On a recent flight, I watched the documentary Free Solo, a film about Alex Honnold's solo climb up El Capitan, a 3,000 foot wall in Yosemite National Park. Honnold climbed the wall without any equipment, broaching the very valid question: why? What entices people to throw caution to the wind and engage in life threatening extreme sports? Like many people, I've long assumed that extreme athletes continuously seek thrills purely for the adrenaline rush. However, researchers have found that this is objectively not true. Honnold says his motivation extends far beyond adrenaline, "I typically define it as deep satisfaction. A sense of well-being. I’m searching more for that feeling of having done something well and being deeply content—it’s more than the quick hit of adrenaline. It’s personal.”
New research out of Queensland University of Technology found that those who participate in extreme sports are often searching for a life-changing experience. They want to prove to themselves that they can do something seemingly impossible. The adrenaline that accompanies extreme sports may very well be enticing, but there are many ways to spike adrenaline (vigorous non-life-threatening exercise, falling in love, performing in front of an audience, riding a roller coaster, watching a horror film).
The real allure of extreme sports is to accomplish something challenging, to overcome a hurdle, and most of all, to feel something. While some of us resist the pain or discomfort of intense emotions, others relish and pursue such feelings. Intense pain, contentedness, and elation are all experienced in the pursuit of extreme sport, and the ability to challenge our own perceptions of what is possible is an empowering and enlightening practice.
In her book, Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Adventurers, Author Maria Coffey argues there is a deeply spiritual lure to extreme adventure. She compares extreme athletes to the ancient mystics in that both groups experience similar spiritual experiences only attained by putting themselves through hardship and suffering. She writes, "Ultra marathoners who run three days without stopping aren't setting out to deliberately touch the divine but they use the same methods as the mystics did to reach a state of transcendence," Running for three days is *probably* incredibly painful, and largely unappealing. Nobody runs an ultra-marathon to feel cozy, and the intrinsic motivation to complete such a feat must necessarily be greater than the pain associated with its completion.
It's difficult to measure the increased popularity of extreme sports, but most seem to recognize that participation is on the rise. Graham Dickinson, an experienced wingsuit flyer, postulates that extreme sports' largest appeal may simply be escapism, "Being able to escape the noise, clutter, and business of daily life is a rare treat in this world.” But again, there are a million ways to escape the noise and business of life without falling out of an airplane. The best escapism isn't about tuning out, but about tuning in, and in a hyper-connected world, the best way to tune in may necessarily be extreme.
Extreme athletes pursue calmness, serenity, and clarity through the tangible medium of extreme physical pain, or extreme physical daring. This can serve many purposes, and spiritual transcendence is a compelling outcome, but either experience-extreme pain or extreme spirituality-is difficult to attain in the safe comfortability of the modern world. Which brings up a point that is widely agreed upon but seldom voiced: extreme sports are inherently privileged, and therefore overwhelmingly not diverse. In the compelling documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young, one competitor says, “Most people would be better off with more pain in their lives.” Rather, most people who live comfortable lives would be better off with more pain. A large number of people don't have the luxury of avoiding pain, and that luxury is a privilege that simply isn't available to a whole lot of people.
Kyle Kusz, an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island, wrote a book entitled Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media, and the Emergence of Extreme Athletes in America, an academic book about why extreme sports are so whitewashed. He writes, "Extreme athletics is where white every-men perform supra-normal athletic feats in high-risk sporting activities like base jumping and sky surfing. Extreme sports...have revived a sense of traditional American masculine values and pursuits: rugged individualism, conquering new frontiers, and achieving individual progress” (p. 63).
White privilege is as real in the sporting world as it is anywhere else (read an amazing article about that here), but perhaps the greatest reason extreme athletes are inherently privileged is the high cost associated with the majority of extreme athletic pursuits. Rock climbing, for instance, can cost a casual athlete around $400 a year for equipment, gym fees, clothing, et cetera. An extreme climber can easily spend $3,000-plus per year (read a breakdown of this here).
Motivation is a curious thing, especially when it comes to wingsuit flying, sky diving, ultra running, base jumping, mountain climbing, or any sport that pushes the boundaries of human physical strength or capability. Often, the lure of these sports may be entirely unknown until we pursue them. We find great strength, confidence, and serenity in pushing ourselves and the increasing automation of the modern world is only increasing our desire to do something hard. Like the runner from the Barkley Marathon said, sometimes it's good to feel pain. The privilege inherent in extreme sports is that we get to choose when we feel pain, and most of us pay good money to do so.
P.S. Do you think the sporting world is privileged? Leave me a note and let me know. In the meantime, check out this video of wingsuit flying, to entice you to try it, or convince you not to.