In the third and fourth decades of life, training for a marathon race becomes the lighting rod that ignites us and shifts our focus from a bleak future into one full of possibilities and potentials. Women get to this point a little earlier than men. This could explain way the largest group of marathoners in women (35-40) is slightly younger than men’s (40-44).
Getting fit to run a marathon is an act of rejection of anticipated losses that we mentioned in conjunction with a traditional view of middle age. The goal of staying young can be maintained for a while yet, or so we hope. Running the marathon, therefore, can be seen as a rebellion against being incorporated into a social classification – middle age – that does not seem to fit where we currently are.
We see running the marathon as a rite of passage into a new vision of middle age. The person who undergoes it believes he or she will leave youth and be incorporated into a new social status – a new vision of the middle age years – still pregnant with new possibilities and a bright future.
Rites of passage are rituals that societies create to mark their members’ transitions from one social identity into another. Typical rites of passage are birth ceremonies, adolescents’ initiation into adulthood, engagements, weddings, retirements, funerals, and so on.
The video of the initiation rite that accompanies this post is an example of a rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood.
In our society, there is no officially acknowledged and ritualized way of transitioning from youth to middle age.
I suggest that for some people running the marathon has become a ritualized way of coming to terms with turning 40 and wanting to do it in their own terms. This means resisting the current middle aged social identity and attempting to create a new social identity that maintains and values some of the traits about themselves they want to preserve.
This seems to be particularly true for those women and men for whom long distance running had not previously been part of their lives. Quite possibly, this group may not continue to be interested in running once they have proven themselves, just like teenagers in many cultures have to go through a difficult and painful rite of passage to prove themselves ready for their new social identity as adults.
Of course not every marathoner fits into this picture. There are people who have been serious long distance runners all their lives. For them, running a marathon at 40 is not necessarily a rite of passage to middle age, but an activity that has been part of their lives all along.
Also, there are a lot of people who will never be fit enough to run. For them, other events, more or less ritualized, can become rites of passage into a new view of middle age.
Examples of these events are extraordinary trips, new experiences and activities and changes in life style – joining a motorcycle club, for instance – that are seen as journeys marking the passage from one social status to the next. These modern day trips are not dissimilar from the quests people used to go on in more traditional societies, which consisted of journeys in search of something extraordinary.