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A long way back to the light...

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Charlie Johnston

on 11 September 2013

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Transcript of A long way back to the light...

Our story begins in December 2012, our hero is running in a torrential downpour, struggling to keep moving forward in foul weather of biblical proportions. Flooded streets and a biting wind seem only to fuel his fury as he pushes onward, driven as if by the hand of Zeus in a Homeric epic. He crosses the finish line in two hours and 44 minutes, the fastest he's ever run a marathon.
The next several months follow a similar path for our hero. He runs and wins his first 50-mile race and continues to get faster and faster in the marathon, his favorite challenge.
And wouldn't you know it? Our hero even has a pretty great job, too. He gets paid to travel to new and exciting places to take photos and write about his adventures.
In addition to being a fast runner, our hero's also a pretty likable guy. He's kind, generous, and inspires people to be heroes themselves. He makes life look easy and people just like to be around him.
With hard work, dedication, and an infectiously positive outlook on life, our hero has earned the admiration and support of a vast community of friends, fellow runners, and just about everyone else he encounters; indeed he seems to have everything...
When I announced that I would be moving away in the spring to seek a new adventure in life, running, and love, everyone in my ordinary world applauded the leap I was taking in the pursuit of a happier, more fulfilling life. While they were sorry to see me go, they were inspired by my decision to venture into the unknown, giving up good to reach for great. After the farewells, everything was in place to start my grand new adventure. Ironically, that's about when everything started to fall apart as well.
On a beautiful, sunny Monday afternoon in Boston's Back Bay, surrounded by family and friends and having just set another personal record at the most storied marathon in the world, a heinous act of terror robbed the sport I love of its innocence, took from us a day that should have been a celebration, and marked the start of my precipitous fall from heroism and into the darkest place I'd ever been. What had started as the best day of my life proved to be the harbinger of the worst times I had ever faced.
A Hero's Journey is supposed to begin with an ordinary person living an ordinary life in an ordinary world. But have you ever stopped to wonder, "What about a hero?" Could an existing hero experience a Hero's Journey too? And could that hero finally see in himself the hero that everyone else around him sees?
But I didn't have everything. I felt myself growing restless, complacent, and stagnant; I didn't look in the mirror and see the hero everyone else saw. I needed a change, a new challenge to prove to myself that I really was a hero and could accomplish anything I set my mind to.
The darkness started to take hold on the night of the bombings at the Boston Marathon and followed me all the way to my new home in Denver. A hard day turned into a hard week, a hard week turned into a hard month, and every effort I made to turn it around failed almost immediately. My new adventure was irreversibly doomed almost as soon as it had begun.
Worse than not seeing a hero in the mirror, I couldn't even bring myself to look at the failure I saw in my own reflection. I had failed when success mattered most. I was no hero; heroes didn't fail with so much at stake. I didn't want to pick up the pieces and embark on a new adventure, I didn't want to keep pursuing fulfillment and happiness... I didn't even want to run.
Nevertheless, when I returned to Reno at the start of summer it was to a hero's welcome. It made me sick. I thought, "If everyone only knew the whole story and the depth of my failure, they wouldn't see a hero in me anymore."
But they persisted. The community of support I'd left barely two months earlier had never left me and now rallied behind me when I needed them most. It seemed as though they could never be made to stop believing in me. I decided that letting them down was one failure I could not accept. So, I turned to the one thing that had always felt right: running.
The generosity of an old friend landed me in the elite wave of the San Francisco Marathon in mid June. I ran hard, the shadow of my failure nipping at my heels with every step, and managed a top-20 finish in a field of nearly 6,000 runners on a day that I was barely prepared to run a 10k. The race gave me hope and and a glimpse of where I would find salvation. It reminded me that heroes only fall so they can rise again, and rise again I would.
Portland's Firecracker Quadzilla spanned the Fourth of July Weekend and consisted of a marathon a day for four consecutive days. I knew just completing all four would be the hardest running I'd ever done, but still wanted to stack the odds against me higher still. So, I decided to attempt to run all four in less than three hours apiece, a feat accomplished by barely a handful of people on earth.
