That's the point of pro sports, isn't it?: they show us something bigger—something grander—than just ourselves. If our spectating appetites were sated by humdrum physical achievement, we'd spend more time at the local Y. Or the public park. Or in our darkened bedrooms, watching hour after hour of old high school football tapes.
Okay, bad example.
The rub, Meat, is that we value elite athletes precisely because they aren't us. By doing things we could never do—could never dream of doing—they capture our imagination, expand our sense of the possible, remind us, in no uncertain terms, that there's more to the universe than our own piddling little piece of it. In that context, the Herculean feat amounts to a sort of ice-clean slap across the face, a shiny bright act of awe that shakes us out of our life-worn daze, and leaves us wondering what to do—what to think, even—after coming face to who-knows-what with the naked neon soul of the cosmos—
Speaking of which: this game's looking like it's just about over. What's say we crack a couple cold ones and watch that senior year highlight video, just for old time's sake...
Number Five: Throwing a 100-mph Fastball
You know you've been there. You're at the ballpark, or maybe a carnival, and you amble by the SpeedPitch booth—the kind with the strike-zone backdrop and the LED radar reading. You're with your sweetie, and of course you want to impress her, so you pony up a few bones to the dude with the missing teeth and do some quick windmills with the old throwing noodle. It's been a few years gone by now since you last uncorked a real heater, but you used to be a big baseball player, back in high school, and you figure you've still got one more halfway-respectable speedball in you...until you actually rare back and let 'er rip, and see that deflating 73 flash across the board. Even worse: your arm feels like someone plugged it into a power strip, and your girl's making eyes at the toothless radar tech. No wonder Nolan Ryan got hooked on Advil.
Number Four: Running a Four-Minute Mile
Half a century later, there's still only one thing to say—one thing worth saying—about Roger Bannister's miraculous milestone: that's moving. Anyone who ever huffed out a mile in junior high knows that the race is a class-five bitch, but those old phys ed romps—timed with a sundial, weren't they?—hardly do justice to the experiential substance of the four-minute mark. For a better idea, try remembering what it was like to run a 400—a quarter-mile—in 60 seconds (or close to 60 seconds; some of us were chubby prepubescents): your lungs got tight, your eyes got hot, your legs invariably seized up in a crippling case of booty lock that left you damned near crawling across the finish line. At that point, of course, you would've had three more laps to go...and if you were in an international competition, Hicham El Guerrouj would have already been 50 meters ahead of you. In a word: yikes.
Number Three: Competing in the Tour de France
Twenty-one stages in three weeks and change. 2,000-plus cumulative miles. Riders who burn 10,000 calories a day. The Pyrenees. The Alps. The collective undeodorized stink of the French countryside. Of course they're all taking drugs, Meat—this thing's a few shades short of a full-on Gitmo holiday. Anyone who even starts the Tour de France is a badass in our book; anyone who actually finishes the thing is nothing short of a certified Ovidian hero. As for anyone who wins seven Tours in a row while courting sultry rock stars and flouting conventional wisdom on the lethality of malignant tumors—well, he'd probably be capable of just about anything at all. Including, we suppose, lying to the whole world and getting away with it...
Number Two: Climbing Mount Everest without Supplemental Oxygen
No freeloaders here, Meat. The Everest ascent has lost a good measure of its luster since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first turned the trick in 1953...but none of the wannabe thrill-seekers who shell out good money to get hauled to the top by hapless sherpas could ever conceive of making the trip sans a canister of O2. On the contrary: the oxygen-free experience is strictly for stout-souled snow leopards, the sort of cats who'd never let a little thing like brain damage keep them from tasting the sky at the roof of the world. Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler popped the bare-lunged summit cherry in 1978, and Messner followed it up with a deoxygenated solo run two years later. Unfortunately, his subsequent attempts to repeat the performance while holding his breath were less successful.
Number One: Finishing the Ironman Triathlon
It sounds like someone's idea of a sick joke: 2.6 miles through choppy ocean currents; 112 miles on a bike in the midday sun; a full marathon to top things off, just so everybody gets a good cool-down before calling it a night. The Ironman, to put it simply, is the mother of all athletic endeavors, an undertaking that's half-Quixotic and half-insane...and more than just a little taxing to boot. Even more remarkable than the standard-issue experience: the exploits of Dick Hoyt, who's completed six of Ironman events while towing, hauling, and pushing his disabled son Rick along the way—all in an effort to raise money and awareness in their fight against the latter's cerebral palsy. Rick, alas, has yet to be cured, but come on now, right?:
We said this was a list dedicated to Hercules, not Jesus. If you need yourself a real-life miracle, you're going to have to do a little better than plain old Greek mythology...