Published in the The Sydney Morning Herald.

When Dr Donna Urquhart started running ultramarathons three years ago, she noticed something strange happening. She wasn’t feeling as much pain.

“Originally I would start feeling pain at the 40km mark and it would intensify through to the 100km mark, but as my runs got longer and longer, I learned it doesn’t get any worse,” the researcher and athlete said.

“I think I’ve learned to accept pain as part of the ultra running experience, I’m not so scared by it anymore.”

Dr Urquhart is one of a team of Monash University researchers who wanted to look at whether ultra runners could teach the rest of us something about this approach.

Preliminary results indicate that not only do these superhuman runners feel less pain than the general population, they think about pain differently.

Dr Urquhart, along with colleague and lead researcher Dr Bernadette Fitzgibbon, put a number of ultra runners through the wringer with perception and pain tests. One of the tests involved placing an arm in a bucket of ice cold water.

On average, the ultra runners kept their arm in the water for longer than the control group, regular people who don’t run extreme marathons. When asked to rate the pain on an 11-point scale every `10 seconds, the cold didn’t hurt them as much as it did other people.

Dr. Urquhart was subjected to the icy water test. “My initial reaction was wanting to take my arm out straight away but when I changed my mindset to ‘let’s see what happens’ and relaxed, I stayed in the water for the maximum three minutes.

Dr Fitzgibbon found that ultra runners in this preliminary study had reduced what she calls “pain attention”. She said they “may think about pain in a distinct way from the rest of the population. Clearly I’m not one of those – I could only hold my arm in the icy water for six seconds!”

Ultra runners compete in races that are longer than traditional 42 km marathons, with some running distances beyond 100km.

Dr. Urquhart is currently training for a 24-hour running event at a Coburg race track.

The initial Monash University study results also found unique emotional and personality differences between ultra runners and the rest of us.

“We have noticed that ultra runners tend to have less interest in social affiliation, so they are happy to be on their own for quite some time,” Dr Fitzgibbon found.

The researchers are hoping their work will be able to inform pain management and strategies for non runners living with chronic pain.

“While these are preliminary findings, if people could reduce the awareness and attention on the pain, then their tolerance could be improved. That suggests with chronic pain, if people can reduce their focus on the pain, the pain they may experience may reduce,” Dr. Urquhart said.