dare to endure: the twelve labors project
“Dare to Endure.” Words in the subtitle of The Pursuit: The Journal for Men Who Dare to Endure blog that you now find yourself reading. Words that sit at the center of the story of Hercules, whose legendary labors inspired me to take on the task of attempting to complete a 500 lb. deadlift, a sub 5-minute mile, and a 50 in. box jump in the same day—which I will introduce in this first of a two-article series.
But before we get into details, it’s worth asking: why? Why should you (or I) dare? And why does the call to endure echo out of Hercules?
To answer those questions, we start with Epictetus, the Stoic sage living in Ancient Greece who used to ask his students:
"What would have become of Hercules if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar—and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?"
Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort, he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.
And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?
At its core, the story of Hercules—the story of a man struggling to fulfill his destiny, loved by both Socrates and the Stoics alike—is one that tries to communicate the fulfillment that awaits when we dare to endure, and the disappointment that eats at us when we don’t. It says something like the Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra” (through adversity, to the stars), and stands as a reminder that if we want to reach the Olympus of our lives, we must place ourselves on the path of dangerous things, just as Hercules had to go through the gauntlet of labors to earn his spot amongst the gods.
But before Hercules came to the labors, he faced a choice: to dare or not to dare?
The Courage to Dare
As the story goes, Hercules came to a crossroads on the eve of his 18th birthday. With the way forward unclear, he sat himself on a stump and began to brood.
Before long, two female figures approached. The first cut in front of the second and introduced herself as Kakia (Vice). She pointed to the garden beside them and offered Hercules an enticing proposition: “come with me,” she said, “and you will live a life of luxury. One free from struggle and strain and full of every want and whim.”
Hercules turned to the second figure—Arete (Virtue)—to see what she might have to offer. She gave Hercules a stern look with a presence that commanded his respect. She gestured at the mountain: “My path,” she warned, “is quite different. It is long and sometimes lonely, with steep ledges and relentless rains. With few places to rest, you will be called to carry on long after your strength has left you. But know this: my path is the price that the gods have set on becoming the hero you have it within you to be.”
So sat Hercules with the same choice that faces us all: dare, or not dare, to live a life that leaves us seared with scars? Take the road less traveled, or the one well trodden? Live a life of luxury, or a life of discipline? Take the path that requires courage, or the one that carries comfort?
There at the crossroads, Hercules decided his fate would be to dedicate himself to the hard path. The long and winding road that would take him from labor to labor, where his endurance would be put to the ultimate test. But if he could, as Disney’s Hercules sings, “go the distance,” then a hero’s welcome at the gates of Olympus awaited him.
The Discipline to Endure
After devoting himself to the path that required courage, Hercules was tasked with the Twelve Labors, which would require him to re-affirm his decision to dare over and over again.
But such was the price he had to pay to earn his immortality. Twelve tests stood between him and his seat with the gods: (1) Nemean Lion; (2) Lernaean Hydra; (3) Ceryneian Hind; (4) Erymanthian Boar; (5) Augean Stables; (6) Stymphalian Birds; (7) Cretan Bull; (8) Mares of Diomedes; (9) Belt of Hippolyta; (10) Cattle of Geryon; (11) Golden Apples of Hesperides; and (12) Cerberus.
These were labors that would force Hercules to trace the edges of his strength, patience, discipline, and wit. Just as my own 12-week journey training up toward the challenge of 500 x 50 x sub-5 will require me to march up to my limitations.
Which is why I decided to devote each week of training to one of the labors, documenting a lesson learned from each and how it can apply to training (and futhermore, life. The second article of the series will look back at, and synthesize, the entire effort, but for those that care to follow along on a weekly basis, you can check out my Instagram.
Noah wearing the 7" Mako Short.
For me, this is somewhat of a rescue mission. The objective: discover more potential from within and reclaim certain pieces of myself that I had lost.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I broke my back and had to wear a turtle shell brace for (coincidentally?) twelve weeks. The doctor told me to never deadlift again. And up until recently, I allowed his voice to steer me away from heavy deadlifts.
It’s time to break that barrier wide open.
When I was a senior in high school, my track coach told me he thought 800s might be my race so he tested me with a few endurance workouts and I folded—tapping out and telling myself (and him) I wasn’t built for anything longer than 400M. It’s time to re-write that narrative.
So you see, these twelve weeks are about the person that I will have to become to hit my mark. I’m going to have to eat cleaner, get stronger, recover more intentionally, rewire limiting beliefs, and endure long and painful runs where everything in me wants to stop.
But for all the adversity that awaits, I do know this: every drop of blood, sweat, and tears spilled will be worth it. Because this is the way to the stars. “It is,” as Seneca says, “a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” Non est ad astra mollis e terris via (“There is no easy way from the earth to the stars”).
If Hercules could confront obstacles forthrightly and ascend to the stars in the process, perhaps we, too, might reach the heights we are capable of. But only if we have the courage to plunge ourselves into things that will force more from inside us to rise to the surface and respond.
As C.S. Lewis put it, "hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny." Each slice of adversity may just be a stepping stone to the stars. A lily pad on the path home—where a more truthful and fully realized Self waits to welcome us.
Until next time, I’ve got some work to do.