Chasing the Real Danger

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Thursday, Death Valley National Park announced its new rules regulating increasingly popular crazy endurance races (see: The Badwater Ultramarathon above). The park will no longer allow events during the day from June 14 to Sept. 9 because of heat and the chance of dying, etc. That effectively kills the traditional Badwater 135-mile race, moving it out of Death Valley. This comes on the heels of the Grand Canyon’s revised rules about Rim-to-Rim runners. This isn’t the end. We’re only going to see more places and organizers making safety rules to govern what was once the domain of extremists. There never needed to be rules regulating runners doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim route in one day, because there never were that many runners doing it. That’s no longer true.

There is a reason we’ve seen such an increase in extreme endurance events, in the (pseudo) intense adventure/obstacle events. It has something to do with a growing societal desire to chase what people are missing in their commuting and their sitting in offices. They want to feel the thrill of real danger, the excitement of the un-doable. Of course, real danger is dangerous. And real un-doable isn’t do-able for a reason.

My sister and I did a Tough Mudder once. It was fun, challenging, and different from regular races — right up until you had to run through a field of wires that electroshocked you at random. That part was stupid. Why would they mix that in with the physical challenges? Because the clientele demands a feeling of having defeated something tough and insane, something they can brag about to co-workers on Monday. But, that same clientele doesn’t have the training to do anything more physical. All it takes to run through electrified wires is the desire to do so. Tough Mudder feeds that desire.

Of course, Tough Mudder is now having to deal with the dangers that come with running these kinds of events. People die. People die in running races, in triathlons, in obstacle races, in ultramarathons. People die chasing the thrill of living. (People also die all the time for no reason.) That’s part of the appeal, even if no one admits it to themselves.

We are not ok with that fact — and for good reason. When we participate in an event, we believe that we will be safe and that preparations and precautions have been made for our safety. We also believe that we will have a real, genuine experience. These things are at odds. They will continue to be at odds as more and more people try to reconcile them. Ironman’s “hard” races tend to go out of business, while it’s “easy” ones sell out in minutes; no one wants to try and fail at finishing. They want a challenge that they can ultimately safely overcome. It has always been dangerous to run through Death Valley in the summer during the middle of the day. That was true when the Badwater Ultramarathon started in 1987 and a half-dozen crazy people tried to run the 135 miles to Mt. Whitney. They wanted to try because, not in spite of, the dangers. It is still dangerous, but now hundreds can do it. Or, at least they could — until we decided it was too dangerous to try anymore.