At what point do "extreme" sports become pointless masochism?

June 29, 2006

Last Saturday night, my friend Brian was about to win the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run when he collapsed on the Placer High School track, about 300 yards from the end. He was dragged by his support crew across the finish line to the medical support area and spent the next day in a hospital.

Is Western States a dumb race whose benefits are outweighed by the risks? I don’t believe so. But what about Primal Quest, a race taking place this week in Utah, where four-person teams will cover hundreds of miles over several days, working their way across whitewater rapids, rocky canyons and other dangerous terrain while battling sleep deprivation in hopes of grabbing a share of the $250,000 in prize money? Don’t we have to draw the line somewhere?

I hesitate to criticize any sport that others enjoy. As someone who’s run 100-kilometer races, I know what it’s like to be mocked by outsiders who can’t fathom the appeal of an event that I personally find fulfilling. At the same time, it seems indisputable that going without adequate sleep for days is unhealthy and that going without adequate sleep for days while exercising continuously is even less healthy. Based on this logic, I’d argue that any event that entails competing for an entire day and night with little or no sleep and then continuing well into the following day or longer is a very, very bad idea. And a huge prize jackpot that encourages dreadfully tired people to take any additional risks that might make them richer? That seems downright misanthropic.

If Brian wants to take another crack at Western States next year, I’ll wish him the best. But if Liz wants to do Primal Quest — she has expressed interest in it — I may have to issue an ultimatum of some sort.


  1. At least at Primal Quest she'd have a chance to bring home some bacon…as opposed to just a belt buckle!

  2. First off let me doubt how successful your ultimatum may be :)Correct, this was probably the culmination of lenght (450M), exposure (115F), and difficulty… just like 5 years ago Eco Challenge Fiji and Borneo the year before… but I believe that we cannot make such statements necessarily, sleep deprivation is unhealthy, but so is pushing your body to the limit for 18h in a 100Mile run, Brian coud have been hurt more, as these top runners push much harder than anyone at PQ does over such length of time. Besides, apart form the top10 teams noone out there really takes very big risks in the interest of gaining a spot, after day 2 its survival mode and enjoying an adventure of a lifetime…2 cents worth from someone that has already reserved the time for PQ next year…

  3. Two important questions are raised by Greg's objections to expedition racing, specifically exerting onesself in rugged terrain over days of sleep deprivation and fatigue:1. What are the short-term risks/dangers?2. What are the health (long-term) consequences, if any?With respect to the first question, there is no doubt that expedition racing is risky, given the casualties that have resulted. However, the adventure racing stats that I am aware of to date indicate that it is a lot less risky than one might think. This could partly be explained by the fact that participants self-select (or de-select)–people who can't handle the challenges of expedition racing usually don't sign up or drop out early, and those who continue on to situations where they are in extraordinary danger are typically surrounded by competent teammates and race staff. On the other hand, there have been many injuries or illnesses at expedition adventure races, and such risks are inseparable from the activity by its nature. A competitor in this year's Primal Quest fell asleep biking downhill and broke a collarbone, among other injuries. One can imagine more or less severe results from such incidents.The answer to the second question is unclear. A Google search reveals conflicting information on whether there are any long-term effects from sleep deprivation. One abstract (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=2203156&dopt=Abstract): "This report provides information supporting the conclusion that sleep deprivation produces only very small biomedical effects. It nonetheless concludes that chronic partial sleep deprivation may contribute to gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease, and other medical conditions that occur more often in shiftworkers than in permanent dayworkers."I have heard that prolonged (weeks) total deprivation of sleep can result in a risk of death, but I think that such extreme sleep deprivation far exceeds that encounterd in expedition racing.What is very well established is that even moderate levels of sleep deprivation have a significant negative impact on performance of motor and cognitive functions (short-term effects). Furthermore, one study showed that sleep-deprived students overestimated their performance on a cognitive ability test (although it wasn't clear from the reference to the study how this overestimation compareed with the control group).Apparently, the brain recovers slowly from periods of sleep deprivation, such that performance is compromised for several days, even after catching up on sleep. This is still not a long-term health effect, but it means that there are performance/safety implications that carry over into life after an expedition race.On the subject of health-effects, it is arguably more healthy to be a recreational jogger than a competitive runner. Both the jogger and the competitive runner reap the health benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise. However, the competitive runner also suffers increased fatigue with all the associated health risks; might suffer more respiratory disorders due to breathing such a high volume of polluted, dry, cold, hot, or allergen-laden air; is more likely to suffer long-term damage from overuse; and is exposed to the harmful effects of an increased number of free radicals produced during strenuous exercise (if I understand this correctly). In spite of all this, I and many others choose to train at a high level with the goal of high performance.Similarly, regardless of the short- and long-term risks, people will continue to participate in expedition races if it appeals to them. Their numbers will continue to be tiny and dwarfed by the number of cigarette smokers or alcoholics, because most people don't find it fun or rewarding to endure the hardships of expedition-length racing.

  4. So what Eric is really trying to say is that Greg should stop being a competitive runner and become a recreational jogger for health reasons, after all then you would not run into cement poles and stuff like that 🙂

  5. Eric Bone?Hey, I know you, don't I?

  6. pjm, perhaps so, but it's also possible that you know another EB, such as the one from Brandeis. I am an orienteer, a runner, an adventure racer, and a life-long resident of Seattle, WA.

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