Exercise Junkies in the Great Outdoors

At the invitation of some friends, last night my wife and I attended the 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado, featuring new adventure films about extreme kayakers, mountain climbers, snow boarders, skiers, surfers, mountain bikers, base-jumpers, and trekkers. It was the third day of a four day festival, and all the films and trailers we saw were extraordinary in their cinematography, breath-taking scenery, and death-defying (mostly) human feats.

Sort of like when a human looks at an ape at the zoo and feels a vague sense of kinship, outdoor fitness enthusiasts, which includes many TOJs who trail run, bike or mountain bike, recognize some commonality with these adventurers. We are all physical junkies. And to survive the stunts shown in the festival -- snowboarding down 55 degree mountain faces, kayaking over 100 ft waterfalls, climbing ropeless up 2,000 ft of vertical rock -- require world class athleticism, reflexes and endurance, well beyond what most of us will ever achieve.

Yet, in basic ways, we are very different. For us, extreme danger is an exception, not an end in itself. We risk failure at meeting a physical goal, like running a certain distance or lifting a certain weight. Sometimes danger finds us anyway, like when we get lost or our bodies are over taxed or dehydrated or injured. But mostly it's about enduring pain, sometimes for an extended period of time. Our addiction is the endorphins produced by this prolonged exertion. For many of us, hard exercise is the goal itself.

But for the adventurer, extreme danger is the rule. The possibility of imminent death is at the center of their experience. The spectre of falling thousands of feet off a mountain or drowning catapults many of them into a spiritual dimension. Certainly their addiction is the endorphins, which accompanies any hard exercise, but they also add high doses of adreneline. For them, hard exercise is the means to an end: to complete and survive a very dangerous physical feat.

A sad fact of the adventurer's calling, caught in those I saw last night and others, is that a significant number of people do die in pursuit of their passions. In one excellent film about extreme skiers I saw a few years ago, the narrator of the film was killed as the film was being shot. In one of the films last night, three young, energetic men were shown as they strategized how they would get a the first ascent of a difficult mountain in China. The film maker commented grimly that the three were killed a few days later in a massive avalanche near where the film was shot. In his book Into Thin Air, John Krakauer astutely questioned the motives, including his own, and human costs for these adventures.

But one passion we share is to be outside in beautiful natural surroundings, challenged by terrain and weather. At last night's festival, I saw the love and awe for vast landscapes in the adventurers' eyes as they looked up into the peaks or down into raging mountain rivers. For all of us, it's a thrill to be alive, though some need to fall off cliffs to feel it.

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