"If you ever catch yourself describing someone's effort in an optional running competition as ‘heroic,’ consult a dictionary.”
This sentiment jumped out at me one day as I mindlessly perused the social media time toilet (except, isn’t all social media a time toilet?) that is Twitter. I stumbled upon this aforementioned Tweet the same night where, earlier, while eating dinner with two work colleagues, the subject of Tiger Woods’ recent DUI came up, along with the topic of Michael Phelps getting busted for pot a few years ago.
“We really put all those guys on a pedestal,” remarked one of the guys I was with.
And it’s true, we put them on a pedestal, make them our “heroes”, and then they can do no wrong as far as we’re concerned. And if they do, all of our minds are blown and it’s like this huge scandal. But it got me wondering, and certainly not for the first time, but why? Why do we make any athlete or athletic endeavor out to be somehow heroic? Sure, most athletic feats—whether it’s the outrageous ability to endure prolonged extreme discomfort and the endlessly repetitive training that comes with endurance sports, or the astonishing agility and precision acquired from years of honing the proprioception and hand-eye coordination necessary to succeed in many other sports—are really impressive. But, at the end of the day, what does it really do for anybody else? Why do we laud people at the top of the game, any game really, as supposed heroes?
Now, this “pedestal phenomenon” I suppose I will call it, is perhaps a post for another day given that although it's related, in this case it's slightly off topic (me? Off topic? Never!). For now, the question remains: is there anything heroic about any athletic pursuit?
It would seem so, as much as we hero-worship the most successful among athletes. You don’t have to spend all that much time in any sport, at any level, to catch of glimpse of this. But none of this really entered my mind until a few years ago when, following a good mountain season, Joe Gray, Allie McLaughlin, and myself were awarded the “Spirit of Colorado Springs” award, and by the mayor no less! And I remember standing there after awkwardly (awkwardness in social situations is to be expected from me, naturally) shaking the mayor’s hand, holding this super rad glass plaque, and thinking it was all pretty cool and all, but also sort of thinking, “Um, what?” I mean, we all ran up a few good-sized hills pretty adeptly, but none of us could boast of saving babies or kittens from burning buildings. Unless there is something about Joe or Allie that I don’t know. They're both pretty great, so there very well might be. So maybe I should just speak for myself there actually. No rescued babies or kittens or otherwise noble deeds on my end, sorry.
Anyway, that incident is obviously quite miniscule and nowhere near the scope of the athletic accomplishments of many of those whom we slap the “hero” label upon after their latest and greatest seemingly inhuman feat, but you get the idea.
In any case, circling back around the present and my mindless perusal of Twitter. It’s possible I took this particular Tweet a bit out of context, but regardless, stumbling upon it immediately following the previously mentioned dinner conversation got the gears turning upstairs, and I decided to follow the instructions conveyed within said Tweet, and consult a dictionary to perhaps better grasp this word, “heroic,” to better determine whether any of us who voluntarily subject ourselves to self-induced suffering in the form of running, are really ever deserving of such a description.
This definition then necessitated that I look up the word "hero".
Sandwiches aside, for the most part these definitions do indeed aptly describe a lot of seemingly inhuman humans who dominate the sporting world, and even those who don’t but who maybe broke through a bunch of their own barriers to achieve something great they never dreamed of, even if it was something as humble as breaking five hours in a marathon, or the one time pack-a-day smoker who now runs 100 mile ultra-marathons in respectable times. There is, after all, something about being willing to very intentionally step far—very, very far--outside of one's comfort zone to see what you're made of, that brings the word "courageous" to the forefront of my mind.
But nonetheless, I still absolutely get what Tweeter McTweety is getting at. To be quite honest, there is a certain something that bothers me to some extent, to see this or that Flavor of the Week athlete being hoisted upon a pedestal, thrust into the limelight, and touted as a hero for doing something like running far or swimming fast or hitting a ball. Heroic? Regardless of the level, is it really? I mean, back in the day, a hero was the knight that saved the village and all of the damsels in distress from the fire breathing dragon, not somebody who ran fast around an oval quite literally going nowhere fast.
But conversely, and I can only speak of the running world given that’s all I really pay attention to, there is also something that makes your hair stand on end just a little bit seeing somebody battle it out and win at the highest levels, where you can tell that the battle is just as much internally with themselves as it is externally with the rest of the field. There is something, yes, heroic about their efforts.
I do however, tend to see more real heroism down the ladder a few rungs, not always necessarily in the realm of the super-elite, but in a lot of folks who’ve successfully run from (or perhaps with) their demons, slayed their dragons, and conquered their mountains, so to speak. I know a number of folks like that, and I’d absolutely say they’re my heroes. This is however less because of their running feats, even though they are in and of themselves quite impressive, and more because of the platform that they’ve inadvertently used their running for, which is, more often than not, essentially to give a big “F**K YOU” to some circumstance or other that has effectively stacked the odds against them and rendered it so that perhaps they really don’t have all that much business doing what they’re doing, and they have shown that, come what may, you can choose to frankly not give a damn and go for it anyway, letting the chips fall where they may. Oftentimes, bearing witness to those feats is all the impetus that's needed to get us through our own rough patches in life.
So I suppose that after chewing on this for a bit (a “bit” being about 1,200 words now), I’d conclude from my own ridiculous musings that there is absolutely a certain degree of heroism that you see at all levels in the athlete realm, regardless of the fact that any suffering experienced as a result is definitely voluntary and sought out.
I don’t necessarily deem somebody who just *wins-wins-wins* all the time as being “heroic” just for the sole reason of notching all of those victories. While I admire them for their consistency and hard work, I certainly don’t see them as worthy of being idolized and placed on a pedestal, although it seems to be human nature to do that to anybody achieving seemingly impossible things, even when they didn’t ask for such admiration, which they very often don’t. Ultimately, they’re just another person with a God-given talent that they discovered, chose to hone to a fine point, and then got some luck and opportunity along the way. I think it's more what they end up conveying to the world through this particular ability that determines "heroism."
That said, I do see truly genuine heroism in people who, often unintentionally, use their athletic achievements, regardless of how great or humble, as a platform to convey a much larger, and often unspoken, message. Those are the people whose success I like following the most. Flowery as it sounds, there often isn’t enough inspiration out there nowadays, and there aren’t a lot of literal dragons to slay, so we have to take what we can get where we can get it. In any given race, you usually don’t have to look far.