When outsiders look at our sport
the most common question they ask is, “Why do you do
The reasons, as has been said many
times before, are as numerous and varied as the participants.
The reasons we participate in endurance sports are dynamic
also- they change as our lives change. And if we’re
smart, we change with them.
But I want to propose one reason
we do this, and I think it’s a good one:
Our lives are boring as hell.
Our species, like every species,
has a preoccupation with survival. It’s our number one
priority. Security, sustenance, safety, survival. Between
the time you get up in the morning and you go to bed at night
the bulk of your activities are centered around our highly
developed pursuit of those values.
Problem is, we’re too darn
Being the “dominant species”
on this planet we have become masters of survival. So much
so, there are too many of us and we have irreparably wrecked
the planet. We are so good at staying alive we take survival
That isn’t all good.
In the pursuit of this most primitive
of desires (the only one before reproduction) we have so effectively
isolated ourselves from danger that our life will likely be
claimed by a rogue cell reproducing unnoticed in a vital organ
while we piss ourselves in a hospital bed. Not a pretty picture.
So good for us. As a species, we
beat the odds. We are tops on the food chain and, provided
you stay out of the woods and on the beach, our only natural
enemies are the weirdo in the cubicle next to you who keeps
to himself, collects guns and has issues with the management.
Problem is, humans aren’t
build for boring. They’re built for action: Survival,
adaptation and most of all, this species is built for figuring
its way out of a jam.
We have huge brains, opposable
thumbs, move quickly and use tools. These things are for solving
problems. But it seems that, as a species, we’ve become
utterly adverse to problems. The bulk of our population- certainly
not including you or I though- is weak, slow, fat, pale, dumb
and vulnerable; not to mention lazy and disingenuous. That
isn’t how we were intended or evolved to be. It’s
just what we’ve slipped into.
Like the vitamins we can’t
live without, vitamins A, B, B12, C, D and E if we go without
the vitamin of action, let’s call it “Vitamin
X” because it sounds cool, we will actually die: We’ll
die of obesity, clogged arteries, cancer or that most lethal
malignancy of all- boredom.
Our species needs more “Vitamin
X”. I think a big part of the reason you and I do what
we do is we need more Vitamin X in our lives.
We are so insulated from action
in our lives that we accept artificial Vitamin X in a synthetic
and virtual form through movies, television, X-Boxes and PS2’s.
For those whose mental metabolism is slow enough to require
very little Vitamin X these things suffice. But for others,
it is like the pusher giving you your first hit free to get
Here is an example. A customer
recently sent me a link to a video of a year in the life of
an extreme athlete who practices BASE jumping. BASE jumping
is the sport of parachuting off fixed objects, Building, Aerial,
Span or Earth, at low altitude. The sport is illegal in some
countries and lethal in all. Here’s the video:
Now, getting this video wasn’t
good for me. I’ve jumped from helicopters, prop planes
and jets. I’ve jumped at night, during the day and in
a thunder storm. I’ve landed in the woods, the snow,
the desert, a mud bog, an airport runway and the water. In
my previous vocation with the U.S. Army and the Michigan National
Guard as a member of a Long Range Surveillance Unit our commute
to work was occasionally at the end of a parachute. But I
got a Vitamin X overdose on one jump and haven’t jumped
Every time I stepped out the door
of an aircraft I felt a brief pang of abject terror. That’s
Vitamin X. I fooled myself into doing it by convincing myself
I would die anyway, resolve that I was as good as dead, try
to fool myself into accepting it and then stepping out the
door. At about the three count (of the four count they taught
us in Airborne school at Fort Benning) the parachute was pretty
much deployed and it was always a pleasant surprise. Then
I just had to deal with getting my feet on the ground in one
piece, usually another set of problems in a sky filled with
parachutes, big airplanes and all kinds of hazards on the
Now, when you watch this video
clip, you may have any number of reactions, or no reaction
at all. But when I watch it I have a log jam of reactions.
It makes me crave Vitamin X.
I noticed that when one of my cats
is sitting in the window and sees a bird just outside, beyond
the glass, out of reach- she makes odd noises and her body
shakes involuntarily. Her tail quivers and she hunches down
in a predatory posture- knowing full well that there is an
impenetrable barrier between her and her unattainable prey.
