Finding Life, Death and the Afterlife in the Mile Run: The Greatest Teacher in Life
“No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings,” Bannister wrote, adding that he felt bewildered and overpowered after becoming the first man to break 4 minutes in the Mile.
By Michael E. Tymn, The Journal of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, July 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written before the 2012 London Olympic Games.
With the Olympic Games due to begin on July 27, it seems like an appropriate time to examine the relationship of sport to spirituality. I don’t think that any other sporting event depicts that relationship more than the Mile run, though the 1500 meters event, the so-called “metric Mile,” which is nearly 120 yards short of a Mile, is contested in the Olympic Games.
During the early 1950s, my high school years, I developed a fascination for the Mile run. I didn’t understand the fascination then. It took another 40 years or so for me to grasp the symbolism. Initially, it was very abstract, but I think I now have it in fairly sharp focus, and, in retrospect, I now see the Mile run as my greatest teacher in life. The event is a microcosm of life. The finish line represents death, while the elation, disappointment, or despair following the race can be likened to the afterlife condition.
A Mile seems like an odd distance when you break it down to 5,280 feet, 1,760 yards, 320 rods, eight furlongs or 1,609.34 meters. But it is not without reason, for it was derived from an ancient Roman measure of 1,000 strides or 2,000 paces. The word comes from the Latin mille, meaning thousand. The fact is that a Roman stride was from the rear of the heel of one foot to the rear of the same heel. Thus, two paces made one stride. A Roman pace, therefore figures out to 31.68 inches, pretty consistent with a present day military march step of 32 inches, not quite a yard.
There is much greater rhyme and reason to the Mile when you divide it into four equal parts, as it usually was before the once standard 440-yard track was shortened by a few feet to 400 meters. In those four equal parts, the Mile became analogous to the seasons of the year – spring, summer, autumn and winter – or, concomitantly, to the stages of life – youth, young adulthood, middle age and old age.
To fully appreciate the analogies here, one must first recognize that a foot race of any distance can be viewed as a microcosm of life. There is a start (birth) and a finish (death or liberation). Between those two points, there is an unfolding – from awkwardness to rhythmic movement, from strength to weakness, from high vitality to depletion, from youthful exuberance to weariness, often reaching a point of near collapse at the finish. A runner who does not ration his or her energy over the length of the race will say that he or she has “died” before the finish.
The Mile lends itself to being divided into four equal parts more than any other standard racing distance. Moreover, the Mile is said to be the most balanced running event, requiring equal amounts of strength (anaerobic capacity) and endurance (aerobic capacity). And so it seems with life. And as in life, the Miler often experiences fear, doubt, apprehension, anxiety, suffering and frustration. He (or she) strives, struggles, suffers, surges and surmounts. He sometimes surrenders and he sometimes soars.
Applying a standard unit of time – a minute a quarter – we see a special symmetry to the Mile and significance to the challenge of running 4 laps in 4 minutes…or under. Covering a Mile in 4 minutes can be looked upon as symbolic of the perfectly paced life – a life of principles, patience, persistence and perseverance, a life in which suffering is essential because it touches the soul and awakens the spirit.
The First Quarter: Youth
The first lap of the race is like spring and youth. The runner is fresh, spirited, impulsive and possibly even reckless. There is a kind of awkwardness in the early strides as one must find a rhythm. In his book, The First Four Minutes, Roger Bannister recalled the moments right after the gun sent him on his way to running history’s first sub-4 minute Mile back in 1954 as he slipped in “effortlessly” behind Chris Brasher, “feeling tremendously full or running.” His legs felt no resistance and it was as if he was being “propelled by some unknown force.” He remembered wanting to shout to Brasher, who was acting as a “rabbit,” to pick up the pace. It wasn’t until he heard the first lap time of 57.5 seconds that he realized that his sense of pace had deserted him.
Certainly, discipline is the key on the first lap. Unless proper restraints are applied during this lap, the ordeal ahead will be especially difficult. To many of us already on life’s final lap, it appears that most of today’s young people do not have that discipline, i.e., are not properly restrained. As suggested by the name of a popular movie a few years ago, remaining celibate for 40 days and 40 nights is an act of endurance for today’s youth. Seduced by mammon and spurred on by the follies and fantasies instilled in them by an increasingly hedonistic, celebrity-worshipping culture, youngsters today appear to be running mindlessly and with reckless abandon in the outside lanes while trying to cover the first lap in 50 seconds, a pace which will most definitely take its toll in the early part of the second quarter.
As coaches we wonder how they can possibly finish without slowing to a saunter for the remainder of the “race.” We wonder if they care. We wonder where the parenting and coaching went awry. We wonder why they do not value the long-term prizes of the spirit as much as the short-term comforts of the flesh. We blame the system, a system which we did not have the foresight, strength, courage or time to resist.
