Pain and pleasure in pursuit of Ironman triumph

Story highlights

  • Even with the pain of training for Ironman Kona, there's pleasure
  • "When the finish line is near, adrenaline will kick in and the afterglow will be nothing but pleasure"

(CNN)Taking the long journey to Ironman Kona in October has given me an exceptional opportunity to explore the world between pain and pleasure.

In the world of triathlons, understanding good pain versus bad pain is not so obvious. The term "no pain, no gain," serves no purpose for me in a seven-month training program. Good pain still hurts, and bad pain will no doubt lead to injury and time on the sidelines.
From the top of the body on down, I have had my share of injuries, from shoulder issues related to overuse, to impingements from swimming, to lower back soreness from running long stretches at a time. I've agonized over hips, piriformis and nether-areas while sitting on the bike for very long periods and feeling beyond uncomfortable.
Then there are the feet -- oh, the toes! The blisters, the lost toenails, pains across the tops of the feet. Eventually, I gave up trying to conceal the hideous damage with expensive pedicures.
Roni Selig competes in the NYC Triathlon in 2011.
This saga is not unusual at all. I finally asked myself: Why? Why endure the pain? The answer lies within the seeking of pleasure. I've heard it argued that pain and pleasure are on a continuum. We should not avoid the painful, but rather, develop our skills, which can eventually lead to pleasure.
"What hurts?" is the subject of constant conversations between triathletes who monitor every little bodily twitch. "Check out this road rash from my crash," "My butt is killing me from sitting in aero for so damn long," "I have the worst chafing on my neck from my wetsuit."
It's not so much complaining, but more commiserating. There are moments along the way when I find a groove and get encouragement from fellow racers, and I can't believe how lucky I am to be here.
Recently, I spoke with a first-time Ironman competitor who is on a similar path, actor Sean Astin.
When sharing our training details, he said something that summed it up, "Not for one second did I doubt my ability that I could do it, until I started training.
"I've taught myself to smile at the pain. That's my secret. During an event or a big training session, when the burning sensation in my legs or shoulders rises, when the inadvertent supersigh releases the last bits of energy I thought I had left, when I agonize myself awake at 4 a.m. ... at all of these times and so many more, a little thought occurs to me. ... I'm doing this by choice. Then, I force a smile, a big, push-the-muscles-up-on-the-bones-of-my-face-size smile, even if I don't mean it. I simply bully that smile into place. Then, the cleverness of that idea and my confidence in myself always take control of my being and I realize that mentally, philosophically, spiritually, I'm back in the game."
I understand. There is always a spike of joy when someone questions my age, marked on the back of my calf, and I try to smile every mile. The spirit of this sport is a privilege to embody and no one can ever take that away. So a date with a 50-degree bath and 40 pounds of ice, though just as painful, finishes off the job on a frozen high.
Since the modulation of pain and pleasure happen in the same locations of the brain, it would be most unwise for me to think of it as good versus bad. Rather, I expect it will be an epic push and pull.
I have been visualizing the many, many hours I will spend swimming, biking and running long stretches at a time with the understanding there could be a great deal of pain along the way. I have the suspicion that when the finish line is near, adrenaline will kick in and the afterglow will be nothing but pleasure, sort of like childbirth. After 23 hours of labor with my first child, Sofia, the pain slipped away miraculously. Even after a C-section, I didn't dwell on it again.
So, I say bring it on! After all is said and done, I did the work and it's time to put pain, pleasure and peace of mind to the test. Kona, here we come!