Outside the Box

A few weeks ago I laid in bed struggling to sleep. In that moment I did what anyone else would do. I opened YouTube. There in that space of near-infinite entertainment I came across “Few Words,” a ski film following French freeskier Candide Thovex. The film began without words, just music and breathtaking shots of wildlife and landscape. When the voices began, they talked of Candide. They spoke on behalf of a man who, as they explained, expresses himself more through his actions than his words.

I have never met Candide, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of their portrayal. Having said that, I watched the entire film and was enthralled by his skiing. Fifty-nine minutes of film and it felt like Candide never opened his mouth, yet he spoke volumes with his skiing. He was more than just a man of tricks and accolades. He was a pioneer, creating his own path, finding his own way. It was beautiful.

As great as he skied, what captured me more than the daring lines and bold jumps was the way he approached it. Seemingly more interested in simply skiing than competing or winning (though he did both), he was one of those rare athletes who took to a sport and didn’t just excel at it, but changed it. Yet, amidst his artistry he seemed so calm and humble. His skiing was worthy of a mic drop, but there wasn’t one. Instead he quietly clicked the button to off, placed it back on the stand, and walked away.

All photos: Zach Miller

This low-key “speak softly and carry a big trick” philosophy is something I really admire. I once read an article in Trail Runner Magazine by Doug Mayer about such a runner tucked away in the northeastern United States, Tristan Williams. I remember that he was stout, tearing through the rugged mountains of New England faster than most, yet seemingly unconcerned with time or recognition. At least that is how he came across in the article. Accurate or not, I was man-crushing pretty hard.

Back in 2013, when I really started getting into ultrarunning, I too was much more of a hermit. I lived on a cruise ship and did my training in a black hole of sorts. The only social media I utilized was Facebook and even that was limited as ship internet was as expensive as name-brand almond butter and as slow as a loris. Nowadays I feel immersed in it and do more than my fair share of contributing to the constant inundation of sharing. Still, I wrestle with this “life on a screen” in which we seem to be so entrenched. I see the good in sharing. I recognize that it provides people with a lot of value: laughter, inspiration, a sense of community, albeit virtual. I also see the bad: countless hours spent staring at the tiny box in our hands, the constant temptation to compare, and a barrage of so much “stuff” that it becomes challenging to hear one’s own thoughts. There is a part of me that longs to return to the life we had before.

It’s easy to blame the box and all its fancy apps. But, would you believe me if I were to say that the box itself isn’t necessarily the problem, that a person can have a dumb box, or even none at all and still have the same problem? Candide has 765,000 people following his Instagram box, yet he skis like a hermit. So what gives? I think the answer lies in what we are looking for in the box. For many of us, I think that is approval.

Recently I have been reading Donald Miller’s “Searching for God Knows What.” It’s been an interesting read so far. In it, Miller offers an interesting take on the beginning of time. He speaks of how, according to Christian teachings, Adam and Eve had this perfect relationship with their creator, that is until they did something they weren’t supposed to and damaged the relationship. Miller’s focus here is not so much on what they did, but on the relationship that they betrayed. Up until this point they didn’t have a reason not to feel approved of by their creator, but now, having broken the trust, they felt that things were in question. They, and the rest of mankind, now had a sense of shame, a need for approval. Miller describes it this way:

“Humans, as a species, are constantly, and in every way, comparing themselves to one another, which, given the brief nature of their existence, seems an oddity and, for that matter, a waste. Nevertheless, this is the driving influence behind every human’s social development, their emotional health and sense of joy, and, sadly, their greatest tragedies. It is as though something that helped them function and live well has gone missing, and they are pining for that missing thing in all sorts of odd methods, none of which are working. The greater tragedy is that very few people understand they have the disease. This seems strange as well because it is obvious. To be sure, it is killing them, and yet sustaining their social and economic system. They are an entirely beautiful people with a terrible problem.”

