the story of a hero (and by hero, I mean you)

This is the fourth part of a weekly blog series, where I'll be posting an excerpt from my upcoming book, Living Forward, Looking Backward, right here, each week.

If you missed the first posts, go back and check out Part 1 Part 2, or Part 3.

The Story of a Hero (You)

- it’s the ordinary people who become our biggest heroes -

Our heroes always start out as regular guys. If you saw someone who was born into paranormal circumstances or with some supernatural ability, you’d expect them to show up… but our real heroes start as everyday people.

I felt antsy after another eight months at the consulting firm. I was working on a new case with a larger team and I was performing really well, but I wanted something different. My work had become too structured. I was confined to the narrow lanes of financial models and lawyers and I longed to explore other areas of business. So, I began making arrangements to launch my own startup company.

The startup process gave me newfound energy. I was invigorated by the unknowns inherent to founding a company. I woke up excited each day despite staying out until midnight at different events around Chicago’s startup scene. It became easier to find purpose in my daily routines.

I also took up training for an Ironman triathlon after my last case with Chris. After being enclosed in the four walls of our office every day, I needed an outlet. My roommate, Daniel, said he was up for the adventure, too. He’s ultra-competitive, so there was no way he’d have let me tackle the challenge alone. This is a guy who’s never lost a game of backyard football in his career, not only because he’s the fastest one on the field, but because he can’t stand to let someone else beat him.

Daniel and I rode our bike to the gym, lifted weights, and swam before riding to our respective consulting firms each morning. My attire became more and more casual that spring (I went from the office’s typical business slacks to Gap khakis) and I billed less time to clients. When I wasn’t training, I spent time at long lunches with potential investors, business partners, and other entrepreneurs to develop my idea for a startup.

In late June, I met an entrepreneur named Brian for lunch. Earlier that week, a mutual friend had said to me, “You know, I think Brian’s a guy you could work with; I’ll introduce you two.” Brian wore blue wood glasses and had an enchanting charisma about him. There was a magnetism in the way he spoke and the words he chose. When I pitched him the company I wanted to build, he quickly sold me on his idea instead. He was creating a platform that would help small nonprofits without full-time fundraising staff raise enough money to expand their programs and impact.

Two weeks later, I decided I was in. I’d leave my consulting firm to help Brian build the dream. I met him for lunch once more to talk about details, ownership, and what papers I needed to put my John Hancock on. Two weeks after that (my one-year anniversary at the firm no less), I left my consulting job to start working on our new venture.

Brian and I hit it off immediately. Our complimentary personalities made us perfect co-founders. Brian generally ignores schedules and deadlines while I obsess over hitting goals and staying on target. He sees the vision; I see the process. We both see the world through rose-colored lenses, and we became fast friends outside the office. I also continued training for October’s Ironman race as I opened this entirely new chapter of my life. I packed my days full of life as an entrepreneur-triathlete.

I liked the pace of my life. I was single and uninterested in dating. I was content to work, train, eat Thai food, and repeat. At a certain point, my neighborhood Thai restaurant even knew my phone number. I’d call to place a takeout order as soon as I’d leave our office in the Chicago Loop. I’d ask Pauly, the hostess, how her night was going, and I’d let her know that I’d be by the restaurant in 15 minutes. If Daniel was working late, I’d order for two. I actually liked my routine for the first time in my life. I was working toward two big goals, building a company and racing triathlons, and that was energizing.

I opened my eyes and grabbed my phone to look at the time – 4:30 a.m. I realized what day it was and I felt awake enough to get out of bed. It was October 5th. Race day. I climbed down from the top bunk and peeked into the bottom to see what state of being Daniel was in. It was early, so he was still asleep. The day couldn’t have come quickly enough for me. I couldn’t stay in bed.

We were in a small, European-style Airbnb in Calella, Spain. It was tucked into the third floor of a building only accessible on foot. The roads in Calella are too narrow to drive cars. Aside from three main strips that cars can access, Calella is a quaint pedestrian-only coastal town with unique food and family-run corner stores. On this particular weekend, blue Ironman flags were hung in every window.

I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a container of baby formula from the shelf. I spooned out two scoops of the formula into some warm water, mixed it together, and tasted the first part of my pre-race breakfast. It didn’t taste very good. I needed the extra calories, however, and the formula wouldn’t give my stomach any digestive issues (a triathlete’s worst enemy).

