Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hero with a Thousand Paces

So, having just completed my second marathon, I've been thinking about how best to go about describing it.
I've already written about my first marathon here: The Great Train Wreck of 2011.
If you haven't read that post yet, you should.  Not just because I think it's relevant to this one, or because I think it's funny and that you might enjoy it, but also because I'm narcissistic and crave constant positive feedback.

Be sure to email me with detailed descriptions on the parts you enjoyed the most.

I did do much better this time around, however; which is just another way of saying that it makes for a much less-funny story than the last one.
I would love to be able to write a big, inspiring, tale of how I overcame great odds and amazed everyone with my stunning finish; especially since that didn't even happen.  Truth dictates otherwise, however.  I was 1,206th out of 3,699 people running the marathon (22,823 people, if you count the half-marathoners, which sounds a lot better, so I probably will).  Basically, I was just a blip in the middle of a sea of other runners.

Still, a lot can happen in 4+ hours, so you'd think there would still be lots of interesting stories to tell.  There was, of course, but it's mostly the same kinds of things that happened last time.
  • Funny signs ("Worst Parade Ever." was a good one).
  • I felt really good for the 1st third of the race.
  • I started to become rather tired in the middle.
  • I wanted to lie down and be trampled by the 2,493 people behind me.

I did try to entertain myself by reading other people's shirts.  I think you can tell a lot about someone (and the race), based on what their shirt says.  Using this logic, and some crude math, I determined that:
  • Many were running for, or because of, a loved one. 
  • Some people were actual cancer-survivors (woot!)
  • "Christ" and "Beer" were nearly equivalent reasons for running. 

Mostly, though, I did a lot of thinking.  By, "thinking", I might mean "trying not to cry", but only during the last 8 miles or so.  Naturally, I thought about how hard it was to do what I was trying to do.  But I also thought about why I was doing it.  And why all these other people around me were doing it.  Clearly, everyone has their own, though overlapping, reasons for being out there.  Deep down, we probably all share some element of a desire to see what we are capable of if pushed, but our reasons are as diverse as we are.  There's quite a difference between a drive to keep pushing yourself beyond your limits, and a longing to see what those limits may be, even if the end result is the same:  Queued up on all sides of me on a brisk Sunday morning about to run for hours.

We may have all been running the same course, but I can guarantee you that there were 22,823 different races going on that day.

I didn't really start thinking about Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey  until the last 10 miles or so.  About the time that I realized I wasn't going to break the 4 hour mark, at least not without some serious steam on my part.

Just in case you haven't heard of it, and can't be bothered to click the Wikipedia link above, in a nutshell:
Joseph Campbell's term monomyth, also referred to as the hero's journey, is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many narratives from around the world. ... Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages.
He, and others, go on to identify these recurring steps that appear in various myths, stories, films, etc.  "Star Wars" is a common example, but there are countless others.  Not every story has all steps, of course, and some focus more on certain stages than others.  In it's most generic sense, the Hero's Journey consists of a departure from the world, great trials & suffering, and a return to the world (usually with some treasure).  Naturally, it was during my period of "great suffering" that I began thinking about how this pattern might apply to my own run.
Obligatory Mandelbrot Set
The beauty of the Hero's Journey, however, is that it not only works on a personal level, but also at a multitude of scales.  Each day can be seen as a microcosmic example of the Journey, or one can look at your entire life as a heroic narrative.  In mathy terms, one could say that they are scale invariant, or self-similar like a fractal, or coastline.
Coastlines have lengths approaching infinity.  Google it.

And so concludes the ├╝ber-geek portion of this blog.

Anyway.  While it was tempting to compare this most recent marathon directly with the stages of the Hero's Journey (which was my initial plan), I think it works better for me to step back a bit and look at a slightly bigger picture.

2 Years Ago

The last 2 years have been a wonderful adventure for me.  New friends, new abilities.  Personal records have been met, broken, and redefined.