Maybe Candide is fueled by a love of skiing and a desire to push his own boundaries, but not so much by a need to win approval. Could it be that Candide has escaped the box? Might that be why he’s so fun to watch? Meanwhile, many of us are stuck in our own. Whether it’s the box that we hold in the palm of our hand, the race we are trying to win, the PR we are trying to set, or the training regimen that we are so tightly tied to, many of us, if not all, are caught up in an addictive pursuit of approval. If we can just get a few more likes, hit one more PR, win the race, keep the training streak alive, or do a workout that trumps what that other person just posted, we would feel validated. Sure, goals, competition, even sharing things with others can all be good things, but an unhealthy pursuit of approval can be destructive. To quote singer Demi Lovato, “Oh, why do I compare myself to everyone? And I always got my finger on the self destruct.” The box of approval is a dangerous arena.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I underwent Haglund’s surgery to remove a bone spur from the back of my heel. At the moment, I can’t run. In fact, I only recently started walking without crutches. There is a big part of me that longs to return to the trail, to prove that I’m still the runner I was before injury. That desire is very real, but I want to express that it would be unhealthy for my well-being to be rooted in my ability to perform. For yes, I am a runner, but that is only part of who I am and the wrong space in which to search for approval. And yet this is often what we do with the things we pursue, be they athletic goals or otherwise.

To quote Donald Miller again, “When somebody says, ‘It’s only a game,’ it reminds us of what is so easy to forget. There is some other commodity in play, some hidden commodity that the player, the fans, the coaches, and the other team all are vying for. After all, if you win the whole thing, you only get a ring. You can always buy a ring. What we really want is for the jury of our peers to give us a feeling of security.”

It is the pursuit of this security that can be dangerous. I feel that if we look for it in the wrong places, like running or work or social media, we’ll find ourselves in a never-ending race. But, if we can take a step back and find fulfillment in chasing our passions, joy in the lines that we trace across this earth, and an approval given independent of success, then we win; maybe not in terms of the podium, or the follower count, but in something bigger. I guess what I am saying is this: Can you run, ski, or do nothing at all and still be satisfied? Can you be happy outside of the box?

Call for Comments

  • So, can you be happy outside of the “box?”
  • What part of the box captures your attention the most?
  • When you do find yourself breaking free from external validation, what internal motivations do you finding guiding you?

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 9 comments

  1. Wesley Hunt

    Zach, first of all, I am sorry to hear about your surgery and wish you all the best. I’ve really enjoyed your writing, including this piece, and have always rooted for you because of the way you attacked courses. I started running and following ultras in 2013 as well. You’re in my prayers, brother…

    I’m trying to reconcile the following because it strikes me that running, work, or a number of other things can be an individual’s passion and offer fulfillment, joy, and security (emotional or otherwise), independent of external approval. So I guess I’m thinking that ego is always the root of the “wrong” rather than the “place” that makes us happy. -Wesley

    “It is the pursuit of this security that can be dangerous. I feel that if we look for it in the wrong places, like running or work or social media, we’ll find ourselves in a never-ending race. But, if we can take a step back and find fulfillment in chasing our passions, joy in the lines that we trace across this earth, and an approval given independent of success, then we win;”

    1. Zach Miller

      Wesley,

      Thank you for reading and for the kind words and well wishes. I like your idea about ego being the root of the “wrong” rather than the “place” that makes us happy. Ego can certainly be destructive and I think it can play a big role in our pursuit of approval and the stress that can cause us. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Jeff Rome

    I’m not sure that any of us who are coming across this article are “outside the box”. It’s pretty encompassing. And the trail running world is built around things that pull us into the box. I believe most trail running companies require their paid runners, and encourage the unpaid but sponsored runners, to have a minimum threshold of activity on social media. And it’s nigh impossible to use those, especially instagram, without comparing to some degree. I’d like to see a community that gets interested in the idea of FUTs (Fastest Unknown Times) with all the lines out there a mystery as to who has covered it before, and their times. Because great running has to really come from intrinsic motivation, and forgetting about comparisons (though having a time goal can certainly help). Great article, Zach, thank you for writing this!

    1. Zach Miller

      Jeff,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. We certainly do have a sport that seems to suck us all, sponsored and unsponsored runners alike, into the box. I’m not sure that it has to be that way, but it is certainly the trend. Personally I would love to see a company support an athlete who hides under a rock. Of course it seems their story would almost need to be told in some way for them to be of value to the company, but I would love it if it could be done. Imagine a runner who just hides and trains and then pops up in the same old gear (of their sponsor) that they’ve been training in for months and crushed a race, an FKT, or a FUT, but the only attention came from media and others spreading the word, not the actual runner. I’d be such a fan!

