On hands and feet, Edie Couvillon clawed her way up a muddy hill on mile 40 of an especially brutal 100-mile trail race. She pushed on and wondered, would she be able to finish this one? Would her friends finish? The shared agony of that experience is a favorite story among her group of ultra trail runners around Lafayette, Louisiana. Research shows, and any war veteran knows, that pain brings people closer together and can create lasting bonds.
Shared pain promotes cooperation.
“Road running has its share of camaraderie but nothing like on the trails,” says Couvillon. “When you do a long trail run with people and you finish up and you’re covered in mud or you’re covered in sweat and you sit down and you have a beer after the run, there’s just nothing better than that. I mean the laughs when we share those tough runs together are the best ones that you can get.”
Researchers at the University of Queensland examined the link between pain and social bonding in a series of experiments with undergraduate students.
In the first experiment, the students moved metal balls around inside a bucket of water. For some, the water was painfully cold, while for others the water was room temperature. Another task had some students do an upright wall squat (which is typically painful), while other students did a far easier leg move.
The students showed no difference in positive or negative emotion. But the students who did the painful tasks showed a significant increase in group bonding. In fact, shared pain not only increases a feeling of closeness, it can also boost actual group cooperation.
“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” says lead researcher Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “The findings shed light on why camaraderie may develop between soldiers or others who share difficult and painful experiences.”
Being vulnerable can build connections.
In many ways, ultra running is a solo journey. You carry your own water. You bring your own headlamp. You are inside your own head for hours and hours and hours. But most of the time you’re not really alone. You have your squad who are out there somewhere running the same course. And you have a pacer.
“I usually tell my pacers, you can talk but don’t expect me to respond, because you’re usually too tired to answer,” says Couvillon. “And they know anything I might say that might be ugly, forgive me in advance because you get very tired.”
The pacer starts running with you around mile 60, usually very late at night when you start to get tired and loopy. You are exhausted, vulnerable, and emotional. If you aren’t very close to this person before the race, you will be after.
"The transition from acquaintanceship to friendship is typically characterized by an increase in both the breadth and depth of self-disclosure," says University of Winnipeg sociologist Beverley Fehr, author of Friendship Processes.
“Sometimes I tell a pacer, we need to stop talking now. And they’ll just be quiet and we’ll just run," says Couvillon. "And after while when I get out of the down spot I’ll say, OK we can start talking now. But they’re friends so they understand.”
We value friends more when we help them.
In fact, they probably like her more for it. Bonds strengthen when you ask for and receive help from a friend because it’s giving, not receiving, that makes us feel closer to our friends.
Studies show that doing a favor for someone makes us more likely to do another favor for that person than if they had done a favor for us. We value the friends we have decided to help. American statesman and inventor Ben Franklin observed this paradox, now known as the Ben Franklin Effect.
He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged. – Ben Franklin
In other words, the fondness you feel toward your running buddy will only grow if one day she asks you to be her pacer and you meet her at midnight and run until dawn.
You find time for the things you care about.
Ultra running attracts more runners every year looking to push beyond a marathon. An estimated 60,000 ultra runners compete in various races around the United States. Races fill up fast and many have wait lists and lotteries.
Edie Couvillon has seen the sport grow significantly, thanks in part to her running club Paix Running and the ultra races she organizes. Paix is French for peace, showing off the Cajun heritage of many of Louisiana’s ultra runners.
“The aid stations, I mean we are fully stocked with complete Cajuns—as Cajun as you can get—and they’re all ultra runners,” explains Couvillon. “They’ll take good care of you but they’re gonna kick you out if you sit too long. It’s a tough love kind of culture, but you will not leave hungry that’s for sure.”
The 47 year-old full-time fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society puts on three races in Louisiana every year: The Red Dirt Ultra, the Chicot Challenge 100 Mile Trail Relay, and her newest race, Loup Garou Trail Run coming up on December 16th in the small town of Ville Platte.
The Loup Garou, named for a Cajun werewolf legend, started filling up as soon as she announced it. Training for an ultra is a huge time commitment, requiring long runs of up to 50 miles at a time.
“You find time for the things you care about,” says Couvillon.
"Lifelong friendships were formed on the top of that levee."
In November, Couvillon and group of friends ran from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—127 miles along the Mississippi River levee. They started the Friday after Thanksgiving and ran through the night, all day Saturday, and into Saturday night. Couvillon finished at 2:00am after 36 hours of running.
“Being from Louisiana, and having such a strong love for my state, this was easily the most meaningful ultra I have ever participated in,” says Couvillon. “It was nice to be surrounded by people who do the same type of races that I do. We all had so much in common and got along wonderfully. Lifelong friendships were formed on the top of that levee.”
Even though she says the last 20 miles were very painful and she started hallucinating during the second night because of sleep deprivation, Couvillon’s most vivid memories are about friendship and cooperation. You can’t accomplish this kind of incredible feat alone. It turns out, that’s kind of the point.