Taking It to the Extreme

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

For a group of athletes, there's nothing like an exhausting, intense challenge to keep them motivated. Are they onto something?

WebMD Feature

Sept. 4, 2000 -- At 10 o'clock on any given night, it's not unusual to find Karen Lundgren scurrying around her San Bernardino, Calif., home gathering up her running shoes and popping batteries into her coal-miner-style headlamp. As this 35-year-old office coordinator gears up for an hour-long nighttime run in the woods, her husband settles in on the couch to watch the news. "He thinks I'm nuts, going out at that hour," she says. "Me, I love it. The moon is shining, the air is calm -- it's just wonderful."

This moonlit jaunt isn't even Lundgren's first workout of the day. The former alpine skier adheres to a training schedule that would make an Olympian wince. She spends over 20 hours each week preparing for the dozen or so races she enters each year, logging dozens of miles in almost every sport imaginable.

Lundgren is not simply a certifiable outdoor nut; she's one of a growing number of women and men who are no longer content to merely slog their way through a marathon. She's an adventure racer, taking part in a decade-old "sport" that is quickly rising in popularity. Where the marathon or triathlon was once considered the gold standard of endurance events, people like Lundgren are now signing up in record numbers for even more extreme challenges like the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series and the Eco-Challenge.

Participants combine multiple sports -- running, biking, hiking, climbing, paddling, and swimming -- under grueling conditions. Some races are "short" -- a mere 3 to 7 hours of pure adrenaline and sweat; others are longer -- 12 to 36 hours of continuous competition without sleep. The most challenging events take from 7 to 12 days, often in some of the most rugged terrain in the world. (Lundgren, for instance, has raced through Tibet, Nepal, and Morocco.)

An Age of Affluence, an Age of Adventure

What's with these people, scrambling up mountains and racing through deserts when they could be home watching Survivor? Frank Farley, PhD, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, thinks the sheer comforts of civilization are pushing more people to get in touch with their thrill-seeking side, bringing out what he calls the "type T" personality. We've all got a little bit of type T in us, he says -- most of us enjoy the occasional roller-coaster ride but stop well short of rappelling down cliffs.

Maryann Karinch, author of Lessons From the Edge, agrees. "People have always been drawn to challenge and adventure -- think of explorers and astronauts," she says. "But many of those frontiers have already been tackled. We can't all go up in the space shuttle, so people create challenges for themselves."

It Takes a Certain Kind

For adventure racers themselves, much of the allure comes from feeling they are pushing themselves to the limit, maintaining control over their minds and bodies under extraordinary conditions. "When you're racing and you have to make a snap decision, you get this feeling that you are actively saving your own life," says Karinch. "That's very gratifying and it takes the race beyond the physical aspect."

Nelly Fusil, co-founder of the Raid-Gauloises race (the original adventure race, spanning 13 days), says that no matter how fit someone is, her head must be equally well trained. "The race is one of physical and mental endurance," she says. "Without the mental, your body won't follow."

Karinch says the mental fortitude that adventure racers develop can spill over into everyday life. "It teaches you that even when you're ready to give up on something, you can call on that mental discipline to get you through," she says.

Even exercisers with more modest goals can see a tiny bit of themselves in these superathletes. Whether your goal is scaling Mount Everest or adding another mile to your daily jog, you can't do it without perseverance. "It's about pushing yourself to finish something," says Karinch. "Everyone can relate to that."

As for Karen Lundgren, she sees no end in sight for her racing career. She's injury-free, and both her employer and her family support her racing 100%. Boredom is enemy number one in her life, and racing is the antidote. "When I race, I feel like a kid again," she says. "And when you come out of the jungle or the desert after a 10-day race, man, that shower feels good!"

Elizabeth Krieger is an associate editor for WebMD.

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