By Kristin Butcher
Photo by Bruno Long

The welcome mat out front is oddly un-welcoming. There's a surreal familiarity to this place—like I've been here in a dozen dreams, but still can't remember my way around. Inside it's quiet. Dark. Still. I've climbed from sunshine
to snow to get here and stumbled through the unassuming entrance with legs unworthy of the task I've asked of them. I've quietly raged inside these walls, out of calories and listening to some asshole tell me "there's just one more hill" for the tenth time.

The faded letters on the mat read: "Welcome to the Pain Cave".

Heavy breathing spliced with occasional muttering fills the air. It doesn't seem possible that I'm making these sounds, but there's no one else here. There's never anyone else here. When the suffering teeters on more than I think I can handle, words are forgotten. And I count the seconds. 1…2…3…

These dark confines are the place I go when everything hurts, and there's a lot more hurt to come between here and home. It can be a quiet cavern where
I'm just a tiny speck trying to find my way out. I imagine welcome to for others, like the guy with the fanny pack barking "Track!" as he passes, the Pain Cave
is filled with mirrors and blaring whatever the hell dubstep is. Watching my grandmother move with a swiftness that belies her octogenarian status, I wonder just how large some people's Caves must be.

My suffering echoes between the cavern walls and rattles my thoughts. I want to escape, to give up, to stop everything and collapse next to the trail until a helicopter plucks me from the woods and drops me on a couch so I can watch American Ninja Warrior.

You'd think we would avoid the Pain Cave at all costs—the name certainly isn't doing its tourism business any favors. But instead of fleeing from it, we seek it out, sometimes traveling through the night with friends we hope won't crack 50 miles into the woods. We enter events we doubt we'll finish and pretend placing at a local race matters more than it does. Setting our sights past the point of comfort, we head out with nothing more than a crumpled map until we know the way by heart.

Each breath becomes an attempt to quiet the suffering. Efforts to ignore the pain are in vain, so I give up and dive in until all that exists in the world is a pair of screaming legs on a climb that won't end.

Halfway through a planned daytrip to the Pain Cave, I always ask the same question: "Seriously, am I stupid or something?"

In the moment, I can never come up with a good reason for doing this to myself. So I count. I count to prove that time is passing. I count to remind myself that this too will pass, and that when it does, I'll see the view from the top of the world, a shorter bucket list or the look in my newborn son's eyes.