Tom Matlack’s obsession with pain is just a way to drown out his psychic angst.
They say that women have a higher pain-threshold than men to get them through childbirth, but I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know, never having inhabited a female body.
I do know there’s a particular type of pain that I have always been deeply attracted to. I’ve sought it out hour after hour and day after day as a kind of release from my real life, from the things that scare me, from the people I just can’t stand.
I’m not talking about soul sickness here (though I am not going to claim that there is no connection whatsoever—it may very well be that soul sickness is the underlying cause of my pain seeking behavior). I’ve experienced the white pain of loss, the crushing blow of defeat, professional and personal. To me, that shit is like running your hand through a buzz saw. I know if doesn’t kill you, it’s supposed to make you stronger, but I’d just rather have all my digits thank you very much.
I am not alone in my obsession. There are women who like the same thing I do, but I more generally associate it with a particular kind of guy who ends up getting ahead in the world but suffers greatly in the process. No matter how much you love something like pain, you hate it too.
I’m not talking about some kind of kinky bondage hang-up. I’m talking about swimming four hours a day by the time I was 12, running a 2:48 marathon at 16, dedicating my college years to rowing little boats, and even at the age of 46, working out three hours a day just so that the next time I am in L.A. I won’t end up in the fetal position half way up a 6-mile, 10% mountain climb on my bike.
Andre Agassi made headlines in his autobiography Open by saying how much he loathed playing tennis. I don’t buy that for a moment. I can see how having your dad set up a ball machine in your blazing hot backyard and forcing you to hit 2,500 balls every morning probably wasn’t a lot of fun. Especially if dad set the speed on max and rigged it so each ball hit at your feet, forcing you to develop instant reflexes to catch a rising ball before it bounces over your head and out of reach. But he kept doing it, right? Something made him stay and hit those balls and ultimately become a world champion tennis player. It’s a connection to a goal that may have stains of both love and hate. But if he is anything like me, there’s more love in there than hate. Maybe not love based on anything sane. But love nevertheless.
For me it started with an innocent swim contest at a summer camp. A bunch of older experienced swimmers and me: a fifty-yard backstroke between docks. I expected to come in last. When I picked my head up I had beaten the field by several body lengths. I quite literally had never swum competitively before. But from that point on, I was hooked. My parents didn’t push. In fact, they complained about having to drive me to practice at 5 in the morning.
I never lived up to my potential as a backstroker. I trained too hard. I left my best swims in practice and broke down just before the big meets. The fire burned too bright. I hadn’t learned how to harness it.
So I took to the roads in my high school years. Running is a much purer form of physical opium than chlorine and restricted breathing. I grew up in a rural town so I spent many a winter night running down unlit dirt roads, across ice and newly fallen snow. It was a way to transport myself to a different solar system. I suppose there is always a kind of pain with physical exertion, but once your body gets used to the stress, there is also release. Sometimes it felt to me like I was flying.
Rowing in college is where my appetite for pain came of age. Particularly the off-season training away from boats and water and races. Will, our bearded, zen-quoting mystic of a coach brought into laser-like focus what role pain has to play in turning boys into men.
We built our own barbells by filling empty industrial tomato cans with cement and sinking in them lengths of pipe that we painted black. We used these in a circuit training routine called “The Bear.” Every day after class, we met in the lightly-used Nicholson dormitory lounge, cleared away the furniture, and cranked up the David Bowie on a boom box, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes.” Will often pointed out that acorns don’t become oak trees by growing into big seeds. They have to set down roots and change form completely.
The homemade bars weighed around fifty pounds. The rule was they could not touch the ground at any point during the workout. We did a rotation of exercises, fifty seconds on and then ten seconds off—just enough time to prepare for the next set. A deep squat to a military press was followed by a triceps curl with the bar behind the head, a lat pull to the eyeballs, and a jumping lunge with the bar overhead, getting up in the air high enough to switch legs forward and back simultaneously, ideally without crashing over sideways.
Four simple exercises over and over again. The first 10 or 20 minutes there is laughter and bawdy humor back and forth. Then it gets serious. Muscles ache. Breathing becomes labored. Will suggests that we pair off, pushing each other, looking into each other’s eyes for strength. Half an hour in, the music gets turned up. The intensity in the room is palpable. Some of the weaker team members begin to falter. Will starts talking. “This is gut check time, gents! This is where fast boats are made, right here! Don’t give up on your mates!”
Sometimes he would tell us up front how long we were going to go. Sometimes he would just make up his mind along the way. Generally it was an hour, though 90 minutes was not unheard of.
Toward the end of the session, Will would sometimes go so far as to grab an extra bar himself and do lunges in someone’s face—blue jeans, cowboy boots, and chewing tobacco be damned.
Finally, he would call the workout over and we would collapse in exhaustion, bodies strewn everywhere on the floor like a bomb had gone off. Students coming back from class to their dorm rooms, or on their way to dinner, would walk by and look at us, wondering what the hell had happened.
These days I’m back in the pool once or twice a week doing sets of 200s on an interval that isn’t too far off when I was a kid. I work with a mad Russian kick-boxer twice a week in the gym, lifting weights during the winter and, in the summer, running up and down the beach, dragging an oversized tire.
But mostly these days it’s about the riding. One of my rowing buddies got me into it. Riders who are fast, especially in the hills, are all tiny. Well under 150 pounds. Despite my fitness, I am still a load at 225. Not really a biker’s body. But I don’t care. I’m out there more days than not, even gearing up to ride through the Boston winter with special thick rubber boots and gloves.
I don’t say all this because I think I am some kind of stud (I’m not), or well adjusted (I’m definitely not), or even because I understand my own love affair.
I have no idea why all my life I’ve had the burning desire to push to the very limit of my body and beyond, to the uncharted waters of existence beyond pain where the brain turns itself off and, for once, I simply am.
Maybe that’s it. For some guys like me there is this constant question of identity and meaning that is unanswerable in any way other than reducing existential to bodily motion. The physical pain demands attention and thereby drowns out the psychic angst.
There is nothing to do but focus on this stroke, this stride, this boat, and this hill. I become fused with my body, and the planet, that leaves no room for debate.
Beyond the pain is silence. And serenity.