by Anthony Adragna

image via National Geographic

Do extreme athletes know when they cross the line between pushing their bodies to the limit and putting themselves in mortal danger? The line between pushing yourself to the limit and pushing yourself too far is razor thin. Too often I think athletes don’t know when to stop and hurt themselves because of it.

Arriving at this opinion has taken some time, so let me explain why I’ve reached it.  After re-reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air— the story of the disaster on Mount Everest in 1996 that killed 8 people— I realized how much Everest fascinated me and kept reading. I also watched a series that aired on the Discovery Channel called Everest: Beyond the Limits.

Everything I see points me to one conclusion: people can become overwhelmed by the goal in front of them and not know when to stop. Your initial reaction might be “Many of the people who die on Everest, in particular, are unqualified climbers who don’t know their limits.” In a lot of cases, you’d be right. Everest brings out many adventure seekers with little, or no, climbing experience. They are woefully unprepared and fall victim when their bodies give out.

That’s not always the case, though.  In 1996, one of the highest profile victims was legendary mountain guide Scott Fisher, considered one of the best climbers in the world. On the day of the disaster, Fisher was climbing poorly but continued towards the summit despite the fact he was making poor time.  As Krakauer and many others have correctly pointed out, no one told Fisher to turn around and that could have contributed to his death. With that in mind, Fisher had been making poor time for the entire day but never recognized that fact and kept pushing towards the summit. He never made it back.

Another heartbreaking case arose in 2006. David Sharp was an Englishman hoping to reach the top of the world. He was by no means a world-class climber, but certainly better than many other people on the mountain that spring. He aimed to complete a solo climb to the top, without a radio and without oxygen. If he succeeded, it would have been a truly remarkable feat.

Unfortunately, no one will ever know if Sharp actually made it to the top. Descending climber saw Sharp still making his way towards the summit late in the afternoon on May 14, 2006. The next morning a team of climber saw him huddled in a cave, horrendously frostbitten and close to death. Rescue is nearly impossible from that height on the mountain and the climbers left Sharp where he lay after making him more comfortable. He later died.

Pushing yourself can become deadly quickly on Everest, but it also occurs in marathons and triathlons as well.  Though the death rate in triathlons remains extremely low— just 1.5 out of 100,000— the deaths show that pushing yourself too hard can be fatal.

Part of the problem is that extreme sports challenge competitors to set more and more audacious records. Especially in Everest’s case that is true. People constantly look for new ways to break records and to push the envelope. In the past five years, we’ve seen a double amputee climb the mountain successfully and a 13-year-old boy make it to the summit.  The pressure to do more and more daring things has never been higher.

The financial investment also pushes people to extremes.  Sponsorship is never easy and paying your own way is often an incredibly costly proposition. People enter these challenges with intense pressure coming from within, but also coming from their sponsors and supporters who expect results.

During the competition, pressure is high and the desire to finish grows. You’ve spent months, if not years, preparing for a chance to complete your goals, whether that’s climbing the highest mountain on Earth or finishing a Spartan Race. Nobody wants to fall short.

In the heat of the challenge, people’s minds do not work well.  When we catch summit fever on mountains or finish line fury, we do not always think of the consequences of our actions. Unfortunately, those momentary lapses in judgment can have devastating results.  In the case of Everest, that result can be death. In the case of extreme races or competitions career-ending injuries remain a very real possibility.

Failure to listen to your body could also put other people’s lives at risk. Effecting a rescue in extreme conditions places other people in harm’s way and strains a team’s resources.  That’s especially true on mountains, but also the case in the wilderness portions of any long-distance race.

The lesson, to me, is quite simple. Listen to your body. Mount Everest will still be there next year and future competitions will occur. Once your body starts telling that something is amiss, listen to it. Failure to do so could end your life.

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