All rites of passage involve three stages: separation, transition and re-incorporation.
In the case of marathon running at middle age, these three stages are evident.
During their rigorous training, people who train to run a marathon separate from the rest of the group by changing their regular eating and sleeping habits, by shifting mentally and by dedicating a lot of time, thought and energy to exercising and making this endeavor a priority in their lives. They ally and band together with other men and women who have the same goal and the same tenacity and discipline. If they are lucky, they are supported by family and friends who cheer and support them along the way.
The transitional period is the most difficult one, as it always is at any stage of life because the old rules are no longer and the new ones do not yet apply. For forty-something men and women this transitional period can be a very stressing one indeed, particularly in today’s society.
The purpose of ceremonies and rituals at social and physical transitional times is to reduce the social discomfort, ambiguity and disorientation that come from not being affiliated to a clearly defined social group with which one can identify. Anthropologists talk about of “liminality” from the Latin “threshold”, which aptly describes the ambiguous social position people have at transitional times. In liminal spaces, one’s social identity dissolves, creating confusion and anxiety. If people have no way of getting incorporated into a social status, this state of liminality can become chronic, leading to severe emotional and social problems.
The stage of re-incorporation consists of membership into middle age, albeit with rules and expectations different than earlier, and alliances based on affiliation to and identification with like-minded people. This re-incorporation is strengthened by the ceremonial atmosphere of the race, with a large participation and the public acknowledgment and rewards for having gone through the tremendous physical feat the marathon race entails.
The body is often the object of the ritual transitional process. In the initiation ceremony video seen earlier, the bodies of the teenagers who were being initiated had to endure terrible discomfort to prove strength and endurance to pain. Running a marathon, as we said earlier, was thought to push the human body to the limit of its endurance, hence it certainly qualifies as a test of discipline and rigor. The runner achieves a recognition that well affects his role in society and, after running the race, it is hoped will create a new position for him or herself in a different social group.
In my experience as a psychotherapist, when a middle aged person tells me “I’m going to run the marathon,” I ask myself “Why do they need to prove themselves now?”
Is running a marathon a means of proving they don’t fit in the traditional view of middle age?
Is it a way of fighting sadness, disappointment or anxiety about what is going on in their lives by moving from an area where they may not have much control to an area where they think they may have more?
Whether is one or the other, or a little of both, should we, as a society, think of better ways of helping people in their middle years who no longer fit the traditional picture of middle age to transition into a social group that better reflects who they are?