The entire poem does not refer to a specific athlete or a particular sports event but to a universal condition. The condition of the athlete becomes, therefore, metaphoric of the entire human existence and its inevitable progression towards death. Significantly, in line 5, humanity is defined as formed by different "runners". This second stanza is highly metaphorical, describing the experience of death with terms such as "home" (grave) and "stiller town" (cemetery) that usually refer to our everyday lives.
In addition to the progression towards death, the characterization of humans as runners could also refer to the equally inevitable competition among humans for fame. Such competition, as the following stanzas make clear, may seem futile with hindsight as death is not simply the culmination of physical decay but also of oblivion ("Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man"). The paradox of the poem is that oblivion and disappointments can be avoided through death, so that the dead person does not realize the transitory nature of fame.