The Second Quarter: Young Adulthood
The second lap is like summer and young adulthood. There is a striving for position as the heat of the battle begins to intensify. Bannister recalled still worrying about the pace being too slow, but heard a voice shouting, “relax” above the noise of the crowd. He obeyed and found himself relaxing so much that his mind seemed almost detached from his body. He covered the second lap in 60.5 seconds, passing the half mile in 1:58.
Settling into a good position with the necessary rhythm is the key to the second lap. Without the proper discipline on the first lap, this will likely be very difficult. It’s during this second quarter of life that we are establishing ourselves in our careers, developing relationships, marrying, raising children, starting to build a nest egg. For most, it requires considerable effort, but that effort is still not fully discernible. We have been conditioned to take it in stride, even though most of us often stutter-step, stumble and stagger as we become “boxed in” or trapped within prisons of own creation. It’s often dog-eat-dog, every person for him- or herself as we strive for a favorable position toward the front.
The gracious and ethical participant can be easily elbowed and tripped up, possibly falling flat on his or her face and never getting back into the race. We want the inside track but are often forced to the outside lanes because there is too much ambition, too much selfishness, too much greed on the inside. It’s often plain luck, perhaps fate, which permits the beneficent person to maintain a favorable position. So many well-meaning and gentle souls, though, are unable to adapt to the vainglorious infighting up front. They fall behind and must be content with simply finishing the race out of the medals.
The Third Quarter: Middle Age
Bannister slowed to a 62.7-second autumn lap, still well within reach of four minutes. He called the third lap “barely perceptible.” For those who have properly paced themselves through life’s first two laps, the third lap can be the most comfortable and serene. By middle age, many people have fully established themselves in homes and occupations and are no longer fettered by child-raising. The passions of youth have been sufficiently quelled and the infirmities of old age not yet encountered. It is the calm before the storm.
Many others – those who have not properly paced them themselves through the first two laps – are, however, already “crashing and burning.” The flotsam and the jetsam they have left on the track can obstruct and hinder those still maintaining a strong, steady pace. The last two laps can turn into more of a steeplechase, with its water jumps and hurdles, than a flat, smooth, rhythmic event. Maintaining focus and composure in spite of the distractions around us while holding something in reserve is the key to the third lap.
The Gun Lap: Old Age
Then, winter and old age – the gun or bell lap. The last of the life-giving oxygen begins to seep from the body and some form of arthritis attacks the joints. The muscles are no longer supple and feel the strain. “My body had long since exhausted all its energy,” Bannister wrote, “but it went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower.”
For those who have failed to properly pace themselves, the last quarter will be extremely painful. It becomes increasingly clear to them that their hopes will go unrealized, their ambitions unattained, their desires unfilled. If they have been unable to escape the jaws of mammon – unable to develop a spiritual outlook on life – they may see the finish line as extinction, obliteration, nothingness. They bury the idea of death deep in the subconscious and then busy themselves with their jobs, partake of certain pleasures, strut in their new clothes, show off their polished cars, worship celebrities, hit little white balls into round holes, escape in fictitious stories in books, at the movies and on television, experience vicarious thrills a sporting events and pursue a mundane security that they expect to last indefinitely.
The Finish Line: Death
But even those maintaining a proper pace may begin to question their resolve, as the finish line looms ahead like death. “The tape meant finality – extinction perhaps!” Bannister recalled thinking.
Notice the expression on many Milers as they cross the finish line – arms outstretched, neck taut, head tilted, face contorted, and in anguish. It is easy to imagine a wooden cross at the runner’s back and he may very well feel like crying out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
To Bannister, those last few seconds felt never-ending. But fun, pleasure and financial reward were never a factor in Bannister’s pursuit. The prize he sought was one of the spirit. No material reward would have substituted. Consciously or subconsciously, Bannister knew that the prizes of the spirit cannot be stained, can never rust, can never be corrupted. It was not extinction that Bannister was facing, he suddenly realized. There was something much greater waiting for him. “The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle,” he recalled. Leaping at the tape he was “like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.”
Bannister covered the last quarter in 58.7 seconds, finishing in 3:59.4, but it was not the end. The greatest part was yet to come – liberation! “No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings,” he wrote, adding that he felt bewildered and overpowered.
After the Effort
People who have had near death experiences – “dying” and then coming back to life – often recollect things during the time they were “dead” much as Bannister recalled the moments after finishing.
Though completely spent, the well-conditioned Miler will recover within a matter of seconds after finishing. The runner who was not properly prepared for the race will take much longer to recover. The totally unconditioned person attempting to run an all-out Mile might take hours or days to feel normal again. And so it seems with the afterlife – the spiritually-evolved person quickly transitioning, awakening, and adapting to his or her new environment, those not so spiritually evolved awakening more slowly, often disorientated and earthbound.
Those fully immersed in the mundane, clothed in the grossness of matter, slaves to materialism may not fully grasp or appreciate the analogies or metaphors here. They likely do not understand that the willpower of which Bannister spoke is a function of spirit and that spirit is the manifestation of soul. However, for those willing and able to see it, the Mile run can be one of life’s greatest teachers.