But being a cat, a predator by nature no matter how domestic
she may be, she is hard wired with that behavior. In her cognitive
world, what little there is for a domestic cat, she understands
things like tacos are good, she gets treats when I come home,
and warm towels just out of the dryer are good to lay on.
If she thinks, that is what she thinks about. In her subconscious
she still feels she must hunt birds. It is embedded deep into
the simple psyche of a house cat.
We are like that too. And my reaction
to that video is a lot like my cat’s to the bird outside
the window. I see the man falling- falling. He is as good
as dead. He misses the buildings and cliff walls by inches
at over a hundred miles per hour. And it is oddly arousing.
Not in an amorous sense, but in a way where your awareness
is heightened, you become more alert and you (or at least
I) become hyper perceptive.
When we are confronted with the
visual stimulus of Ironman on TV it sometimes causes us to
shake and tremble, our metaphorical tail to shake involuntarily.
And for a lot of us it translates into tangible behavior.
We enter the race, train for the race and do the race. Because
we need Vitamin X. Because everything else is so damn boring.
Like the day to day life of my
cat, ours is horribly boring. Nothing threatens our survival.
We’re surrounded by sturdy walls and roofs, warm clothing,
clean water, air bags and seat belts. We may entertain ourselves
with the human equivalent of chasing the laser pointer across
the floor or mutilating a catnip filled mouse for the thousandth
time, but for the most part, it is a pretty pail simulation
or vicarious experience.
So we occasionally suffer the Vitamin
X deficiency and do something about it to spice up our lives:
Enter Ironman, jump out of an airplane, go skiing above our
ability limit, whatever.
If you are about to dismiss this
little notion as folly then I offer Evan Wright’s best
selling book, “Generation Kill” as evidence to
Evan Wright followed an elite Marine
Corps Force Recon unit in the opening days of Operation Enduring
Freedom. He observed a new phenomenon in society, culture
and war. He observed the reaction of a generation raised on
synthetic, phony “Vitamin X” and what happens
to them when they are injected with the real thing in volumes-
as in, a real war.
Wright discovered a generation
fortified with bravado and disenfranchised from empathy- until
forced to come to grips with its ugly reality. It would seem
that, according to Wright’s masterful, pulse pounding
account, killing terrorists for real in the back alleys of
an Iraqi neighborhood isn’t all that different from
killing them in the virtual realm while playing Tom Clancy’s
“Ghost Recon” on X-Box.
Until, that is, you have to face
the reality up close. You just don’t turn off the X-Box
and go to bed when the body count maxes out.
An entire generation, Wright’s
“Generation Kill”, was so deficient in real vitamin
X and so juiced on synthetic X that they went into battle
ready to kill- just like on their Playstation or X-Box, but
with only a fumbling notion of what to do with the real thing.
As a result of this disparity between real and synthetic Vitamin
X I think we will have a lot of fine, courageous young men
and women coming home with a lot of thinking to do. And I
think eventually Playstation and X Box sales will suffer.
Being juiced on artificial Vitamin
X is not the same as the real thing. The lessons, and the
ramifications, are not the same.
That’s why we need the real
thing. The real Vitamin X. That is one reason we do this sport.
If you don’t feed your need
for Vitamin X you suffer from the deficiency. Tightrope walker
Carl Wallenda once said it best,
“All of life is walking
the wire. Everything else is simply waiting…”
And when you consider Wallenda’s
insight, it is so irrefutably true. We may cherish our warm
beds and our safe, comfortable homes, but the degree to which
we cherish them is reciprocal to the hardship and danger we
Will someone who has never finished
Ironman every understand the incredible luxury of a massage
on spent muscles? Will someone who has never done a race on
a hot day ever understand how truly valuable a Dixie cup filed
with ice is? Will someone who hasn’t put their entire
physical, mental and emotional being into racing their heart
out for 12, 13 or 14 hours at Ironman ever understand the
incredible opulence of just sitting down.
No, they take these things for
granted. And sooner or later, surrounded by manufactured safety
and false security they get cranky and dull and fat and sick.
They complain about all the things missing from their lives.
Perhaps if they just gave up some of what they have all the
wonder would return. Perhaps if they interjected some real
risk into their lives then they would truly live.
Maybe if they went out and got
a dose of Vitamin X they might not be so bored.
-Thanks to rferron from
slowtwitch.com forum for contributing to this editorial.