I kept running hard. I wanted to make myself hurt. I wanted to set myself up for certain failure and succeed in spite of everything standing against me. In a stroke of luck, I found a race series in Oregon that offered precisely the kind of insurmountable challenge I was after.
Each of the marathons proved exponentially harder than the previous one. Every part of my body hurt after the second day, when I only managed to best the three-hour mark by a few seconds. In the moments before the start of the third race, I doubted that I would even be able to finish all four, let alone within the confines of my self-imposed three-hour time limit.
I had gone to Portland to face a challenge that I was certain would beat me and came out of it victorious, stronger and more confident than ever before and with more allies pushing me to believe in myself as much as I had caused them to believe in me.
Somewhere amid the backpackers, steep ridges, and mossy woods, I found what had made me a hero all along. To my surprise, it wasn't a race or running itself, nor was it how many people saw me as a hero or how many heroic acts I performed, it wasn't even the knack I've developed for inspiring people.
It happened after a particularly hard fall on the trail. I unceremoniously picked myself off the ground, removed the various rocks and pieces of wood from the lacerations they had just created, wiped a few streaks of blood from my legs and arms, shook off what remaining trail debris I could, and kept running. I didn't curse or grumble, I just matter-of-factly got up and kept running.
Our hero kept winning races and running impossible trails in remote, beautiful places. He was accepted into graduate school, started a new chapter in his life, and continued to inspire and grow his community of supporters. But most of all, our hero realized that his happiness had never been contingent on someone, someplace, some race, or some job, it was his journey and refusal to surrender to mediocrity that had made him a hero and brought joy wherever his wandering feet happened to land him.
But my elation was short lived. I was still battling the darkness, endlessly pouring over the details and trying to make sense of how I could ever be a hero after having failed so miserably in Denver. Something as innocent as a street sign with a familiar name still had the power to thrust me into that darkness without warning, and I knew the work to find the hero within me had only just begun.
But something happened during the first two races that inspired me to keep fighting. I tend to smile a lot when I run, and always make a point to encourage other runners and thank volunteers and supporters at races. Without my even realizing what had happened, the spectators, volunteers, race organizers, and other runners in Portland had taken quite a liking to me.
While leading the pack by several miles got everyone's attention, my new friends said it was the way I supported and cheered for everyone else, the smile I wore despite the obvious pain, and the fact that I waited around after my finish to cheer the other runners through the line that made me their hero that weekend. I ended up finishing all four marathons, ran them each in less than three hours as planned, won the series, and inadvertently inspired a new group of friends and supporters along the way.
Washington's Olympic Peninsula is dominated by Olympic National Park, a hulking mass of glacier-clad peaks that thrust skyward from the Pacific Ocean, cloaked in dense rainforests. The park's interior can only be reached by way of hundreds of miles of demanding, technical trails, trails would provide the setting for the challenge that I was sure would illuminate the darkness once and for all.
For two weeks I spent my days running and nights camping alone in the wilderness. Thirty miles here, 40 miles there, I ran over jumbled rocky terrain, through rivers, and up mountainsides so steep that I had to navigate them on all fours. I ran until I felt my legs would give out, then ran some more. I ran the hardest when I could feel the darkness creeping in. Passing hikers and backpackers looked on in astonishment and asked what I was training for, smiling in wonderment at my answer: "Nothing, really."
And that was it; I always get up and keep going. No matter how hard, far, or often I fall, nothing has ever kept me from getting back up and enduring by any means necessary. It was so innocuous, so anticlimactic that I chuckled aloud as I got my stride back and continued down the trail, evermore on the lookout for tripping hazards.
With his head held high, our hero returned triumphantly to Reno, proud to have risen after his fall and eager to once again chase the great life he knew he deserved. He had lived through his own personal hell, battled against staggering odds, and confronted his inner darkness and the weakest parts of himself face to face. Our hero finally found in himself the hero everyone else had seen all along.
The thing about real-life heroes is their stories do not have endings, they continue indefinitely in ever greater acts of heroism until they become the stuff of legends. After facing his failure and realizing his worth, our hero returned home stronger and more resilient than ever.
A long way back to the light...
"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." ~Confucius
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