I stepped onto our balcony with my milk. The balcony wasn’t spacious, four square feet at most, but it was enough to get outside and feel the weather. It was raining so hard I could hear a loud slap as each drop hit the cobblestone streets below me. Later that morning, Daniel and I would start our 140.6-mile journey up and down Barcelona’s coastal highways and Calella’s narrow beachfront paths. The rain brought a palpable humidity despite the strong morning breeze. I wondered if it would let up before the race started.       

“Should have expected rain,” I mumbled, stepping back inside.

“Morning, Pops,” I said as my dad emerged from his bedroom.

He reached high up into the air to stretch away the nighttime stiffness, grinning as he did so. He’s always had this distinctive smile in the morning. It’s like the day is full of secrets to him, treasures he can’t wait to unearth. I imagined his stretch was just him practicing for the finish line. I knew he’d be there waiting for me, smiling with his fists raised high in the air as I ran down the finisher’s chute. He’d certainly flown a long way for one race but he’d always been there for me growing up. It felt right to have him with me on race day.

 “Well, it’s raining,” I informed him.

 “Oh man, I forgot my rain suit,” he groaned, walking into the kitchen. “What a drag.”

I laughed, knowing what he meant. He wasn’t disappointed it was raining. He was just sad to miss the perfect chance to break out his bright green rain gear. To put this in perspective, my dad loves gear. Gear of all kinds. He says there’s no such thing as bad circumstances. Just unprepared people without the right tools.

A few years earlier, my dad flew to Knoxville, Tennessee, to watch my first triathlon. I was racing 70 miles with a fever in pouring, 50-degree rain on a flooded racecourse. He stood outside for the whole race, smiling in that luminous green rain suit and running the last quarter mile with me. I had wanted to tell my dad how grateful I was that he was there – just like he always was – but I couldn’t talk very well. My voice was barely audible after racing in the rain with a 101-degree fever for almost six hours. Even if my voice was working properly, I’m not sure I could have properly articulated how I felt.

I was having the same challenge that morning in Calella. I wanted him to know how grateful I was to be standing with him in that little Spanish kitchen. I felt peaceful, more confident because he was there with me. It wouldn’t have felt like race day without him.

Before I could think of the right thing to say, Daniel declared he was awake, “Well, I’m going to drown before I make it out of the water, so we might as well just get this thing started!”

The pitch of his trademark laugh rose above the roar of the rainstorm outside. I dismissed his doom and gloom, knowing full well he’d finish the race in great shape. Daniel’s nerves always spiral into a verbal panic of the most impossible, defeating scenarios, and how they’ll surely get the best of him. I was glad he shares his thoughts out loud, though; it gave me a chance to shoot down the negativity.

“Want some?” I asked, handing him the baby formula.

“Nope,” he said, grabbing my glass. “But I’ll drink it anyway.”

“Hey Pops, can you toss me that bar?” I pointed to the coconut chocolate granola bar in the pocket of his backpack.

I looked out at the ocean and watched the stormy waves rise and fall as the sun crept over the horizon. The race’s start time had been delayed by over an hour at this point. The lightning was beginning to dissipate too. I was hopeful we’d be able start our race soon.

“I’ve already peed in my wetsuit twice. I’ll have nothing left in the tank by the time we start this thing!” Daniel exclaimed, pointing to the wet sand around him.

I laughed because it was true. We’d been sitting in our wetsuits for too long. I was trying to munch on food and drink water as we waited for the weather to pass. I wasn’t sure what felt more tumultuous – the waves stirred up by the storm, or a few hundred high-strung triathletes impatiently waiting to tear into the course.

“The radar shows everything clearing in 20 minutes,” my dad said, handing me his backpack. “You guys should be good to go soon. I’ll get your shoes and jackets home after you start. Need me to do anything else?”

“Nope, I think we’re set. Thanks for hanging out, Pops.”

We heard a megaphone blare from a few yards down the beach, “Attention athletes. Be advised. Due to weather delays, we’re cutting the course time limits by two hours. Your swim course cutoff will remain the same, but both the bike and run courses will pull athletes off one hour earlier, with 15 total hours allowed. Thank you!”

“Awesome. A good mental pre-race boost,” Daniel laughed.

