Late last summer and into the fall, when the repercussions of the fracture which I had suffered in spring continued to stretch on, the feeling I remember most vividly was one of grasping desperation. I found the cruel bombardment, noisy and forceful, which I had been prepared to hunker down and absorb for several months, to be unceasing. Trapped in the cramped, dark space of my newly contracted world, I began to wonder how much longer I could mentally withstand the repeated explosive impacts ripping away chunks of my resilience and sending them careening into the growing pile of rubble. Dramatic metaphors aside, war is truly the most apt characterization I can think of for that period of my life. A mind at war with itself, and sometimes I didn’t know which side the “real me” was on–if I were on any side at all.
So I did the most natural thing. I followed my survival instinct, which for me took the form of armoring, in any fashion or form I could find, my identity as a “trail runner,” even as that identity seemed to have dissipated as rapidly as morning fog. Immersing myself in articles penned (okay, probably typed) by Zach Miller, both analytical and inspiring, or hearing Hilary Allen recount her periods of struggle and even despair through injury, which I could identify with but not feel, like my own life shot through with novocaine. Flipping on the UTMB live stream, clutching my coffee mug, gawking at the fairy tale town of Chamonix planted in the crown of the Alps as a beaming Courtney Dauwalter made her way through the thronged streets, an author of history, an author of the impossible. And I cried. And I believed. And I knew that one day I would return, that if they had figured it out, so could I. But such escapism came at a price, for when I rose from that dark water, their world fading back into mine, I was still dripping wet, and being whipped by cold winds. “Figure it out, figure it out” the wind seemed to taunt and hiss. Damn it, what was the formula?! Every sharp pain in my foot was an indictment on my past, my present, and my future–the chasm between my heroes and me. And so I’d sink back into the pool of nostalgia, the pool of wishing, fake but sweet, like a gas station honey bun, and after coping in the same way again and again, I began to feel sick and wonder why.
If this all sounds bleak, good. These are the fertile conditions from which mental pathologies shoot up like weeds. And with the day to day seeming so twisted and broken, the most addictive thing is perfection. But of course, no such thing exists. Perfection is a comfort in the moment, and in my desperation, I needed something on which to pin it to make it feel real. So I turned to other runners, other human beings, and blew them up like balloons. Zach Miller, in particular, has been a personal hero of mine for years–his tenacity and resilience, his absurd ability to forget himself and become the pain of the race (yes, I am one of those people who got sucked into ultra running through Billy Yang videos), and, of course, the Pennsylvania connection. Just a humble, grounded dude living an extraordinary life, and I was drawn to that. Beyond running, I admired his work ethic, his ties to his family, his sense of humor; I saw aspects of myself in him.
At the time, however, it wasn’t enough for me to sit back and admire, because a big thing of mine–my own running–had popped, and I needed to take a little thing and inflate it to fill that space. At the risk of sounding creepy, my attitude began edging more toward hero worship. Hero worship is so seductive, because it reduces the monumental, often terrifying challenge of self-determination to the simplistic act of emulation. Whatever Zach does, that’s the right thing to do. Whatever gear he prefers, trails he runs on, ice cream flavor he always orders–those are all right. A double scoop of that, please. A Midas touch, where a nod from Zach can turn every day banality into gold. No need to figure things out for yourself, because Zach has done it for you, and you can just follow the steps, an easy how-to guide. Running was the nucleus of my identity, and in the wake of my injury I had already felt deconstructed enough that no disassembly would be required. All that was left to do was to reconstitute myself into an ersatz Zach Miller as best as possible, using the tidbits and scraps I could pick up from social media and any other mediums of exposure.
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20 (although if you know me, you might be doubtful that any type of vision I possess could be 20/20; let’s just say my glasses are probably bulletproof). I don’t know what fraction I’ve hit here, but I now see that the difference between admiration and deification of one’s heroes–especially when one is in vulnerable circumstances and needs something to believe in–is balanced on a knife’s edge. In a sport such as trail running, where there is no shortage of epic tales of grit and perseverance, selflessness, sportsmanship and triumph, the temptation is that much more immediate.
But such adulation comes at a price. It is not just seductive, but reductive. In perverting the humanity of your heroes and reducing them to flawless automatons, you also excise your own ability to relate to them in the daily struggles which you will inevitably encounter. It is a crude depersonification of not just one, but two individuals–both your hero and yourself. In taking another human being and casting them in a mold of your own design that fits your needs, you perpetuate a corrosive belief in perfection which will eat away at the foundations of your own confidence, your own valuation of your hurdles and accomplishments. The identity of our heroes seems so much more clear-cut, so much simpler than our own, because there is no substitute for living in someone’s skin. While we have no choice but to integrate our daily fluctuations and tremors, the tumult and the spasms of doubt or depression, into our own self-perception, that pesky problem doesn’t bother those whom we put on a pedestal, for we can just wish them away. It is lonely indeed to vault your heroes to superhuman status and find yourself alone at the bottom.
All this is to miss the point entirely; growth is perhaps the core component of beauty, and with perfection, there is no growth. Perfection is totally stagnant. Think of all that which causes you to stop in your tracks whilst navigating your favorite trail: the first purple crocus buds poking through dead leaves, nodding in the thawing air; a doe regarding you at a safe distance from a clearing; a friend or acquaintance headed in the opposite direction, tackling the uphill to your downhill, and you exchange friendly remarks as you pass by. These things were not always as they are; they came to be through challenges, through resourcefulness or connection, and the simple passage of time. And each is made more beautiful for it: a crocus because it will rise and fall and rise again; a doe because it stumbled before it could bound through the forest; a friend because awkward moments passed, and without them, there would not be the warmth and comfort which you now share.
A hero is not someone who is better than you, an ideal of which you will always fall short. A hero is someone who has grown and who knows that growth is continuous, someone who embraces imperfection as a condition of being human. A hero is someone who can provide inspiration or sound advice, but will never encourage comparison or leverage their own journey into something prescriptive, for they know that, in order for that growth to happen inside of you, you must take the hard road of self determination rather than emulation. A hero is not something to become, an end to the journey; a hero is someone who will walk alongside you for that journey, and offer their hand when you fall to the ground.