Running a Marathon: The Hero’s Journey

Why do we run marathons?  It’s a question I’ve asked myself often.

There comes a point in every marathon I’ve run, usually around mile 19 or 20, when I start to ask myself why I’m here, doing this to myself.  At mile 23 or 24 I start promising myself that I’ll never do this again, it sucks, it’s hard work, it’s not fun, why would anyone do this to themselves, and no way, not ever again, will I do another one of these.

So far I’m at six marathons, training for number seven.

Are we just gluttons for punishment?  Are we masochists?  Or are we just plain crazy?  People who don’t run, or have never run the 26.2 monster,  don’t get it.  Before I ran one myself, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t get it, it was more that I didn’t think I would ever be able to run that far.  I didn’t think I was physically strong enough.  At the time, I didn’t understand that physically it’s simply a matter of training and building up to a certain endurance level.

But I also know that it’s much, much more than that.  In fact, I would say that running a marathon is actually more mental than physical.  For me personally, it’s about 99% mental.

It takes a certain type of person to run marathons.  In general, my friends and I tend to be overachievers who set goals for ourselves that we eventually want to exceed.  We read everything we can about running and improving, and we’re tough.  We run through bad weather, high and low temperatures, and usually get our runs in before the sun peeks over the horizon.  We make schedules, track our progress, analyze our data, and set new goals based on our data.  While we are competitive, the only thing we’re truly competing against is ourselves and our previous PR.  Most of us say we’re going to run the next race “just for fun,” but that rarely happens.  We do what it takes, and not crossing the finish line is never an option.

Years ago I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth.  For me, an English Lit/History geek, it was a book that held deep meaning, and I felt like a different person for reading it.  Strangely, I had the same experience after running my third marathon and qualifying for Boston.  I had never pushed myself physically or mentally as hard as I did that day, and I wasn’t the same afterwards.  A few weeks ago I was reading Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and was reminded of the parallels of the hero’s journey and running a marathon.  The mythology of the hero most probably began in the paleolithic age, and was part of the rituals that took place under the resplendent cave paintings in France and Spain.

The hunter, the shaman and the neophyte all had to turn their backs on the familiar, and endure fearsome trials.  They all had to face the prospect of violent death before returning with gifts to nourish the community.  All cultures have developed a similar mythology about the heroic quest.  The hero feels that there is something missing in his own life or in his society.  The old ideas that have nourished his community for generations no longer speak to him.  So he leaves home and endures death-defying adventures.  He fights monsters, climbs inaccessible mountains, traverses dark forests and, in the process, dies to his old self, and gains a new insight or skill, which he brings back to his people.

When people told these stories about the heroes of their tribe, they were not simply hoping to entertain their listeners.  The myth tells us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person.  Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives.

You cannot be a hero unless you are prepared to give up everything; there is no ascent to the heights without a prior descent into darkness, no new life without some form of death.  Throughout our lives, we all find ourselves in situations in which we come face to face with the unknown, and the myth of the hero shows us how we should behave. 

This is where the entire idea of running a marathon as a hero’s journey comes together for me.  Even when we train for 16 weeks and do a couple of 20 mile long runs, we don’t really know what lies ahead when we stand at the start line of our first marathon.  We’re embarking on a road we’ve never traveled before.  There’s a reason people say “the race begins at mile 20.”  For most runners, going beyond your previous longest distance is uncharted territory, your very own personal “descent into darkness.”  Even if you’re running your 20th marathon, something happens to body and mind around the 20 mile mark that pushes you into a place you don’t often visit.

But when you persevere, when you go beyond the parameters of your old expectations and abilities, when you cross that finish line, you truly do die to your old self.  The person who wears the medal at the finish line is not the same person who stood nervously at the start line.  Sure, afterwards, life goes on, you go back to work in a few days, you still have to pay the bills and wash the laundry, but you’ve changed.  You’ve learned something about yourself that can only be experienced by going farther than you’ve ever gone before.

Joseph Campbell, himself a runner in his college days, says it this way: This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.

This journey, Campbell reminds us, is nothing less than the adventure of the hero–the adventure of being alive.

It’s a journey of your own making, and the only person you can trust to reach the end is yourself .  You have to trust that everything you’ve taught yourself up to that point is going to work, and that everything you rely on will do its job successfully:  your legs, your mind, your strength, your endurance, your focus, your spirit, and your belief in yourself.  When it all comes together, when you finish the race, no matter what metaphorical monsters, inaccessible mountains, or dark forests you had to travel through, or all the years of being overweight, nonathletic, depressed, abused, unmotivated, alcoholic, lazy, financially unstable, or whatever shadow chases you, no matter how long it took you to get there, you become a hero to yourself. 

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8 comments

  1. skippingstones

    This is such a great post! So many things in here that I can’t really decide what to talk about. I’m thinking about myself (of course), a non-runner, but certainly able to take what you say and apply it to my own life.

    The hero theories are so interesting and really ring true for me. I don’t think that all people feel this way – have the need to do or be more. But that only makes sense, because we’d all be heros otherwise. But we all are different. I have totally felt this way for all of my life, that there was something bigger that I was supposed to be doing, but not sure what it was supposed to be. You make me understand that it doesn’t have to be this grand huge public thing. It is something inside of me. An internal change. My own chosen finish line. My own chosen journey.

    I’ll be honest and say that I’ve begun to feel some feelings of accomplishment as I started blogging. It’s not some grand and huge public thing. It’s something inside of me that feels accomplished and as though I am changing.

    You have so many wonderful things to say and I’ve gained a lot from my subscription to your blog(s). Thanks for that!

    • Run Nature

      I’m so glad you liked the post! I really grappled with sounding conceited talking about being a “hero” just because I run, and was worried people would misunderstand my point, but you got it exactly. Campbell even says in the book, for example, that mothers are heroes just for giving birth, that they are bringing something good into the world. I think each person has to find out what that “something” is that they have to conquer and come out of on the other side as a new person. I think you would love reading The Power of Myth and would get a lot out of it.

      You most certainly should feel proud of your blog and the writing you’ve done. I always enjoy reading your posts and think your queries are a brilliant idea. You’re such an honest, insightful writer and I love that you’re not afraid to put so much of yourself into your writing. That takes guts. You never take the easy way out, and you’re always questioning and probing and dissecting your ideas in such a way that make your posts so interesting. I always look forward to reading your latest entries.

  2. michelle

    Awesome post.

    I question why I do marathons all the time. Especially now in my training I find myself asking those questions more and more and if it is something I truly enjoy. I enjoy pushing myself to my limits but at the same time my long runs make me miserable and I dread doing them.

    • Run Nature

      I can’t imagine doing my long runs alone like you do. It really helps to do them with a group. If I ran mine alone I think I would give up and walk most of the way! I don’t know if I can say I that enjoy running marathons, but for some reason I keep doing them. I keep thinking the next one will be my last, or I won’t “race” the next one, I’ll slow down and run it “for fun,” but I never do.

  3. Kristin

    Love this post Angela! I think we are all heros for trainging through the Texaas summer, especially when it’s going to be summer until December I feel like. I always look forward to reading your posts, thanks!

  4. Christina

    Just been reading through some of your work here Angela — good stuff! Especially this. I see myself probably quoting you at some point in the future …

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