Why Runners are not Masochists (Usually)

Palace 5KAs a runner, I am often accused of being a masochist or at least having masochistic tendencies. Given that I routinely subject myself to pain and recently wrote an essay about running and freedom that was rather pain focused, this is hardly surprising. Other runners, especially those masochistic ultra-marathon runners, are also commonly accused of masochism.

In some cases, the accusation is made in jest or at least not seriously. That is, the person making it is not actually claiming that runners derive pleasure (perhaps even sexual gratification) their pain. What seems to be going on is merely the observation that runners do things that clearly hurt and that make little sense to many folks. However, some folks do regard runners as masochists in the strict sense of the term. Being a runner and a philosopher, I find this a bit interesting—especially when I am the one being accused of being a masochist.

It is worth noting that I claim that people accuse runners of being masochists with some seriousness. While some people say runners are masochists in jest or with some respect for the toughness of runners, it is sometimes presented as an actual accusation: that there is something mentally wrong with runners and that when they run they are engaged in deviant behavior. While runners do like to joke about being odd and different, I think we generally prefer to not be seen as actually mentally ill or as engaging in deviant behavior. After all, that would indicate that we are doing something wrong—which I believe is (usually) not the case. Based on my experience over years of running and meeting thousands of runners, I think that runners are generally not masochists.

Given that runners engage in some rather painful activities (such as speed work and racing marathons) and that they often just run on despite injuries, it is tempting to believe that runners are really masochists and that I am in denial about the deviant nature of runners.

While this does have some appeal, it rests on a confusion about masochism in regards to matters of means and ends. For the masochist, pain is a means to the end of pleasure. That is, the masochist does not seek pain for the sake of pain, but seeks pain to achieve pleasure. However, there is a special connection between the means of pain and the end of pleasure: for the masochist, the pleasure generated specifically by pain is the pleasure that is desired. While a masochist can get pleasure by other means (such as drugs or cake), it is the desire for pleasure caused by pain that defines the masochist. As such, the pain is not an optional matter—mere pleasure is not the end, but pleasure caused by pain.

This is rather different from those who endure pain as part of achieving an end, be that end pleasure or some other end. For those who endure pain to achieve an end, the pain can be seen as part of the means or, perhaps more accurately, as an effect of the means. It is valuing the end that causes the person to endure the pain to achieve the end—the pain is not sought out as being the “proper cause” of the end. In the case of the masochist, the pain is not endured to achieve an end—it is the “proper cause” of the end, which is pleasure.

In the case of running, runners typically regard pain as something to be endured as part of the process of achieving the desired ends, such as fitness or victory. However, runners generally prefer to avoid pain when they can. For example, while I will endure pain to run a good race, I prefer running well with as little pain as possible. To use an analogy, a person will put up with the unpleasant aspects of a job in order to make money—but they would certainly prefer to have as little unpleasantness as possible. After all, she is in it for the money, not the unpleasant experiences of work. Likewise, a runner is typically running for some other end (or ends) than hurting herself.  It just so happens that achieving that end (or ends) requires doing things that cause pain.

In my essay on running and freedom, I described how I endured the pain in my leg while running the Tallahassee Half Marathon. If I were a masochist, experiencing pleasure by means of that pain would have been my primary end. However, my primary end was to run the half marathon well and the pain was actually an obstacle to that end. As such, I would have been glad to have had a painless start and I was pleased when the pain diminished. I enjoy the running and I do actually enjoy overcoming pain, but I do not enjoy the pain itself—hence the aspirin and Icy Hot in my medicine cabinet.

While I cannot speak for all runners, my experience has been that runners do not run for pain, they run despite the pain. Thus, we are not masochists. We might, however, show some poor judgment when it comes to pain and injury—but that is another matter.

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17 Comments.

  1. There was an article in TPM in 2012 I think, where the author wrote some pretty poor pop-psychology on running, that masqueraded as philosophy. I can’t seem to find it online, or in the few back copies I’ve kept. Does this ring a bell for anyone? If so, a link or author’s name would be useful, thanks.

  2. Cian,

    The 3rd Quarter 2012 edition carried a few aticles on sport including a piece by Pam R Sailors titled “Are runners obsessive/compulsive, narcissistic masochists?”

    i’m not in a position to share your judgement on the piece if indeed that’s the one you mean – I haven’t read it.

    If you’re a subscriber you’ll be able to find it in the exact editions.

  3. Thanks Jim. My subscription has lapsed, but at least I have a name/title now.

  4. Most sport is physically demanding one way or the other and if the suggestion is that runners are masochists then the same comment can made concerning boxers, tennis players, rugby players, and so on. I can think of nothing worse than being a boxer tired and at the one’s last gasp whilst the opponent is raining hurtful blows each one sucking the energy from the recipient more and more. Again imagine playing tennis under hot sun for something over five hours during which, depending on his style of play, a competitor may run/sprint between five and six miles. Are we going to suggest that all these sportsmen/sportswomen are also masochists? In my own small way I am delighted when at the gym I knock off a couple of seconds for my personal best on the rowing machine or manage to do another repetition on an exercise with the weights. Physically I find this quite taxing most times my heart pounds and/or my muscles scream to be released from their torment. Despite all that, I most certainly am not a masochist. Were I out of the blue, to be suddenly and for no reason, seized with pain and breathlessness I would be alarmed, and most likely stop what I was doing. Nothing succeeds like success in the small/or less often large, improvements that one can make to oneself physically, and or mentally, for that matter. This always generates a feeling of elation. I’m sure there is little or no room in any sport for masochism and those who direct this word at people who are trying generally to improve themselves, and their skill, are to my mind most likely to be kidding themselves, as some sort of defence mechanism, against their own participating.