  3. Eric Nicolaysen

    It is a challenging yet vital task to gracefully interrogate the degree to which we are attached to things, be it an activity, a possession, a performance, or an identity.
    I appreciate your courage engaging in that task, captured in part by your reflections and questions here.
    As I read them, the concept that came to mind is from the old Spanish monk, St. Ignatius; the concept of “Holy Indifference.” I find it resonates with what seems to be most true in my own experience and observation: that being loved, encompassed completely by grace, frees us from the need for approval, which we seek out as you have identified in all kinds of destructive ways. We can do the same thing – such as trail running – and yet engage it from a completely different internal space: pressure to do or be something and “prove” ourselves, or joyfully delighting in the trails and beauty and our bodies moving through it all. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Zach Miller

      Eric,

      Thank you very much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I like what you’ve said here, I really identify with the idea that being loved, encompassed completely by grace, frees us from the need for approval. That good stuff! Thanks again for sharing!

  4. Mark

    Zach-As always, I enjoyed your writing. I found some of this particularly relatable since I have been thinking about some of the talking points you write about since I am a shoe ambassador. They sent me a contract to re-up so I guess I was doing something right but I am not going to press on even though I like the product and will continue to do so. Searching for the “why” to continue has occupied my thoughts of late since I have a deadline to submit my commitment. I am not a prodigy by any means. Normal running results for an age group guy (59 y.o.) with 50K my typical ultra distance.

    I have been able to work i.e. use Zoom or remote access clients before getting back to a more normal routine. Definitely a fortunate soul to be employed through these days and not having to cope with the challenges confronting so many globally. But I am not going to lie, I have had my moments of weakness and had to use Instagram for my gig which was a requisite part of the deal I made to share my story. And of course those comparisons with other influencers become a more integral part of your online “life.” Add to that the other gravity pulls surfing the internet imposes. Binge viewing content on Netflix has regrettably occupied some of my time since the pandemic hit. I came across “The Social Dilemma” which I found a tipping point to get back to some basics or alert me to consider a timeout.

    I am not that naive or susceptible to the pitfalls of social media, which creates a puppies and meadows ecosystem of commerce, yet I still found myself being more ebullient and treacly than normal. It comes with the deal but it becomes a bit much to be honest (well for me, anyway) and you just want to be a good role model and let the deeds speak for themselves as you mention. It would be nice if it were that simple, but to do that requires some delivery system so people can pay attention. My whimpering of the social foil these days seems kinda indulgent. And lopsided too, since there are some spotlights that share better aspects of humanity, so I am not altogether a cynic. But if we are not careful the construct of social media is not the antidote, it is the disease. And I am focusing more on Instagram in my thoughts since I used that platform to hashtag my shoe company preference.

    I am not exaggerating when I say I do realize what is going on “in the box” or when we are fixated on the screen instead of the relationship within ourselves to find out what is human. It has been an acutely fraught year and we see it each day real time when we venture into the world beyond our borders which are being recalibrated to more confined spaces and interactions. Small challenges abound in this and it seems like we all need strategies to rise to the occasion. There are ways forward and reflecting on that is what you do best and is why I enjoy reading your introspective thoughts. I do share this attitude that positive energy and being engaged with yourself helps us to thrive and bond. You achieve this to no small measure with your writing, so making the time to contribute to I Run Far has lasting value, so I thank you for that. Resources like your essays and the simple experience of running for runnings sake are reasons that trail running impacts my life in positive ways. This has been a year when I made and sustained a personal pact for 2020 that started on 1 January. 20 miles minimum a week for 2020. The goal is within sight as this month draws to a close. That is a tangible thing that I can always reflect on. By my standards I have had a fulfilling running year But, the Instagram posts are never going to show anything beyond the postcard version of what really went down this year. It is a tool in most cases which then becomes yet another time burden and “rabbit hole” that nibbles away too much time. And the thing is, the posts are utterly forgettable. An essay and contemplative thinking is genuine. Keep it up buddy.

    And I wish you a speedy recovery so that part of your live can come alive when the time is right. Even if you existed as a runner without a bib, the essence of what you run for always comes through, whether in print or on the trail. Keep plugging and have prosperous new year. I will never see you on the trails since I am “a little engine that could” and chug along but I know what it is like to try to get into the zone so that is the connection. Flow theory and being out there to experience who we are so we can rely on this pursuit to keep us fit and focus is where it is at. The head space closes the gap between Zach, and that is the closest I will ever get to you. As it should be. Merry merry…

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