Running through Hell
By The Running Muse, Jan 26 2015 06:35PM
"I am in Hell!", the infamous rebel yell of Fletcher Christian on H.M.S. Bounty, articulates a feeling only too familiar to long-distance runners as the body mutinies against the demands being placed on it. Each runner's brain has to manage the howling protests of the body it governs, and marathons are certainly run as much in the head as on the feet. Hell must be endured, its demons conquered.
If you're going through hell, they say, keep going and come out the other side, but what if you're going through Hell? The running conditions there would surely make the oppressive heat of the Marathon Des Sables seem like a balmy spring day, but, strange to relate, running in the lower chamber of the afterlife has a small but rich literary heritage, not only in the horror genre, but in at least two of the greatest works of the Western canon. Perhaps tellingly, there are no chronicles of any such races being held in Heaven, Paradise or any other pain-free realm.
'Hell' is the English word used to translate the Biblical names for the abode of the dead ('Hades' in New Testament Greek, 'Sheol' in Hebrew), but the idea of Hell as a pit of suffering, despair and punishment has more in common with Tartarus, the part of Hades reserved for the wicked in Greek mythology. These original 'nether regions' would go on to suffer a terrible linguistic fate - they became a euphemism for the groin area, chapsticked or otherwise.
The abstract concept of hell invoked by runners to describe their agony refers to this place of eternal torment, so it is no surprise that many of today's most gruelling obstacle races - typically run through freezing rivers, hills of mud and walls of fire - have names such as Hellrunner, Run Through Hell and the delightfully oxymoronic Santa's Hell Run. Well, here's the daddy of them all........
The medieval Florentine poet Dante witnesses plenty of Hellrunning on his spiritual journey to the very heart of darkness. In his 'Inferno' (the Italian for 'Hell'), this quest is chronicled as a kind of guided therapy for his midlife crisis, but as he arrives in Hell's foyer for his first session, he is greeted by the ominous entrance sign 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' (above), beyond which he sees the fate of the Uncommitted, the neutral souls who sat on the moral fence doing nothing in their life, either for good or for evil.
Their rather harsh punishment is to run naked for all eternity in the hottest part of Hell in pursuit of a meaningless banner which never stands still. Like them, it stands for nothing. These were life's opportunists, but they have only earned themselves the constant attention of stinging wasps giving them a literal prick to the conscience (and presumably motivation to keep on running towards their perpetually retreating finish line).
When Dante later comes across an old teacher of his in a desert of fire reserved for the 'sodomites of the Inner Ring' of Upper Hell, he accords him great respect, writing that even here his mentor
'was like one of those who run for the green cloth at Verona,
and he seemed not the loser among them,
but the winner.'
This is a reference to an annual Lenten footrace, the Palio di Verona, the prize for which was a green banner, 'il drappo verde'. It is still run as a 10k race today, although the participants are no longer naked - and the men's winner receives a cock as his reward.
Speaking of which, those of you caught short during marathons will be surprised to learn from Dante that many of the cubicles of Upper Hell are reserved for the 'incontinent' (they're not toilets, though, since Hell is 'damnation without relief', according to Rowan Atkinson). Now you might think that making the incontinent wander forever on burning sands is a bit over the top as retribution for a weak bladder, but the word refers more generally here to sins of uncontrolled passion and excess, such as lust, wrath, gluttony and greed - and it is the Flatterers who end up in a river of faeces, in their own bullshit, perhaps.
Other running sinners include extravagant spendthrifts who are chased and savaged by vicious dogs through the Wood of the Suicides (below), thieves being pursued by snapping serpents, and pimps and seducers, who must constantly flee from horned demons goading them with whips.
One of the winged demons, however, is more at home here and runs through his workplace like some kind of fell-runner
'with nimble feet so swift up every crag,
his fierce, dark face split by an evil grin.'
The fallen angels of John Milton's Paradise Lost are altogether more playful in their running. As they wait for The Lord of the Flies to return to Pandemonium (the capital of Hell) from the Garden of Eden, they decide to pass their leisure time competing with each other and 'in swift race contend, as at th'Olympian games'.
They even came to compete in an away fixture in the rather less cheery but much more recent account of Hellrunning in Clive Barker's thrilling short story, 'Hell's Event' (also a graphic novel). It tells how 'Hell came up to the streets and squares of London....icy from the depths of the ninth circle' to threaten the future of humanity - by entering a team in the London Marathon, no less. (Barker's reference to ice quotes Dante, whose Satan is immobile in a lake of ice in the very centre of Hell, which rather subverts the meaning of the phrase 'when Hell freezes over'.)
In this darkest of running fables, the agents of Hell see democracy as just a new cult ripe for takeover, for 'without the human urge to compete....Pandemonium may well have fallen for want of citizens'. They unleash some seriously Manichaean action during the race when the marathon runners, like Dante's thieves, find themselves being pursued by hideous, hissing creatures, albeit disguised at the start line.
The only rule for the good guys is 'don't look back', the age-old maxim from running coaches, capricious gods and Bob Dylan that has often been ignored, notably by Lot, Orpheus and Bob Dylan, but even they did not suffer the extreme consequences meted out here. At least we runners are free to face our mid-race demons without sanction......that's democracy for you.
In terms of runners' hell and an understanding of the solitary runner's mind, perhaps the best horror story is David Clayton Carrad's 'Competition', a tense, atmospheric mystery set in a remote part of coastal South Carolina. A pre-dawn jogger is musing philosophically on the pitfalls of competitive running, as opposed to running for its own sake, when he sees a car's headlights ahead, engine idling. The ensuing nightmare has the protracted sense of menace of Steven Spielberg's 'Duel', with the denouement being played out along a narrow causeway exactly 10,001 metres long.....in the dark, of course. Hell is indeed murky.
Many of the above trials will be familiar to modern runners - stinging wasps, vicious dogs, burning sands and impatient cars on a country road - but hell for them is mostly experienced between the ears, the runners' underworld..........and even 'swift-footed Achilles' was reduced to 'the ghost of a great runner' in the underworld, according to Homer. Some of those entering races today may be thieves, be seducers or be incontinent, but it is only the Uncommitted in training who will receive certain punishment on race day, for they will truly feel in Hell.
'Devils and Monsters: Runners in Literature to 1600', from Running in Literature (2003) by Roger Robinson, Breakaway Books
'Hell's Event' (1985), short story by Clive Barker in Books of Blood, volumes 1-3, Sphere Books
Illustration from is from the graphic novel version, Tapping the Vein: Book 4 (1990, Titan Books), drawings by Steven E. Johnson, Alan Okamoto and Jim Pearson
'The Wood of the Suicides', illustration for The Divine Comedy by Gustave Dore, wood engraving print
'Competition' by David Clayton Carrad, from The Year's Best Horror Stories X (1982), ed. Karl Edward Wagner; it originally appeared in Running Times magazine in June 1981
I am grateful to John Llewellyn Probert, horror writer (johnlprobert.com) and surgeon (who presumably doesn't advertise too many details about his literary life to his patients), for his suggestions regarding running stories in his particular specialty (horror, that is, not urology)
I have been unable to find the original source of the top image (the Uncommitted at the gate of Hell)
Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?
Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.
Comedians have laughed at it, scientists have analysed it, and historians have chronicled its cultural resonance. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul with stories from all of them.
Even the sweatiest of ancient Greek gyms were also places of intellectual endeavour, so welcome to a new blog for the thinking runner, a miscellany of musings on running in culture that will be navigating the existential wonders of putting one foot in front of the other.
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