The fascination of running a marathon: a via doloroso as psychical rebirth

People who run marathons as a hobby experience the 26 mile, 385 yard race as a voluntary ‘via doloroso’ encompassing four stages, from a psychical experience of complete self-sacrifice to a kind of “rebirth” which they experience as a beatific and strengthening state of happiness. Scientific explanations which attribute the attraction of running a marathon solely to the effects of bodily hormones ignore essential psychical factors of decisive import for the experience and fascination of a four-hour marathon race.

The number of participants in marathon races worldwide is increasing by leaps and bounds; in all marathons, there are too many applicants for everyone to be able to participate.
But what is that prompts amateurs in all age groups to undergo months of rigid, strenuous training so that they can ultimately run through a city along with thousands of other athletes? To research this fascination, rheingold subjected 30 amateur runners of both sexes in Cologne to depth-psychological analysis.

The explanation often put forward by natural scientists that the boom is due to physical “happiness” hormones is not sufficient. On their arduous way to the goal, marathon runners go through a multilayered psychical process, a via doloroso consisting of four stages of experience.

Step one: carried by euphoria.

The start of a marathon is the first moment of great satisfaction for amateur athletes, because they have arrived at the goal of their dreams and the torturous training regimen of the past months has come to an end. They are in a euphoric mood, and deal with doubts and insecurities about the challenge in a self-confident way: “You’ve trained for such a long time, now you can run your own race!” Spurred on by this mood and the applause of spectators, they complete the first 20 kilometers easily and strongly. The extraordinary situation of seeing familiar spots in the city from unaccustomed angles makes them almost forget that they are running.

Step two: the man with the hammer.

About halfway through, the runners start to feel their muscles. They start getting tired, their bodies become convulsed. The physical pain increases with each step and spreads to their mental experience. Their self-confidence quickly wanes, their will starts to break, and the runners start to doubt themselves. “Why are you doing this to yourself?” In this phase, the runners overcome their weaker selves and their self-doubts, and self-sacrifice takes the upper hand. With every step in this voluntary martyrdom the runners intentionally destroy the strong ego they had at the beginning and become a suffering bundle of misery with no will of their own: “The man with the hammer is coming.”

The third step: through the gate of suffering.

At the absolute nadir of suffering, when they don’t think they can go on, psychical experience suddenly changes dramatically and ushers in the turning point: the runners seem to abandon themselves and give themselves over to the situation, a secret force carries them, leading them to new and extraordinary experiences. This power comes from the outside: the encouraging looks of friends and relatives who with uncanny certainness are standing at the perfect place along the course, the applause of the spectators, samba rhythms, bananas, chocolate bars, or water extended to the runners. The “marathon” event with all its accompanying circumstances gives the participants – who had been suffering alone just a few minutes ago – a new lease on life. Said one woman runner: “I was especially moved when I couldn’t go on and was just about crawling, and then I saw my husband over at the side, who signaled to me: I’m there if you’re not feeling well. But you’ll do it!”

Step four: triumphant rebirth.

From the total wearing down of the psyche and the reviving experience of a larger context, in the fourth step the suffering turns into a beatific state of happiness: the psyche is reborn in triumph. For their unconditional willingness to subject themselves to a via doloroso, the runners are now rewarded with an “indescribable” feeling of happiness. They feel strong and powerful. Over the last kilometers they feel like they are carried by wings to redemption at the finish line. The passion has been fulfilled: the runners suffered on their own accord during the race and then freed themselves from this self-imposed suffering. They are victims and redeemers at the same time.

© 2015 rheingold