I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday, at a less than reputable shop from a less than skilled artist. By the time I picked up running about a decade later, I had accumulated a good peppering of ink. Most recently, I lay on the tattoo table a couple days ago to get my son’s name scratched into my back. As I breathed and thought my way through the sensations ripping at my nerves, I had the rolling realizations of just how much going through the process of getting tattooed is like going on a long distance run for me.
It hurts the most in the beginning. And the very end. That first bite on the liner is the most vivid. Your skin screams as your nerves lobby your brain to change your mind, call it off, give up. Just like those first two miles of the run. When your mind finds a million reasons why you should run slower, start walking, turn back. But if you’re stubborn enough, if you commit through your body’s whimpers and your mind’s games, the pain fades, spreads and stretches out, dulls. Somewhere in the middle, it might even become pleasant. The shader might feel like a massage working after the liner. You might find a float in the sixth mile. You forget how much it hurt to start with and remember why you decided to do it in the first place. Until the end is in sight. As the needle spins in the final color or the last mile unfolds before you, the wall rears up. You find yourself back to counting seconds, measuring strides, writhing in your own body to just get it over with.
Breathing is the most important. Yoga taught me this lesson for both. For tattoos. For running. For child birth. Really, for living. Breathing is the most important. You can get through anything if you breathe. You can change the pain with your breath; you can move it around on your nerves, realign it in your brain. As the needle seems to slice your skin and your muscles attempt to contract in retreat, you breathe them back into place; you push the breath to them to calm them. As your heart rate rises with each stride and the heat builds in your face, you breathe to control your body, to keep moving. Breathing is what gets you though.
It is all in your head. Pain is in your head. Sure, it starts with the body, with messages from your nerves, but your brain decides how to process and react to it. Your mind decides if you are stubborn or committed enough to push through it. You draw the line in your head. Whether it is the tearing vibration of the tattoo gun or the burning exhaustion in your legs, in your head, you take that pain and decide if you will heed or ignore it. You want that tattoo enough to have it carved into your flesh. You want that run, that time enough to run past the feeling of dying.
It is totally worth it. En-fucking-dorphins! After the blood is wiped clean, the raw skin hums happily; the smile stretches your face. After the finish line passes and the sprint dies, your entire body throbs with success, vibrates with the runner high. In that blissful moment, the pain and the struggle fade from memory, disappear from reality. All that is left is what you achieved, what you got from the sacrifice. In the end, it is all worth it, all more than worth it. And you already start thinking about the next time you will do it.
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