I kept my mind occupied and touched the tattoo, “2 Corinthians 4:16-18” running down my inner forearm. “So we do not lose heart… for this light, momentary affliction is preparing for ourselves an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…’”

I was beginning to drone. Droning is when your mind fades in and out, but your body keeps moving forward. You’re no longer actively thinking when you drone. You can even forget what’s happened in the last few moments, despite the fact you’re still technically awake and pressing onward. I was on mile 18 of the marathon at this point. No man’s land. Mile 18 of the run course is mile 132 of the overall Ironman course, so I was far enough along that I couldn’t give up, but I was far enough away from the finish that sweet relief felt unattainable.

I turned away from Calella’s spectator circle to head down the darkening, empty beach trail for my final eight miles. I was feeling fine physically (relatively speaking). I had raced smart and set a good pace, fueling up along the way. I could tell I wasn’t getting enough sugars to my brain, however. My thoughts came and went as my body craved glucose but I just couldn’t stomach another packet of fruity energy gel. I had probably ingested 20 of them in the last 10 hours.

 “Way to go, sonny-boy!” I heard my Dad yell, looking out from behind his camera.

I heard him before I saw him. He was crouched down with his camera, taking one final shot before the last rays of sunlight left us. He had been sitting there for the last hour, waiting for me to run by, smiling the whole time. I decided then that I didn’t have to suffer down another sport gel. My dad gave me a greater mental boost than any squeezable packet of sugar could.

“Sorry about your shoes, guys. I thought I could dry them out but it didn’t work out so well,” my dad handed me a melted Nike running shoe.

I had to laugh. After leaving the beach at the start of the race, he took our rain-soaked clothes and shoes back to our Airbnb and stuck them in the dryer before walking to the finish line. He figured that after hours of standing and racing in the rain, we’d appreciate some dry, warm clothes. The problem, however, was that the dryer had heated up our shoes past their melting point and it totally fried the soles. They melted and then re-hardened into a deformed, unusable shape.

I tried to force one of my shoes back into its original form but it proved to be a fool’s errand. It snapped back into an awkwardly curved shape. “I’ll pay for a new pair,” my dad offered quickly. I could tell he thought he’d just ruined our post-race celebration.

I reassured him, “Thanks, but no need. You flew here by yourself to stand outside for 12 hours. In the rain, no less. That means more to me than shoes ever will.”

He smiled again, relenting, “Alright, but at least let me buy you dinner tomorrow.”

“That’s a deal.”

The fact that my dad had traveled all the way to Spain just to cheer me on amazed me. Yes, he was my dad, but still. He could have used the time to do something for himself. He depleted his vacation time and allowed work and his other responsibilities to stack up back home. He even insisted on paying his fair share of our meals and Airbnb’s. After countless years of being there for me, he could have let me treat him for once. Heck, he could have just woken up early to send me a good luck text message from the comfort of his own bed in the U.S. Instead, he was right there by my side.

He was my hero.

We packed up our race gear and drove down the coast to Barcelona after a long night of randomly waking up to quench our bodies’ cravings for more food. We planned to hang around the city for a few days before shipping our gear back to the U.S. and flying to Brussels to tour more of Europe. As our shuttle driver navigated down the coastal highway, I opened the book I had started reading on the flight over. It was called Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. Although it was dense, I liked Chesterton’s writing. He’s one of those writers who makes you re-read every page to make sure you’ve caught everything.

Orthodoxy is, in a way, a book about Chesterton’s own story. He uses his autobiography to outline a rational case for belief in a God, an Author of life, by recounting memories and examples from his own life. Each chapter details a season of his life that ultimately swayed him to move from an atheistic, self-sufficient worldview to faith in a divine Creator. In one section, Chesterton details the role that fairy tales and imagination played in his conversion, and I came to a section in which he muses about the concept of heroes:

The old fairy tales make the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons.[i]

As I looked up from my book and watched my dad sitting in the front seat, Chesterton’s proposition made sense to me. True heroes do always start out as normal, regular guys. If you saw someone who was born into paranormal circumstances or with some supernatural ability, you’d expect them to show up in the ways they had been born to. Saving lives, helping cats trapped on rooftops during a flood - that kind of stuff. Our real heroes start out as everyday people. They’re ordinary humans who face life alongside us with unfailing courage, consistency, and smiles.

