Culture Of Exhaustion: What Makes Sweat And Muscle Pain So Attractive?

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Want to ride 200 km through the Alps on a bike? Maybe you would prefer to run the distance through desert. Popularity of risky obstacle races has grown so rapidly that the fascination by extreme endurance formed specific cult. What makes sweat, muscle pain and total exhaustion so attractive?

“Ultramarathon is just a competition in eating and drinking, during which people enjoy countryside,” says Daniel Oralek, 45 years old endurance champion of the Czech Republic. He finished Spartathlon (246 kilometres from Athens to Sparta) in less than 30 hours and during Badwater race, it took him also around 30 hours to pass through 217 kilometres in the 40°C heat of the Death Valley. When asked about motivation, he replied: “I like running, I like winning, I like racing.”


Miles of joy

Similar incentives brought more than 1300 participants (the oldest one over 80) to 30th Marathon des Sables. On Sunday 5th of April 2015, they rushed towards 250 kilometers of Sahara desert, carrying all their equipment for several days except water. At the same time, the race had already been sold out for 2016. No matter, there are plenty of other possibilities to go extreme. Salzkammergut Trophy in Austria gets cyclists through 210 km distance and 7,000 m elevation in Alps. Yukon River Quest offers 24 hours of paddling on restless chilly water. Red Bull X Alps combines hiking, mountain climbing and paragliding with 1,038 km to go or fly. Each of those races claims to be the toughest one and attracts more and more semiprofessionals. Yet, the highest popularity was achieved by the Spartan Race.


This is Spartan!

During this contest, the participants overcome obstacles like mud crawling under barbed wire, wall climbing, sandbag carrying or burden pulling. Page long waiver that the racers acknowledge states: “The risk of injury and/or death from the activities involved in the Spartan Race and the Event is significant including, but not limited to the following: (i) drowning; (ii) near-drowning; (iii) sprains; (iv) strains; (v) fractures; (vi) heat and cold injuries; (vii) over-use syndrome…“ Hospitalizations are common and the toughest variant of the race is finished by just 10 % of athletes. Despite the danger, or maybe because of it, the race has proliferated since 2010 from the US to whole world including Hungary, Poland, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. “I will attend Spartan Race this May and still exactly do not know why,” admits Michal Šturm, young specialist on media technologies and leisure time runner. “Last year I thought it would be totally insane to apply, but then I decided to find out what I’m made of. I would regret not to try it.” Was this also the motivation of around 10.000 hobby racers who participated in Prague half marathon on 28th March 2015?

Challenge accepted/uploaded

“Everyone desires for certain aim, something to look forward to and prepare for,” explains Veronika Baláková, sport psychologist and teacher at Faculty of Physical Education and Sport, Charles University in Prague. “This aim helps us to feel better and avoid burn out syndrome. Dealing with daily business, monotonous pressure at work and ordinary tasks, an individual may miss such aim and also feel ‘emotionally empty’. Extreme endurance sports compensate this. Lot of people lack appreciation and compliment. Their positive results at work are taken as granted, yet they subconsciously desire for acknowledgement. If they finish extreme endurance race, it improves their self-confidence. Considering those races as adrenalin activity, their point is in experiencing strong fears (doubts, visions of danger) and exhaustion followed by instant euphoria after finishing (surviving). Thus the participants go through two intensive opposite emotions, which they usually don’t encounter in ordinary life. It is called the Reversal Theory.” Just a few glances on the participants of aforementioned Prague Half Marathon entirely confirm this statement. While the runners nervously discuss their strategies or silently concentrate until the very beginning, the finish turns to parade of photos of exhausted smiles promptly uploaded on social networks.

Sketch for Survival

Though, the exhaustion may not always be rewarded. Only 9,034 out of 12,500 registered participants of Prague Half Marathon finished the race. Remaining 3,466 either surrendered or did not attend at all. How to avoid this? Tough preparation should include sufficient training but also a bit of self-reflection or mental arrangements. “There is no universal or special way how to prepare for extreme race psychically,” clarifies Veronika Baláková. “An individual must be ready to overcome possible pressures that differ according to various sports. A gymnast, for example, has only one opportunity and a short moment for the best possible performance after long years of hard training. On the contrary, endurance racers must withstand pain, fatigue and tedium. Generally, I always recommend the sportsmen to imagine the activity ahead and go through all possible demanding situations. This helps them to cope with eventual pressures, gain self-confidence and be more efficient.”

Run (the business) for your life

Endurance sportsmen are also rapidly supported by garment and nutrition industry. Almost every race has a sponsor inscribed in its name (Sportissimo Half Marathon, Volkswagen Marathon Weekend…). Such events actually bring together thousands of people willing to pay for their hobby and therefore promise profit. The registration fees range from €10 up to €1.000. The budget of famous New York Marathon is around $20 million. Every event is also accompanied by vivid advertising. Posters show running shoes or electronic gadgets as inseparable and indispensable part of human body. The pictures display “everybody run” mottos or depict particular endurance sport as way of exploration, self-presentation and way to freedom. Human being at the highest pace is the centrepiece, similar to cross for Christianity. The top performance and exhaustion is welcomed, celebrated, expected, as well as massively communicated through social and classic media. This business conception contributes to the culture where exhaustion represents a key to social status, a way of communication with one’s body as well as a mean of emotional redemption. However, some sportsmen claim that rather than extreme, this is just a return to what used to be normal in ancient times of our hunting ancestors.

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