before and now the same experiences bother me a lot less. I also enjoy the thrill of hitting new running distances.

It would have been unimaginable for me to think of myself as a person who likes doing things that require endurance, like how I described myself on mastodon. I guess I am not unique to this phenomenon of wanting to develop more endurance, or else ultramarathons would not exist. There is just something inside me that lights up when I hit a new endurance milestone, whether is it a running distance, or a dish that requires tedious cooking. I would love to learn to be capable of meditating an hour some day, but that’s still light years away.

For now, being able to run 10km will suffice.

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One thought on “the magical threshold of endurance”

  1. Erik says:

    Nice post, I relate to this a lot! It took a while to get into running, but it’s so nice when you get through the initial tough part!

    For cooking my goal is to be more loose / creative / intuitive with it, right now I’m still inclined to follow recipes to the letter without really thinking for myself, or experimenting with different spices. But I just have to keep trying things!

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