As we drove on, I thought about how my dad always came through for me. When I first signed up for the race, I figured there was a slim chance he would fly to Barcelona. I assumed it would be the first time he’d be forced to support me from afar. Yet, there he was. Sitting in our shuttle, smiling and watching the coastline roll by.

My dad and mom, together, have helped me reach every victory in my life. They’re the quiet heroes behind every achievement to my name. By most standards, people will say that co-founding a company and competing in Ironman-distance triathlons are impressive accomplishments. While I’d never wave that flag, it would be easy to let people believe I’ve attained these things under my grit and determination alone.

That wouldn’t be accurate, however. The truth is that my heroes empowered me to do those things.             

Growing up, I was given the chance to travel, play sports, try new things, and graduate with a college degree debt-free. The opportunities my childhood afforded me – all enabled by my parents – forged a fearlessness in me. Through each experience, my parents reinforced that I could be whatever I set out to be. Whether that was an athlete (as they took pictures at my soccer games and made me feel like the most important player) or an entrepreneur (they paid me $5 to cook dinner and let me draw menus while pretending our kitchen was a restaurant), they always told me, “Go for it, Nate.”

To this day, I approach life with an undying optimism and firm belief that everything will work out just fine because my parents took on so many of the typical childhood worries for me. When I quit my consulting job, co-founded a company debt-free, and bought a bike to race an Ironman despite dealing with chronic asthma and anemia, I felt more grateful than ever.

My heroes came through once again.

Everyone is looking for a hero. Everybody wants some type of life-giving and affirming presence in their story at the very least. That's just how our Author designed us.

When we come to understand that we’re all characters who play a small role in the Big Story of our world, we see why we’re drawn into the popular Hollywood-hero storyline. We turn out in droves to watch someone really impressive and good-looking swoop down to save the day because it’s part of who we are.

A book in the Bible explains this. Genesis documents the history of our creation, and it gives us a reference point to grasp just how far we’ve strayed from God’s original design. Genesis tell us that we like to control the storyline, ignoring our Author’s instructions, and when we try to direct the narrative on our own we screw up and find ourselves in need of saving. Our need for a savior dates all the way back to Adam and Eve.

We all need different heroes because we all have different life perspectives. From your vantage point, you feel what you need and want in life. So, your hero will be someone who reflects that. My heroes come in different forms, however, because I have a different life story. The common denominator between us is that our true heroes always begin as ordinary people.

While celebrities and world leaders can certainly be considered heroes in their own right, greater meaning, connection, and influence always comes from the everyday heroes who are closest to us – mentors, parents, coaches, etc. We may admire the people we watch on TV and never meet, but rarely will they shape our lives in a truly profound way.

Now, if we can accept this idea of a creation story – that we’re all part of God’s Big Story and our world of intellect, emotion, and morality wasn’t formed by a random, cosmic accident – we can define our heroes as those who shape our character in the Big Story for good.

C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory confirms this, and it lays out an interesting consideration. Lewis says:

[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature... Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.[ii]

Lewis is pointing out that we’re not static beings. People are much more complex than that. Characters all develop as the plotline progresses and we, as characters in the Big Story, also change in one direction or another. Over the course of many years, the people we interact with either push us in the direction of joy and harmony with our story’s Creator, or they push us towards hate and a state of war with our Creator.

Therefore, if we begin to see our heroes as the people who influence our stories in a heavenly way, we have a new standard for how we define who is (and is not) a hero. We’ll also have a standard to define who the ultimate Hero (capital “H”) of our story is – the one who can restore us to a heavenly state, completely and eternally, at the end of our lives.

Besides, if only the one-time, exceptional feats are our metrics for identifying who our heroes are, how will we ever feel we’ve arrived? Daily routines, predictable responsibilities, dishes, bills, and to-do lists don’t preclude us from extraordinary action. We just need to reframe what we define as the essentials for heroism.

Here’s the driving point behind all this. Although it feels backward, being the ordinary ‘you’ is actually the prerequisite for becoming someone’s hero. It’s also important to recognize how your heroes have shaped your life for the better.

So, would you consider yourself a hero?

I don’t consider myself a hero, and if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say you most likely feel, “Of course not, I’m just (insert first name here).” But if a hero doesn’t need a cape, and we can find heroes among ordinary people who step up to positively influence our lives, there’s nothing stopping you from becoming someone’s hero, right?

[i]Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. United States: Popular Classics Publishing, 2012.

[ii] Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

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