Hero Stories: The Uncanny Connection Between Ultrarunners and Our Literary Heroes

Sabrina Little examines how ultrarunning narratives often parallel the great hero stories, and ponders lessons we can learn from both.

By on April 17, 2024 | Comments

One of my worst races was the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile in 2017. That day, I paced myself imprudently. My headlamp died, so the darkness I experienced was both literal and metaphorical. I tumbled off a couple of footbridges in the dark, and, due to an untimely muscle imbalance, my torso folded in half like a comma from mile 80 onward, which gave people pause (1).

I chased aggressive splits early in that race and fell behind in fueling. Upon realizing my error, I tried to make up for the deficit too quickly and in soda form. I learned an important lesson that day: In large quantities, Mountain Dew is a Mountain Don’t.

Ultimately, when I emerged from the dark forest cloaked in mud after 100 miles of running, I looked more like a swamp creature than a girl. But I made it to the finish line. I ultimately survived, so the genre of this memory is a tragicomedy.

Sabrina Little at Rocky Raccoon 100

Sabrina Little finishes her hero’s journey … and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Running Heroes

If we are being honest with ourselves, our sport is odd. Sometimes we run on paved loops for days at a time, which is conceptually simple yet difficult to execute. Other times, there are streams and mountains to contend with, or hours spent in solitude. Sometimes we use maps and attempt races with negligible completion rates, and often there are more squirrels than spectators.

But ultrarunning is odd in an enjoyable, adventuresome way. And because these races are often equal parts race and adventure, we are positioned to learn from some of the great adventurers of literary history. We can learn not just from other athletes but also from heroes. Here are three of my favorites.

Dante Alighieri

The book: “The Divine Comedy”

The adventure: In what can only be described as a hellish cross-country course, Dante descends to the Underworld before ascending through Purgatory, into Paradise. It sounds very hilly there, and the event ends on a big climb. Also, it is oddly colder at lower altitudes, and there are actual demons. But Dante proceeds through a process of spiritual rehabilitation throughout the journey and is transformed upon completion. Marathons are a spiritual journey indeed.

At the outset of the adventure, Dante is lost in a dark wood and sees three animals a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Wild animal encounters happen to all of us. Be safe out there, friends! However, this particular combination of beasts is startling, and I wonder what kind of flora supports that fauna.

What we can learn: If your journey will be tough (Inferno tough), always bring a friend. Preferably bring Virgil, who reads the course map ahead of time and seems to know where he is going.


The books: Homer’s “Iliad” and Odyssey”

The adventure: After helping the Greeks win the Trojan War, Odysseus sets sail for home, to Ithaca. This book has been out since oral history, so here is a plot spoiler: Odysseus’ journey is full of unanticipated obstacles. Maybe you can relate.

Odysseus loses much of his legion on the island of Cicones, then again in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, and he finds himself trapped in a cave lair of Polyphemus the Cyclops. Folks, avoid mid-run cave naps, for various reasons!

There is an enchantress and a trek to the underworld a steep, mid-race descent into actual hell. And there are natural dangers to contend with, like thunder, lightning, and violent conditions at sea. It takes Odysseus a full 10 years to make it home, meaning he probably starts the race in the open category and finishes as a master.

What we can learn: We can take many lessons from Odysseus. First, do not eat unidentified plants (specifically lotus) on your journey. Second, know yourself. Odysseus knows he will be turned aside by the Sirens, so he tethers himself to the mast of his ship to stay the course. I am not suggesting you use twine to commit to your goals, but it does not hurt to have safeguards in place to help you stay the course through moments of weakness. Third, we might think about the plausible impacts that running can have on our friends and families. Our adventures are optional, unlike Odysseus’ trek home. But Penelope bears all of the household responsibilities while Odysseus travels. We might think about the impact of our extended adventures on the people we love.


The book: “Beowulf”

The adventure: Beowulf’s story involves more aggression than the average ultra-adventure tale. Beowulf travels from his home in Geatland to Heorot, to help King Hrothgar’s men defeat a monster named Grendel. His mission is successful! But there are other battles to fight first Grendel’s mom and ultimately a dragon, the latter of which deals him a deathly blow.

What we can learn: Use your strength to honor the people around you fighting for objectives that are bigger than yourself. And, in general, avoid swamps.

More seriously, in “Beowulf,” a hero is humanized. Beowulf is ascendent in his early years. He is a great fighter and notoriously brave, and he is named the king of the Geats. But, as with all adventurers, his strength wanes with age, which is a source of vulnerability for him. This is not a fun lesson, but from Beowulf, we learn that all heroes eventually lose, no matter their strength.

Sabrina Little running the Rocky Raccoon 100

Sabrina Little emerging from the tragicomedy of her Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile.

Final Thoughts

Ultrarunning is an odd sport, in that it straddles both competition and adventure. But this makes many of the great hero stories instructive and relatable.

We can learn from, and deeply appreciate, the misadventures and vulnerabilities of great heroes from the past. And perhaps in reading about various journeys through the Underworld or being pursued by a monster and that monster’s angry mom our misadventures seem mild by comparison.

Call for Comments

  • Which hero’s story do you relate to in your running the most?
  • What hero’s lessons have you learned through ultrarunning?


1. This is a comma joke.

Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.