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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

Review: Leigh Cowart's Hurts So Good: The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose

Updated: Jan 19

Ever taken a polar bear plunge? Do you love to ingest super hot chili peppers? Are you an ultrarunner? Are you a masochist? According to journalist and science writer Leigh Cowart, you definitely are. Cowart writes, "I am an avowed masochist. I see masochism everywhere. I am obsessed with it."

On purpose, Cowart sets her mouth and body on fire after eating a chili pepper before observing a hot chili pepper contest, jumps into the ocean at the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge, and shares her sadomasochistic sexual encounters.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain and Pleasure is an engaging and fascinating mix of memoir, scholarly research, conversations with psychologists and scientists on the science of pain and pleasure, observations of and conversations with partakers of pain on purpose - a ballerina turned Muay Thai fighter, hot chili pepper eaters, ultrarunners, and sexual and other masochists.

However, Hurt so Good is not for the faint of heart. If you don't like getting out of your comfort zone, reading this book will be painful but you might not want to put the book down as you get some pleasure with the turning of each page. The chapter on the history of the word 'masochism' is fascinating. If you are attracted to pain, Hurt So Good is a must-read.

Cowart, a former ballerina who endured pain on purpose and danced on broken bones and feet that looked like "raw meat," devotes a chapter to her pain on purpose and pleasure with her eating disorder of binging and purging.

Some of Cowart's chapters will resonate with readers who partake in the pain and pleasure that comes from plunging into the freezing ocean water, consuming hot chili peppers, body piercing and tattooing, flagellation, binging and purging, and ultramarathon running.

Cowart's chapter about hot chili pepper contests triggered a memory of my first encounter with a small pretty, bright orange pepper in my aunt's garden. The second I nipped a piece, I instantly screamed to high heavens. I was on fire! I took no pleasure from that traumatic experience. I was eight years old. I never had another hot pepper. (I didn't know it at the time, but it was a Scottish Bonnet, a chili pepper that is up to 40 times hotter than a jalapeño).

I especially enjoyed the the ultramarathon chapter. Cowart observed and interviewed some of the ultrarunners at Lazarus Lake's 2019 Big Dog Backyard Ultra. In this event, runners have an hour to complete a 4.166667-mile trail loop every hour until there is only one runner left. I'm an ultrarunner and have run Laz's A Race for the Ages - a multi-day ultra where geezers have as many hours as their age to run a one-mile loop in a parking lot under the scorching Tennessee sun. I partook in this event in 2019. I was 60. The oldest runner was 87. Are we masochists?

The discomfort and suffering in ultrarunning that comes with fallen toenails, bloody blisters, stinging body chafing, sleep deprivation, loss of cognitive functioning, slurred speech, brain and body fatigue, nausea, tripping and tumbling, and hallucinations during an ultramarathon is par for the course. With suffering from the physical act of running comes achieving my goal - getting to the finish. I am not a masochist. Ultrarunning is about human endurance and not about masochism in pursuit of pain on purpose. And yes, I feel good when it's over and can't wait to run my next ultra.

Hurts So Good is raw, graphic, and unfiltered, and written in a conversational tone with humor. The book is well-researched and engrossing, and contains a bibliography of sources for further reading. There is a lot to absorb and ponder.

Leigh Cowart's first book will make you gasp, laugh, and shake your head. Hurt so Good: The Science and Culture of Pain and Pleasure is an eye-opener that will make your jaw drop, and might inspire you to seek pain on purpose by experiencing your first hot chili pepper, polar bear plunge, and ultramarathon. Will any of these painful adventures make you a masochist? You decide.


I am the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. You can order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.

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