Tipping Point: Electric shocks all the rage in an era where 26 miles is for wimps
Man-against-nature battles are the ultimate proof that, yes, people really are bored
In 2009, Eddie Izzard ran 46 marathons in 52 days for Sport Relief. Photograph: Danny Martindale/WireImage
Having occasionally been to hell and back trying to fill this space, a PR firm’s recent email relating to ‘Hell & Back 2016’ demanded opening.
‘Hell & Back’ is billed as Ireland’s toughest physical and mental endurance challenge. And just as ‘challenge’ has become PR shorthand for ‘problem’ as in ‘oh Jesus, we’re all screwed,’ there is a rather obvious problem here – it’s dumb.
More than 21,000 people are paying – paying mind – to crawl through bogs and swamps, wade across rivers and lakes, haul themselves up mountains, scale obstacles normally reserved for Special Forces types, and if all that’s not enough, run the risk of electric shock at the end.
They’re testing themselves, apparently: a man-against-nature battle which reaches for the individual authentic soul, except with 21,000 others, in padded and insurable conditions, often for charity, of course, and with the usual large cast of corporate partners.
Yes, it seems people really are that bored. We used to laugh at the Japanese for doing this stuff to themselves on TV game-shows. At least they got a Corolla out of it. Now it’s a lifestyle. People train in order to fling themselves into bogholes – for fun.
Yes, yes, of course, if that’s how you get your jollies, fair enough, although if climbing, swimming and electric shocks is your thing, there could be more constructive outlets for such energy, like mountain rescue, lifeguarding, even sparking.
And yes, it is essentially harmless attention-seeking which will no doubt look good in the ‘WhatsApp’ group where everyone else is MAAAAAD too.
But it is also another tiny sign of how lines between weird fetishism, sport and cod-Californian psychological balls about challenge and fulfilment are becoming increasingly blurred in this fashionable tide towards the ever more extreme.
Two-and-a-half-thousand years after Pheidippides’s jog to Athens, we have evolved to a stage where 26 miles is for wimps. Now a marathon is almost a dot on an athletic horizon full of triathlon variations, the Ultra-Triathlon, the Double-Ironman, the Brutal Extreme Triathlon, the Deca-Ironman, the Double-Deca, which presumably has granola and boiled chicken instead of chocolate and nougat.
In 2009, Eddie Izzard ran 46 marathons in 52 days for Sport Relief, the comedian shuffling his way along British roads in the rain. Earlier this year, he took up the marathon theme again for Sport Relief, running 27 marathons in 27 days in blazing South African sunshine, throwing in two marathons on the last day as a suitably masochistic cherry on top.
Izzard said it was a tribute to Nelson Mandella – “He had stamina: I need stamina.”
It might be reasonably suggested Eddie is in need of something other than stamina. The stamina bit seems just fine, although how it might stretch to even more extremes in future is a puzzle – 100 marathons in 50 days around the Arctic Circle maybe, but during the winter obviously, in case it looks too easy.
It’s as well to remind people that the science about this has evolved to where there is general unanimity about any fitness advantages being negligible after an hour’s exercise. In fact there’s evidence that too much beyond that can be positively harmful.
That’s not suggesting everyone should curl up in front of microwave, ingesting their own body weight in saturated fat.
Obviously a sedentary lifestyle takes out a vastly larger percentage of people rather than those running marathons, although curiously marathons do have a similar fatal heart-attack rate to sky-diving.
However, you don’t have to concentrate on professional levels to ponder if this craze for the extreme is actually causing more harm than good.
The impact of persistent road pounding is keeping much of the physiotherapy industry in business on middle-aged and newly proselytised gym bunnies sweating their anxieties away. So if fitness is the excuse, what’s the real reason?
I suspect it’s got little or nothing to do with being ‘MAAAAAD’, in fact quite the opposite. Mammoth training schedules and minutely examined dietary requirements have nothing to do with the wild side. Instead your usual extreme type is about as extreme as a prudent accountant.
Studies in America have established links between the rise in this obsessive pushing of the body to a rather existential exercise in control, an attempt by people to regain power over their increasingly frantic and uncertain lives.
And when so much of everyday life basically boils down to straddling a screen and letting it do all the work – while you sit back and ponder how much longer you can continue to hang on to a job a computer could do much more efficiently for less – that isn’t such a big stretch.
A road, or a pool, or a bike, plus a stopwatch: it’s basic and fundamental and hopelessly non-digital. And it’s even less of a stretch to see why it might become obsessive, encouraging that urge to test the body to ever greater degrees, not especially for physical health, or stress-busting, or any manic exhibitions of “fun,” but rather because it’s simply controllable.
It’s surely not regressive though to wonder if a lot of people might benefit from taking a step back sometimes, maybe push the dietary boat out occasionally and dive into a Double Deca that’s supposed to be enjoyed and not endured.
That’s controllable too, and not necessarily more dangerous. Relax, it mightn’t happen. And never, ever forget that Pheidippides dropped dead once he got to Athens.