The age of endurance
It's been a busy time for endurance enthusiasts - those resilient, single-minded types who think nothing of walking the length of Africa barefoot, or sailing solo across the Pacific.Skip to next paragraph
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This week alone saw British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes finish a record-breaking seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Frenchwoman Raphaela Le Gouvello completed a three-month windsurfing epic across the Pacific, even as ocean rower Jim Shekhdar of Britain set off on his own odyssey - a 9,000-mile, seven-month rowing marathon from New Zealand to South Africa.
The sudden explosion in such feats of endurance prompts a simple question: Why do they do it?
Sports experts, psychologists, and endurance fiends themselves offer a host of reasons. Some put it down to Info Age ennui - a frustration with the ease of contemporary life. Other say the "Guinness Book Generation" is merely the latest extension of the age-old urge to test man's limits and assert his mastery over nature.
"Increasing numbers of people in our society are cheesed off and want something to break away from the monotony of modern life," says ocean rower Simon Chalk of Britain.
"It's about setting a goal, going after it, and achieving it - that has always motivated people, no matter what they do," says Mr. Chalk, who earlier this year became the youngest man to row his way across the Indian Ocean in an epic 109-day, 3,200-mile escapade.
Daredevil feats of stamina and fortitude are in themselves not new phenomena, of course. Explorers have been pushing back the boundaries on land, sea, and air for centuries; it's been decades since the polar caps were tamed and the highest mountains climbed.
Some suspect the recent predilection for feats of unimaginable stamina reflects an attempt to contrive new challenges in an overexplored world.
"It's a bit of a cult phenomenon - it's as much sociological as physiological," says Mike Smith, a mountaineer who is director of sport at the University of Warwick in central England.
"Mankind has got an exploratory urge - it's just channeled in different ways these days," he says.
"It's part of the great exploratory wave that people are looking to replicate, but they have to contrive it because there are no frontiers that haven't been explored."
Take the South Pole, for example.
Less than a century ago, it remained untamed - a deadly and terrible place for would-be conquerors.
Now, as the Southern Hemisphere enters its summer, the Antarctic will be a crowded place with dozens of adventurers seeking some entry into the annals of extreme history.
Or consider the marathon, that legendary discipline of Greek myth revived in 1896 as an Olympic sport and then, a generation ago, as an event for amateurs. In the early 1980s, a few thousand took part in the top 10 marathons around the world. Last year, almost a quarter of a million ran.
Yet running a marathon is a very different challenge from some of the more extreme exploits nowadays. People no longer just climb the Himalayas, they try to ski and snowboard down them. They don't just sail round the world, but row, run, walk, or cycle. No longer content with a mere marathon, they compete in ultramarathons of 100-plus miles or run seven marathons in seven days.