• Climbing in Filzmoos

    Why We Love Pushing Ourselves to the Limit

    For some people, a hike in the Alps is classed as extreme sport, for others it's climbing the Everest. We are pushing ourselves harder and further than ever before to reach our personal extreme. But why are we doing that? Why is there such an attraction to extreme and endurance sports? We have found a few possible answers.

    Over the last ten years, Christoph Strasser has spent more time riding a bike than any of us could in several lifetimes. By now, his saddle must surely be perfectly moulded to the contours of his backside.

    This Austrian cyclist holds the world record in one of the longest bike races on the planet – the Race Across America – and has won the event six times. In the 2014 edition, he cycled the 4,800-km coast-to-coast route from California to Maryland in just under seven days and 16 hours, some nights sleeping for only half an hour.

    Faster, Higher, Stronger

    While Strasser may be exceptional, he is part of a burgeoning tribe of extreme athletes, at both professional and amateur level.

    In endurance sports such as road cycling, mountain biking, triathlon, ultra marathon, swimming, and kayaking, and in adventure sports such as skiing, surfing, paragliding, mountain climbing, freediving, and skydiving, more and more of us are pushing ourselves harder and further than ever before.

    Extreme Sports All Over the World

    All over the world, you can sign up for various physical ordeals, whatever sport you’re into.

    In North Africa, for example, there’s the Marathon des Sables, a 250-kilometre (155 mi) footrace across the Sahara Desert.

    Australia hosts the Crocodile Trophy, a 750-kilometre (466 mi) mountain bike race across northern Queensland.

    USA has the Badwater 135 (a footrace across Death Valley) and the Iditarod (a 1,500-kilometre (932 mi) dog-sled race across Alaska).

    In Austria, there’s the Red Bull Dolomitenmann, a relay race of mountain running, paragliding, whitewater kayaking, and mountain biking.


    Participation is Growing

    Of course, it’s tricky to measure global participation in these sports since there are so many staged in myriad countries. One useful metric, however, might be the number of climbers reaching the summit of Everest.

    At the beginning of this century the figure was around 150 a year. Now that has increased to almost 900 a year, with traffic jams on the way to the peak during the climbing season. 

    To reach your own personal extreme, you don't need to subject yourself to intense ordeals such as these, though.

    For some people, depending on their fitness, even a hike in the Austrian Alps or an ocean swim in winter might be classed as extreme sport.

    Hiking at Hochschwab

    “People work in offices, live in comfortable homes, drive their cars, use lifts instead of stairs. They don't move at all. They feel they’re lacking something in their lives. They want to race to feel alive. They want an adventure, and want to reconnect with nature.”

    Stunning nature in the Arlberg
    Lahcen Ahansal

    The Attraction of Extreme and Endurance Sports

    But why do we test ourselves to such a degree? Fitness, weight loss and compensation for our sedentary lifestyles are all contributing factors. Granted, you can achieve all these in a gym – but treadmills and stationary bikes make many athletes feel like hamsters in cages.

    "We Have to Create Emergencies"

    Christopher McDougall is author of running books Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes. He believes we now need sport to push us outside of our comfort zones. “We’ve taken all the emergencies out of our lives,” he explains. “So we have to create these emergencies. Running through the woods during the night – that's a simulated emergency situation.”

    As explained in recent studies in the publications Frontiers in Psychology and Science Daily, there are great psychological benefits to being uncomfortable and engaging with the natural world. Anyone who has mountain biked through the wilderness or ski-toured across the Alps will bear testament to that. And the adrenaline generated by extreme sports is quite an addictive hormone.

    But is there perhaps a more atavistic reason? After all, many of us – in the developed world, at least – spend much of our lives mollycoddled in our sanitised homes and places of work. Few of us have ever faced military conscription, for example. Even fewer know what it’s like to fight in battle.

    Runners in Graz / Graz

    Feeling Alive

    Lahcen Ahansal has won the Marathon des Sables ultra marathon ten times, more than anyone else. Born to a nomad family in the Moroccan Sahara, he believes we are attracted to the jeopardy of endurance sport. “People work in offices, live in comfortable homes, drive their cars, use lifts instead of stairs,” he says. “They don't move at all. They feel they’re lacking something in their lives. They want to race to feel alive. They want an adventure, and want to reconnect with nature.”

    Indeed, our modern-day battles are very different to those of our forefathers. For us, fighting means hiking to the top of a mountain. Or swimming in the open ocean. Or, like Lahcen Ahansal, running across the Sahara Desert. Or, like Christoph Strasser, cycling across America.

    adidas INFINITE trails runner on the mountain

    The Reassurance of a Safety Net

    But unlike soldiers in battle, when we take part in sport, most of us compete in the knowledge that we’re not unduly risking our lives. That’s certainly the case in Austria, where organisations such as the Austrian Alpine Club and the Austrian Board for Alpine Safety offer safety advice for those skiing, hiking, biking, and climbing at altitude.

    The Influence of Social Media

    Perhaps the greatest influence of all, however, when it comes to endurance and extreme sports, is technology. While athletes may be relatively safe during competition, they can easily give the impression they’re flirting with mortal danger thanks to glamorisation through social media, smartphones, and action cameras such as GoPro.

    In 2018, according to data analysts Statista (see note 2), the market for action cameras (mostly GoPros) was worth US$4.47 billion, and predicted to grow to $10.25 billion within the next five years.

    These devices certainly aren't being used to film weddings. Often they are strapped to helmets where they capture high-octane footage of mountain bikers, surfers and BASE jumpers in full flow.

    Just like everyone else, extreme athletes love to show off their exploits.

    Explore Your Limits in Austria

    Portrait photo of Dominic Bliss

    Dominic Bliss

    Dominic Bliss is a London-based journalist who writes for the likes of National Geographic, GQ, and Men’s Health. He has survived downhill mountain biking in Utah, ice golf in the Arctic, climbing in the Dolomites, fell running in the High Atlas, elephant polo in Thailand, and a half Ironman in Austria.

    Oh, and the London rush hour.

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