Many hours after arriving at the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run, I walked out of the lodge, where runners were flopped in various states of exhaustion, rubbed my tired eyeballs and discovered the sun rising in the east. “Oh man, I just emerged from the underworld,” I mumbled to myself as I made my way to the bathroom. The more I thought about it, the more apt became the metaphor of the mythic descent.
According to The Oxford Companion to World Mythology:
The motif of descent into the underworld is common in mythologies around the world. Sometimes the hero goes in search of his or her destiny or long-lost loved one. In other cases, the hero descends simply to “know” the world below.
As part of the traditional hero journey, the myth of the descent seems to signify several things—for instance, a return to Mother Earth in preparation for rebirth into a higher divine hero state, or the facing of death before full selfhood can be achieved.
Psychologically, the descent is the “night journey” or the “dark night of the soul,” which points to the fact that the self, to be whole, must rule the inner world.
On Friday afternoon, Josh and I drove to Cary to spend the night at AC and Shannon’s Endurance Flophouse before helping Shannon and Kelly achieve their goal of completing the Umstead 100. Josh would pace each woman for a 12.5-mile lap (on his birthday, no less). I’d never seen a 100-miler firsthand and decided to volunteer at Aid Station 1 (aka Sally’s Asylum) by the start/finish in addition to helping crew the two women between laps. It seemed like a good opportunity to interact with the participants during their epic journey while being useful at the same time. I had no idea what to expect.
Our heroes (Shannon and Kelly) and their crew (Anthony, his sister Monique, Josh, and me) enjoyed a pre-race feast at a local Turkish joint whose lentil soup is so legendary that Josh has been forced to export it all the way back to Rockingham County. Our table of slender runners and ultrarunners downed extraordinary quantities of spicy meat kebabs, kibbe, hummus, pide, lentil soup, and more. We then called it an early night—except Anthony, who busied himself with packing half the household into his car well past midnight. Who knew what the runners might need during their voyage?
The next day, as the hours ticked by, we watched the runner-heroes fight demons of pain, exhaustion, and mental anguish. They descended, did battle, and emerged—some victorious, many scarred and blistered, a few defeated—before entering the next lap. As the sun set, the battles intensified in the pouring rain and lightning. By the time it rose again, the remaining heroes were ready and willing to face their final tests of will. Runners found their destinies by conquering the mile-foes ahead of them. They rescued lost loved ones by running in their memories. They crossed the finish line reborn into a higher divine hero state, having accomplished what very few of us would ever dream of beginning.
In the end, it became clear that running 100 miles is possibly the truest road to becoming a hero in our sport, and it is not a road that should be taken lightly or by just anyone. Shorter distances are mere quizzes compared to this epic challenge. The runner who is fearless enough to enter the depths of her being and find her way to the other side will be stronger and braver than the rest of us could even imagine.
Congratulations to Shannon, Kelly, race winner and record-setter Mike Morton, fast guy/third-place finisher Mark Manz, and every other runner who dared enter the underworld of Umstead. You are all heroes.
Relive the day on AC’s 2012 Umstead 100 live blog >>