  5. Cian,

    Wasn’t me: my pop-pyschology is worse than poor.

  6. Don Bird,

    I think the key factor is whether the pain is an obstacle to an end (such as running faster) that would be avoided if possible or the pain is a key part of achieving the end (which would be masochism).

    My own experience has been that you are right: those that label athletes as masochists are usually not athletic and seem to often use this as defense of their inactivity.

  7. One could make the argument that people do not always fully understand what draws them to certain activities and that there are often unconscious motives involved.

    To give an everyday example, one often observes that certain politic figures who claim and probably consciously believe that they are wholly motivated by a desire to better humanity seem to many observers to be at least partially motivated by a desire for power.

    However, if one converses with these politicians, they will swear, probably sincerely, that they do not seek power, that power is only a by-product of their desire to help others.

    In such cases, one is often led to the conclusion that the desire for power is unconscious in these poltical figures.

    Thus, even though runners believe that they do not seek pain and that pain is only a by-product of their conscious desire to run faster and longer, it is possible that they are unconsciously driven by a desire for pain, otherwise known as masochism.

    I know more political figures than I do runners, so I feel more confident about speculating on the probable unconscious motivations of the former, but in the case of the latter the hypothesis of unconscious motivation by masochism cannot be ruled out.

  8. Doris Wrench Eisler

    If you say endurance runners are masochists, you pretty well have to say that all who take part in some endurance sport are masochists as well. You might even say that insofar as just about every achievement involves tension, endurance, self-doubt, etc., that everyone is a masochist who gets out of of bed in the morning. But maybe not doing so is masochistic as well as it leads to mental and physical health problems and is not to begin with a sign of a healthy person. So, the definition given seems very solid: seeking pain for its own sake is masochistic and is not otherwise.
    But in another sense masochism on a lower level is pretty common: great numbers of people in the West regularly take anti-depressants and tranquilizers. Sure, they’re seeking relief from pain but what is the cause of that pain in the first place? Low self-esteem encouraged by an extremely competitive society that only recognizes ability or learning or any thing else if it shows a profit by Friday.
    Even psychiatrists seem to confuse self-esteem and too much ego, when the latter is usually caused by absence of the former. So forget about runners’ masochism: self-dislike appears to be quite prevalent and many seem to sabotage themselves in destructive behaviour. Is that not masochism?r

  9. Physical activity, no matter how grueling is not perceived as difficult to some people. I can endure what others would consider unagreeable displeasure. Some people just have a metabolism that is different than others. Physical activities also bless some with the ability to quiet the mind for those who need to move. I have to do a ton of swimming every day just to think properly the rest of the day…so it is with other people.

  10. Mike, I didn’t mean to imply similarity between your piece with the TPM one. You just reminded me since they share a topic :)

  11. The pain and breathlessness which comes from physical exertion must surely be related in its way to survival mechanisms. The four Fs which, are innate basic drives and mind states, are predominantly exhibited by most animals. They are Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Reproduction. Two of these are associated closely with greatly elevated heart rates and respiratory rates. These are Fleeing and Fighting. The better that one becomes in controlling these rates the better are the possibilities of survival. These elevated rates are not presumably pleasant for the animal, but they give feedback concerning what resources, mental and physical, the animal has left when it is being pursued or cornered or similarly, pursuing and cornering.
    Non human animals are not noted for attendance at gyms or running in marathons, of their own free will. (I have seen some cats who are skilled runners on the treadmill) However, when they are young they indulge in play with each other which is both vigorous and competitive. Out of this it becomes eventually evident to the female of the species which male is best for breeding. The point I am endeavouring to make here is that humans have an innate propensity to improve themselves physically and to compete against others or even against themselves. The discomfiture which they feel in so doing is an indication of their progress. Thus the discomfiture which is endured is not the object, it is tolerated as a useful by-product and scale of progress. So far as the masochist is concerned I suspect that the competitive aspect in whatever he or she does is generally absent.

  12. Don Bird makes a good point. The discomfort is tolerated because that person has come to learn there are by-products of this behavior. Potentially a better looking body, eating more food and drinking more wine, feeling more relaxed later, sleeping better…not too mention that competition may play a small role, certainly if one likes to feed his/her ego as a benefit.

  13. Mark Rowlands makes an interesting argument that running has intrinsic value-that it is an end in itself. This is in his book Running with the Pack. But, I must admit that I am biased in his favor, since we are both runners who ended up as philosophers in Florida…and are known associates of dogs.

    I do run for some of the instrumental value (fitness, health, ability to safely eat more pie, trophies, and sanity), but I also hold that it has intrinsic value as well. That is, it is an end worthwhile for its own sake. I do need to develop a proper argument for this, though-currently I’m just stealing Rowlands’.

  14. What about the ones that have pleasure through the conquest of the pain. Pain is the proper cause of that pleasure (you can not get the satisfaction without pain); but in this case, it does has positive connotations(buddhism) of self control.

  15. The true masochists are people who run marathons on 20 miles per week or less. When I ran my best marathon, it was on 85 miles per week and I built up to that over the years. My best marathon was also my easiest. The toughest marathon I ever ran was the one I trained the least for. There are way too many people who think that it’s about toughness. It’s really more about commitment and patience.

    Ken Dawson
    Fairfax Virginia

  16. Ken,

    Same here. I did my first marathon with plenty of training and it went smoothly. I was rather sore the next week, though. After grad school, I did one without training as well, plus I had put on a few pounds (thanks to having a paycheck that allowed me to buy food). That went…badly. But I did re-learn a valuable lesson (suffer in training or suffer way more when racing).

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