Many examples of the Hero's Journey begin with an accidental stumbling into a larger world (think: Alice in Wonderland's fall "down the rabbit hole").  Others involve a more deliberate search for adventure.  Campbell describes this early stage in the journey as "The Call to Adventure".
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
It was this latter case for me - an internal desire.  I'd been a moderate runner up until then; never more than a 10K.  But something was changing in my attitude towards running.  I wanted more.  Or, more specifically, I wanted to see if I could do more.

Continuing with Campbell's heroic stages, at this point the hero often comes across a guide to help them through their upcoming ordeals.  (Merlin, Obi-Wan, etc.)
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.
I don't have permission to post Edie's picture here (haven't asked), but I can't think of a better example of "supernatural mentor" than her.  Many of you in my local running community would agree, I'm sure.  Campbell goes on:
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.
Basically, as soon as I had decided "I want to run more", a running store opens down the street, and it has Edie in it.  The nicest, friendliest, person you'll ever meet (unless you're a whiner).  Is she "seasoned", you ask?  Do fifty and one-hundred mile trail runs count?  I'm going to have to go with, "Indeed".
Ah... but did she present me with some sort of talisman, or magical elixir to assist me in overcoming my future challenges?

You betcha:

Now armed with a spirit guide and magical potion, the hero must leave the world as he knows it, and venture out into unknown territory.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
Campbell refers to this threshold as an "entrance to the zone of magnified power".  Surely this is all metaphorical, of course.  The fear of leaving the confines of the known world for the unknown one merely represents the anxiety of every child who must eventually move beyond the bounds of their parental control.  Right?  I mean, there isn't really a secret land that you can disappear into, confront real danger (as well as inner demons), and emerge with new-found abilities, is there?

Think again.

It's called Chicot State Park.

Actually, to be more accurate, it's called "trail running".  I always forget if "trail" has the "a" before, or after the "i", but in this case I don't think it makes much difference.  It would be just as appropriate to call it, "trial running".  The result is the same.

They are dark, mystical places.  Guarded by fierce creatures.
Wild hogs, snakes, and these babies:
Guardian of the realm.
None Shall Pass!
Unless you have a big stick.

Ok.  So it also has lots of deer and bunnies, but still.  Look at this place.  I mean, you just know that Yoda is in there, right?
What's in there??
"Only what you take with you."
(seriously, there's no water or bathrooms.)

Much like Luke Skywalker's trip to Dagobah, your limits will be tested, fears & doubts will [must] be overcome, and you will emerge on the other side knowing a little more about yourself.  Perhaps a lot more.  In fact, anyone running with you will probably get to see a whole side of you that is best kept hidden from polite society.

Speaking of people running with you:
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
I don't think I made any enemies.  At least, none that I know of.
But allies? Definitely.
I'm sure there are crazier people out there in the world, but I doubt they can run as well.  What a fascinatingly strange and diverse mix of people I've met in the last 2 years.  Not just "met", but consider to be actual friends - to the point of being seen in public with them, or doing non-running related things together.  It appears that running, especially trail running, is the great equalizer.  It doesn't matter what you do for a living, or how much you make; your calves are just as filthy as the next person's calves.  And just as rock-hard, I might add.
We do have us some nice calves.

Now we get to the actual marathon.
THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

