“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” – Holocene, Bon Iver
I think that we can understand a lot about ourselves – or at least our hopes for ourselves – when we take the time to consider those that we look up to or seek to emulate, and what specifically it is about them that draws us in.
At a surface glance, it is very easy to understand why I am so enthralled by the likes of such remarkable athletes as Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ross Edgley. Anyone who knows me in person is painfully aware of my eagerness to discuss their numerous merits, usually at great length and great detail. Each of their individual and athletic achievements are surely bordering the edges of human potential.
Six-time Skyrunner World Series champion Jornet is widely regarded as one of (if not) the greatest living endurance athletes, holding the fastest ever ascent and descent records of Mount Everest, Mount Denali, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn – as well as course records and convincing wins at several of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathons.
Rock-climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 record breaking free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, performed entirely without the aid of ropes, was referred to as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever” by the New York Times, and likened to an elite marathon athlete one day breaking the inconceivable one-hour barrier (which would be a full hour and one minute ahead of the current 2:01:39 record).
Ross Edgley, as discussed on numerous earlier occasions here, became the record holder for the longest distance ever swum consecutively, when he circumnavigated the entire two thousand miles of Great British coastline in a five month mammoth endurance effort.
These unique men are similar in their freakish levels of athleticism, resilience and strength, and the staggering nature of their various accomplishments. Far more importantly, in my opinion, is that they are three of the most truly humble and centered athletes one could ever hope to read about.
I read about these men as a teenager the way others might read about Superman or Batman.
And as much as I might love to discuss the mind and body-bending athletic resumes of the three, on closer inspection it is undeniably the unpresuming manner in which they conduct themselves that most appeals to me. In candid interviews and major press events, they are always quick to downplay the importance of their own physical strengths, and stress the elements of combined teamwork, the role of fortune and their own limitations. The fact that they might remain so incredibly humble, despite the fact that they all truly push their limits far beyond what was once considered even physiologically possible for a human, is truly astounding.
Honnold’s nickname is, famously, ‘No Big Deal‘.
In a world increasingly rewarding of acts of ego and vanity, these men stand out as examples of real people to emulate – for me, both as an aspiring athlete, and a man ever-so slowly growing into a fully functioning adult. They carry themselves with a palpable level-headedness and sense of humility that very few on such a stage seem to possess.
I would speculate, as did Rich Roll in his recent podcast with the aforementioned Edgley, that a likely reason for this is the countless hours each of these athletes have spent in training and performing in some of the most hostile and demanding environments that the natural world can offer.
It’s hard to properly regard one’s self as powerful and indomitable whilst being slapped in the face by the icy swells of the unforgiving Atlantic ocean, or at the mercy of the unpredictable and wild climates of the high-altitude alpines, or suspended five-hundred feet up a sheer and unrelenting granite rock-face. Or at least it should be hard.
When faced with the prospect of a rapidly approaching ocean storm near the Northern tip of Scotland during his circumnavigation attempt, and encouraged by the hollow social media claims of “you’re a beast!” and “show this storm what you can do!”, Edgley was forced to explain to his followers that “you don’t swim through a storm – the way that you beat a storm is that you hide, you hope that it maybe lets you for a brief moment – and if it lets you, then you go out you are allowed to swim. You don’t beat a storm.”
Even for a powerful man with ludicrously high bench-press and dead-lift numbers in the gym, the sense of human limitation is apparent. Ross clearly had an excellent understanding of just how insignificant he is when compared to the overcoming vastness and strength of the ocean; despite his best efforts, he was at its mercy.
Kilian Jornet repeated a similar message, captioning a photo of his scaling of the iconic and formidable Matterhorn, “we are only a tiny dot in the immensity – we can’t battle, race or conquer mountains… we can just pass as lightly as possible, trying to be just a caress.”
Time spent enduring in nature should be a constant reminder to us of our relative scale in the universe. We can’t out-wrestle the ocean and tides, or truly ‘conquer’ mountains and ridge-lines. The Sierra Nevada doesn’t care about your lactate threshold. The Pacific isn’t moved by how much you can press. We can merely do all that we are capable of, on any given day, whilst holding a real appreciation and respect for the forces of nature and the possibility of them derailing our ambitions.
Why is any of this important? Why is being humble important?
Maybe it’s not. I suppose someone could argue that.
There is no golden rule, after all, about how we should conduct ourselves as people or as athletes.
To me, it simply seems to be a better way to live. To favour genuine respect and quiet-confidence over arrogance and self-assurance. I would argue that it perhaps set us up to better deal with the occasions in which we don’t successfully conquer our goals – when we are beaten down by the unrelenting elements of the natural world. I think it is also easier to work ‘with’ nature rather than to fight against it – to “roll with the punches”, as it were. If you can peacefully come to terms with a slower swimming speed when faced with unexpected ocean swells, rather than violently struggling forwards in protest, then I suspect your chances of success are incrementally higher.
The punches are inevitable – our success is not always.
The likes of Jornet, Honnold and Edgley have forged a template for the twenty-first century aspiring athlete – one of eagerness, discipline, humility, resilience and an innate respect for the powers of the natural world. They lead by example, and I hope to one day follow.
While the finer details of my athletic future are not mapped out, I know exactly the kind of values that I hope to carry with me throughout my career.