In midlife, transitions abound. We’re sending children off to school, making arrangements for parents to be cared for, getting gray hair, and perhaps even grieving our way through a divorce or an illness. You wouldn’t be alone if you asked yourself, “Why does this hurt so much?”

Change can be painful, and sorting through what is “normal” pain versus pain that may require you to seek help can be tricky. It never hurts to ask for extra support, but I’ve also learned that some pain does pass in its own time. It was the marathon that taught me this lesson.

My first marathon was almost a decade ago. The only reason I agreed to do it was because I was in love with a man who was a runner, and he’d invited me to join him in Prague—to run 26.2 miles. I was divorced, fighting depression, creeping toward forty, and I was a sometimes runner with an adventurous streak looking for a way to age more gracefully than I suspected I knew how to do. So, against the voice of reason whispering in my ear, I took on the hard work of training and decided to give the marathon a try.

I’m glad I did. The marathon was to become my great teacher, bringing all of my ideas as a therapist into a finer focus over the next years, and that first foray into long distance running taught me something that no theory had ever been able to convey with quite the same clarity or poignancy: When life hurts, you’ve got to dig deep and figure out if you should drop out of the race or keep pushing through.

The route that day of my first marathon in Prague was graced by warm sunshine and very little breeze. I quite enjoyed the first many miles as we trotted through cobbled streets, past ancient buildings, across the Charles Bridge, and beside the Vltava River. As a back-of-the-packer, I felt no pressure or angst about racing. I was there purely for the experience, and I’d almost chalked marathoning up as “easy” when I suddenly hit the wall at about mile twenty.

A slow ache in my quadriceps that I had been successfully ignoring made itself known by cramping up—enough to hurt like hell but not enough to require an aid car. With tears running down my face, I turned to my friend, a seasoned marathoner, and told him, “I hurt.”

He patted me on the shoulder and replied, “I know.”

“No, I mean this hurts worse than anything I’ve ever felt before,” I tried to clarify, thinking I hadn’t conveyed the severity of the pain.

Now he looked over at me and waited until our gazes met. “That’s how it’s supposed to feel,” he reiterated, sympathetically but firmly. “It’ll go away in a couple of days.” I struggled along beside him, stunned at the realization that pain this bad was a part of the marathon bargain. It was “normal” and didn’t signal that I should stop running. Who knew?!

And isn’t that how it is when we hit the wall in midlife? We come up against something that takes us off guard, or perhaps we’ve been doing something so long that we feel like we can’t keep going. Pain is “normal” sometimes. It would be the rare person who doesn’t hit that proverbial wall and hurt like crazy in the midlife years as one transition after another shakes our foundations. The trick is to figure out if what you’re feeling is “normal,” expected emotional pain related to where you are in the life-cycle or pain that might do you lasting harm (trauma). Here are a couple of things to ask yourself:

  • Is the pain likely to go away on its own if you rest and take good care of yourself? If yes: rest and take care of yourself. If no: find someone to help you through it. Injury requires attention. There’s no shame in stepping out of the race for awhile to attend to your own healing.
  • Is it a manageable ache or a shooting pain? Transitions can make you ache, but if even a normative transition (like launching your children into the world) feels like it’s going to knock you down for good, why not find a “running partner” (therapist, coach, best friend, or doctor) who can trot alongside you and make the journey a little easier?
  • When in your life have you felt this kind of pain before? When you know yourself well (after a few similar races), you’ll know when getting aid is essential and when to simply press forward and wait out the ache. If in doubt, consult a fellow racer for another perspective. We’re all in this together.

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