There is no question, in my mind, that the marathon was my Ordeal.  I don't need to even try to think of a better metaphor for something that can whittle me down to the barest essence of who I am, and then thrust me out, raw, into a crowd of cheering people.  If that isn't an example of a death and rebirth, I don't know what is.
As you run and the miles add up, you can feel bits of yourself falling away.  Not necessarily in a bad way, though it may feel like that at the time.  Oh look.  There goes my dignity.  Guess I didn't need that after all.  I tried to keep smiling and not look too downtrodden, especially when I saw the photographers along the route.  Not out of vanity, but as a reminder to try and be happy about what I was doing.
After the race, I did find one photo of me online that wasn't horrible.  I'm actually smiling and pointing at the camera, as if to say, "You did this."  I've never bought a race photo before, but I'm tempted to buy this one.  That's the only way to get a copy that doesn't have the word "PROOF" written across it.  Though, I kind of like that, too.  It's as though the photo itself is Proof of my journey through the Ordeal.
The other photos I found are much worse.  I look tired; I'm heel-striking; I'm making weird faces.
I've only run the New Orleans marathon, so I can't speak for all of them, but this one definitely seemed to get harder the further along you went.  Obviously, not just because you were running more.  I mean, the course itself seemed designed to eat away at your resolve.  It starts with bands and crowds.  Cheering and signs, galore.  You're running through shady neighborhoods of old New Orleans.  Then, there are less people.  Less signs.  You pass the halfway point.  The bands dwindle; they switch to country music.  Soon, you find yourself in a barren, shadeless plain of glaring white asphalt with overpasses.  That you run over. Twice.

You think I'm joking, of course.

So I Googled it for you.

These are representative Google Street-View screen shots I just grabbed.
Obviously, they aren't during the race, but they are from the actual route.

Somewhere during the first 6 miles or so.
Mentally add hundreds of people to this pic.

The last 10 miles looked like this.  With bridges.
Mentally add about 5 people to this pic.

The Boon

Did I finish?  Of course.  Did I think I was going to die?  Maybe.
During those last 10 miles, there was some serious inner-voice debates going on.  You really have to factor that into your training.  It's going to happen, and if you haven't experienced it in your runs leading up to the race, it might catch you with your guard down.  Regardless, even if you know it's coming, it can still appear to make some sense; almost sound reasonable.
This is hard.  We should just stop.
That's crazy.  I'm not stopping; I'm almost done.
Well, at least slow down.  We're not going to break the 4-hour mark.
I could slow down.  That might feel better.
You know what?  Half-marathons might be your thing.
Yeah.  I could just stick to half-marathons.  I'd be done by now.
Slow down.
Yeah.  Slow down.

So, did I break the 4-hour mark?  Nope.
Was I close?  Yup.

You have to keep a 9:10 pace in order hit 4 hours.
My average pace was 9:18.
Do I think I can shave 8 seconds off each of the 26.2 miles next time?  I can tell you one thing:  I sure as hell am going to find out.  I ran this one nearly an hour faster than my last one.  I think I should be able to cut off 4 more minutes...

Which brings us to the Prize.
I mean, what's the point of all this running and training?  There's got to be some tangible reward waiting at the end of all this, right?
THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again. 

Well, not much chance of me "losing the treasure", but otherwise that description seems to be pretty accurate: near-death experience, medallion, celebration.
I don't think the plastic medal is the real reward.  I think it is symbolic of the reward, but what is the real boon here?  If it's not the medal, the photos, or the shirt, what is it?  I'm tempted to say that simply completing the race is the reward, but that doesn't seem right either.
The more I think about it, the more I'm certain of it.
For me, the race itself was the boon.  The race wasn't the ordeal, it was merely the final leg of the ordeal.  The last dash in a year-long process of tempo runs, long runs, intervals, cross-training, experimenting with different nutrition and stretches, salt-ratios, "lacing strategies" (seriously), and a myriad others.

All leading up to this:
Being Ready to run the New Orleans marathon.

By the time I stood in my corral at the starting line, I had already realized the boon.  I was primed and ready. I was the boon.  The rest was formality.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

In almost every Hero's Journey, the hero must return with the prize.  It can be a physical object (like a treasure) or a magical ability.  Either way, it is symbolic of something more.  When you heed your own call to adventure and cross your threshold into uncharted and unfamiliar territory, you will face dangers and obstacles.  That is no surprise.
But you will also find allies and mentors.  Most importantly, you will find out something about yourself.  And when you do, you have to bring it home.  Bring it back to your world, and share it.  Be someone else's ally, or mentor.
Be the boon.

After all, what better proof is there of having survived your own Ordeal, completed your own Hero's Journey, than to be the very embodiment of that accomplishment?

That's all the proof you need.