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.