April 2013

Marathon as Metaphor

Metaphors are everywhere we look. Some can be helpful and some, especially if pushed too far, can distort. "My love is like a red, red rose" tells us something about one's love—that there is beauty, depth, intensity, tenderness and the risk of pain (with the thorns) there. We do not, of course, expect one's love to have leaves, stem and roots. "My love" is something, but not everything, like a red, red rose. But what is true is understood in a real and nuanced way with the comparison.

Metaphors can be found in the grief world, too. When loss comes, we are heartbroken. Our physical heart still beats and may work just as well as it did before, but in some true way it is broken. Death comes like a thief in the night, and in the most difficult times of our grieving, our darkest times, we sometimes describe it as "the dark night of the soul." And continuing with the themes of light and dark, many a mourner has connected to the ancient words speaking of walking through the "valley of the shadow of death." All these images, and more, tell us something important and often profound about this experience of grief which can cut like a knife and whose edges eventually soften but do not disappear.

After years of participating in the shorter races—5K, 10K and half marathon—this year I registered for and completed the Little Rock Marathon, the whole thing. It took a long time and there was much time to think in the preparation, the race itself and the days afterward when I was moving very slowly. All this time presented opportunities to reflect and in some important ways, our experience of grief is like a marathon.

First of all, it is a long journey—really long for some of us. Here in Little Rock part of the marathon weekend is an event called the Little Rockers Kids Marathon. In this event, children ages 7-12 complete 25.2 miles of the 26.2 miles of the marathon before the marathon weekend. They walk or run their miles or partial miles over a period of weeks or months and then on race day they complete the last mile of their marathon. Hundreds of children line up for the final mile and when it starts, many children sprint, running with all their might and reckless abandon. But no matter their motivation, no matter how much they want to finish it quickly, they inevitably slow down because it's too long to maintain their top speed. Even with the final mile, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and it's important to pace yourself. In order to do the whole distance, many runners (including this runner) purposely plan to walk part of the race. The method of running for a set number of minutes and then walking for a minute or more is a practical strategy of endurance and survival. It is the only way many of us can make it to the finish line.

Another thing that about marathons and marathoners is that one can't tell how fast one runs is by outward appearance. I was passed by young and old, short and tall, thin and not so thin. And periodically, I did a little passing myself. Many of us not so fleet of foot are tempted by the running shirts with the message on the back: "Please let there be someone behind me to read this" as opposed to the t-shirt once seen in a race with the message on the back: "If you're seeing mine, I'm kicking yours." I only saw that one for a little while. In a marathon, everyone has their own style and pace and comparisons are helpful in very limited ways. All runners are challenged to run their own race, and much like the grief world, all have their own stories about how they ended up there.

While running a marathon is in many ways an individual experience, it is also a community experience and the company of others makes a difference—many times a significant difference. There is an energy found in a group moving in the same direction that is not found alone. While everyone has a different story and set of motivations, all have a common challenge to endure and persevere. I met a friend at mile 10 and we ran (and walked every fifth minute) together for 10 miles. Having the company and support of a friend made a huge difference, especially in the long inclines in the middle of the course. We picked up another runner—a stranger who quickly felt like a friend—around mile 18 and we all ran together for camaraderie and support. At mile 20 our differing needs for walking caused us to part ways after offering mutual encouragement. Like all other runners that day, we ran the same course but our own individual races.

And then there's pain. I've not met anyone who has experienced a marathon without pain and I certainly did not break that pattern. Somewhere between mile 21 and 22, the strides really started to hurt. A friend and fellow runner that day expressed that around mile 20 she began "to fall apart." Some runners describe it as "hitting the wall" where it is just as much, or more, a matter of will than of body. One's energy is spent and it becomes a mental, and perhaps spiritual, challenge to keep putting foot in front of the other, to find some way of continuing on. Marathon training generally doesn't take you the whole distance—the last miles are a mental thing, it is said, no matter your training. Pain is part of the package and part of the unavoidable price to pay no matter your preparation. It is difficult to imagine or believe a marathon without fatigue and pain. And grief without fatigue and pain doesn't seem believable either.

Perhaps a major place where the metaphor of grief as marathon breaks down is in the matter of choice. Most do not choose to run a marathon and so its trials (and rewards) can be avoided. Grief cannot be ultimately be avoided, however we do have some amount of choice in the matter. When we open ourselves to love and attachment, we have chosen the pain of grief when loss eventually comes. Why love and attach when we know that loss and grief will follow? Why run a marathon when we know that pain is part of the experience? In this way, love and grief are like marathons: there is worth there—we know it deep inside—but it can be hard to explain.

Greg Adams

Center for Good Mourning

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