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It’s Supposed to Hurt Like Hell

It’s Supposed to Hurt Like Hell

Find out when NY Times bestselling author and Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes, first heard these words, and why he lives by them to this day.

My earliest childhood recollection is running home from kindergarten. I remember sitting in class patiently awaiting the buzzer to ring. When it did, I swiftly made my escape. Outside the four walls of the school I was liberated. These were different times—the free-spirited sixties—and the sight of a six-year old ambling merrily through the park alone was little cause for alarm. Running brought me an inner joy that nothing else in life rivaled. Class was about sitting and listing to how the world worked; running was experiencing it all firsthand. Nothing compared.

As the years passed, I continued running. Sometimes I ran with others, but mostly I ran alone. I’d never had a coach or belonged to a team until entering middle school—those notoriously tumultuous years when the bedrock you stand upon begins wobbling—and that’s when I encountered an individual that would forever change my life.

Rumor was that as a young enlisted man, Jack McTavish could do more push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups than anyone in his unit, officers included. And he could do them faster. Other recruits feared being paired with him; his strength and focus left them shamed. His approach to life was straightforward: he would rise earlier, train harder, and stay longer than anyone else. On those days when he didn’t feel like giving 100 percent, he forced himself to give 120.

This bullheaded drive and discipline served him well in the military. But as my junior high school track coach, I found his approach rather intimidating. I don’t think many of the other students, or faculty members for that matter, quite knew what to make of him. It was now Southern California in the seventies, and he was slightly out of place. Other teachers wore puka shells, tie-dyed shirts, and had long, scraggly hair. McTavish kept his hair in a tight crew cut. He wore the same outfit every day, regardless of the season or the setting: gray gym shorts, a perfectly pressed white V-neck T-shirt, and black midtop gym shoes. He always looked freshly shaven and neatly groomed. At five-feet-seven, one hundred fifty-five pounds, he was built as solidly as a tree trunk. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the man. He was cut like an inverted pear.

Coach McTavish didn’t speak much, and when he did it was direct and to the point. Idle chatter was out of the question, superfluous banter unthinkable.

I first met Coach outside the men’s locker room, where he was doing sit-ups on the concrete floor. He stood, gave me a crushing handshake, introduced himself while looking me squarely in the eyes, then got right back into the sit-ups, hardly missing a beat.

All of us on the junior high school track team were seventh and eighth grade boys, but Coach always referred to us as men. There were two kinds of people in his view of the world: those he took orders from, and those he gave orders to. We fell into the latter group.

Coach’s approach to running didn’t come out of any textbook; he simply instructed us to run as fast as we could until we crossed the finish line. Words of advice and encouragement were few, if ever. His most frequent instruction to me was, “Go out harder.”

Once I tried to explain that if I started faster, I would have less kick left at the end. “Nonsense!” he replied. “Go out harder and finish harder.”

That was one of the few complete sentences Coach ever spoke to me. In two years, we probably exchanged fewer than fifty words. And of all the runners on the team, he spoke to me the most, as though I held some promise and could somehow do right by him.

He always had my full attention. There was something strangely alluring about his balls-to-the-wall training technique, and I came to respect, even enjoy, the practice of pushing my young body to the brink of collapse. The model was simple: Whoever was willing to run the hardest, train the longest, and suffer the most would earn the spoils of victory.

At the season-end California State Long-Distance Championship, a prestigious affair held on the legendary Mount Sac track, Coach issued this single dictum to me: “Go out harder than those other chumps.” Then he walked away.

All the other schools seemed to know what they were doing. Their runners wore matching, neatly tailored tracksuits that shimmered in the morning sun. They were doing wind sprints and stretches and quietly consulting with their coaches as though they were in complete control of the situation. Our school wore the same thing as Coach, gray gym shorts and white V-neck T-shirts.

I stood on that starting line, shivering with anxiety. I thought the other runners surrounding me knew things I didn’t about how to train better and go faster. I was scared shitless, to tell the truth. But the mile was my event. It was the longest race in junior high, and the most physically punishing. Even without a formal running strategy, I could endure more pain than anybody. That much I was sure of. No one, I was certain, had worked as hard as I had, or was willing to push as hard as I was about to push.

The gun went off and I did exactly as Coach had instructed: I went out as hard as I possibly could. I ran as though I were in a one-hundred yard dash rather than a one-mile race. That aggressive start put me immediately in the lead, and I maintained a blistering pace that broadened the distance between me and the rest of the pack as the race progressed. I ran faster and faster, and my lead increased further and further. Part of me was paranoid to let Coach down, and part of me relished the suffering.

When I broke the finish tape in first place I was so focused that I kept right on running until I noticed that people were waving and yelling at me to stop. As I stood doubled over, trying to catch my breath, other runners that eventually finished and their coaches kept coming over to congratulate me. They said things like, “I’ve never seen anyone go out like that.” Clearly they were taken aback by my raw determination. It was more like complete tunnel vision.

Eventually, after the fanfare subsided and everyone had walked away, Coach casually strolled up.

“Good work, son,” he said. “How’d it feel?”

I was shocked. Coach had never asked me a question before.

“Well,” I answered reflectively, “going out hard was the right thing to do. It felt pretty good.”

Coach kicked some dirt around with his foot. “If it felt good,” he said, squinting like Clint Eastwood, “you didn’t push hard enough. It’s supposed to hurt like hell.” He turned and walked away.

My dad got transferred and my family moved to another city a week after that race. Those were the final words Coach McTavish ever said to me, and I live by them to this very day: If it comes easy, if it doesn’t require extraordinary effort, you’re not pushing hard enough: It’s supposed to hurt like hell.

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Excerpt from Ultramarathon Man: Revised and Updated by Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2005, 2023, Dean Karnazes

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