A similar trend can be seen among other historic firsts. When Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to spread word of the Greek victory over the Persians that day, it was considered a great feat. He also died immediately afterward, highlighting the danger involved. Immortalized in poems, the 26-mile distance formed the basis for the race of the same name when the modern Olympics began in 1896. Completing a marathon was the mark of an elite long-distance runner. Only eight runners finished the 1896 event, with Spyridon Louis of Greece taking the gold medal.
Today, these races are run all over the world, with more than half a million marathons being run each year in the United States alone. If you think running is a good form of exercise, there are many opportunities to complete a 26.2-mile trek. You can even slap one of those “26.2” bumper stickers on your Prius. But the completion of the marathon is increasingly normal, and not the remarkable achievement of 1896, let alone 490 BC. Difficult? Certainly. But not superlative.
The quest for greatness is a good thing. It is what pushes humanity to achieve new and better things. And channeling that drive into athletics is also a grand improvement on the ancient proving ground for greatness. But climbing Everest carries the risks without the attendant greatness. Doing it doesn’t achieve greatness, it only imitates it.