Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What Is Extreme?

Rappelling from a helicopter in a combat zone while under fire is extreme. But it is a "don't try this at home" activity. I polled a few individuals to determine their idea of extreme sports and the go to activities were Base Jumping, wing suit flying, skydiving and a handful of adrenaline charged pursuits. I must admit to being a type 1 Why's man when it comes to adrenaline type stuff. For our purposes we will limit the discussion to mountain biking which is typically bereft of that level of rush. 
Extreme is a continuum. At one end the idea of riding a 10 km race seems extreme to the as yet unblooded newbie. Sani2c is hectic the first time and ABSA Epic entrants are viewed as warriors. The Freedom Challenge is a whole new animal. Interestingly the 36One (361 km's non-stop) is a huge race and yet I expect that it is easier than the first 105 km's of the FC for a rookie. Perhaps those who have done both can comment on their experience. On the extreme MTB continuum The Tour Divide probably occupies a big chunk of the tough end. 
I contend that the FC and Tour Divide are bigger challenges because they are tougher mental and physical challenges. It is the aspect of mental toughness that I consider extreme in our events. I have done a few Epics and in my first I suffered to the point of missing dinner one night while I lay alone in my tent in the fetal position alternating between the fear of death and the fear of not dying. I was physically and emotionally drained. But I was devoid of pleasure. Hiking my bike for 11 hours off Black Fountain to Vuvu in FC 2007 was also draining but it came with a real sense of having done something big. It is the exultation derived from beating the odds that can become habit forming. This is the 'more' aspect, the adventure creep. 
Alex Harris relayed an incident of when he came down off Everest and was sitting around base camp with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. As I recall the story, Alex asked Fiennes "What's next?" For most of us Everest would seem to be the pinnacle of extreme achievement but that's probably because we haven't done it and the prospect of doing it seems as intangible as us going to the moon. So Alex and Fiennes sit around chewing the fat with neither one particularly intimidated by the other. We know Alex and that knowledge gives his achievements a human touch that allows us to sense the enormity of what he has done over the years. Fiennes is a tough nugget. In 2000 in a failed bid to get to the North Pole unsupported he got frostbite in his fingers. The surgeons wouldn't remove the necrotic fingertips immediately as they wanted  the underlying tissue to regrow first. Fiennes got tired of the pain and cut the tops off himself with a fretsaw. Something else to add to your adventuring kit list - 1x fretsaw. 
I digress. The point is that once a challenge has been overcome it tends to lose its allure. We will examine the pull the FC and Tour Divide have that keeps people coming back at a later time. 
As Alex and Fiennes sat around it was suggested that walking self supported across the Empty Quarter following as close as possible the route of Thesiger's 1947/8 crossing by camel was the one big challenge that still existed. So Alex went out and did just that. 
Back to ordinary people. Doing the Freedom Challenge in 2007 as a rookie was the toughest thing I have done in my life. And don't think for a second that I lived a pampered existence. I have served in the military and had my share of helicopters and bad guys with guns. 
My first FC was harder than that. The combination of exhaustion, pain and anxiety for 3 weeks is taxing. 
I was asked by someone why I would do it more than once. The answer is encapsulated in 3 words; Faster, Further, Harder. Each time I return it is to do it harder and to do something memorable such as going up Lehana at night or riding non stop for up to 40 hours at a time. Even after my spectacular failure in 2011 I drew from the experience and came back the following year and went harder and finished. 
An example of the creep is day one of the FC. The first time in 2007 I made it to Allendale (105 km's) after dark and stopped for the day. With Glenn on the tandem we arrived with an hour of daylight left and we pushed on to Centocow 45 km's further on. 
In 2009 I pushed harder and arrived in Allendale at 13:50 and got to Centocow at sunset. I then pushed on to achieve a previously unattainable (for me) double to Ntsikeni - 200 km's. 
Last year I arrived at Ntsikeni at 11pm and pushed through to Glen Edward arriving at 5am. A quick snack saw me out the door and pushing on as the 24 hour mark ticked over. 
I guess my next goal on day one will be to cross into the Transkei inside of 24 hours. That's the challenge creep that I impose on myself to keep it interesting. 

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