“Do you really run the whole way?” Morgan, my daughter, following an eighth-grade cross-country meet asks.
Mo: “All 26 miles?”
Morgan, her confused gaze turning to horizon: “Why?”
She wasn’t asking me, really, but the universe. She knows I’m weird — your own mom is, by definition, weird, but this young girl, feeling the fatigue of a hard-fought two miler, rightfully wonders why anyone would subject themselves to 3 or 4 hours or more of consistent running.
I have asked myself, other people and the universe the same, especially while trudging through the purgatory that is mile 21, 22, 23 …
My daughter and I that day discussed some possible scientific reasons — the release of endorphins that comes from hard exercise. The adrenaline that accompanies fear, perhaps. The scientific answers make sense to me — a person who has admittedly sought better living through chemicals at times. The marathoner understands she is plunging into an abyss of pain from which she may emerge victorious or devastated — she knows not the outcome until she is well past the point of no return. Such a dive is both terrifying and invigorating — like sky jumping or getting a tattoo.
Here’s another idea. Think of the most epically inspiring movie you know — perhaps Schindler’s List, Gladiator or Braveheart.
The movies don’t really work without the main characters emerging from the depths of hell —surviving the slaughter of loved ones, unimaginable injustices — before becoming heroes whose legend even an old-fashioned beheading cannot squash.
In less dramatic terms, we cannot fully appreciate the light until we’ve endured the darkness.
Most of us in the marathon are reduced to utter survival mode in which simply putting one foot before the other takes every ounce of strength and will.
We cease to care about appearances, deadlines, petty arguments, politics or stock prices. For a few minutes, or maybe an hour, our perception of life and all that it entails is entirely altered, whittled down to its most primal form. That which is usually important is not.
Breathing, the function of muscles and body parts, remaining upright — these things become the new important.
As we approach and then cross the Finish line of the marathon, the pendulum shifts and we go from world-outcast trotting along the edge of hell to unstoppable hero possessing the secrets of the universe. We are immortal. We have acquired wisdom only those of us who have spent this time on the road will ever know. And we didn’t have to go to war, survive the Holocaust, witness a soldier slicing our spouse’s throat or spend time as an imprisoned lion fighter.
Our awakening occurred relatively safely, on the road, within our bodies and our minds.
But that’s just some romantic ramblings … it’s probably just the endorphins.