Yesterday, I was driving to a physical therapy appointment in Golden, Colorado, when I heard a story on Here and Now about long-distance running in the Grand Canyon. It touched on both runners and the problems they cause: more litter, more damage to the environment, and of course, more frustration for the locals.
Extreme distance running has increased in popularity over the last few years, and it shows no signs of stopping. This coincides with a rise in adventure sports like mountaineering, base jumping, and underwater cave diving. The problem with this uptick in extreme sporting, in addition to damaging the environment, is that it’s fed by a self-perpetuating cycle of instant gratification through social media. Perfectly-Instagrammed videos of extreme sports can create unrealistic expectations for new participants. They can discourage adequate preparation and increase the potential for injury.
Not long ago, I read a piece that discussed the millennial generation’s intense need to be “epic,” do “epic shit,” and “out-epic” one another. Millennials aren’t alone in this, though it seems they’ve bought into it more than the rest of us.
They do it all “for the gram,” and it can be life-threatening.
In part, this is human nature. Everyone is susceptible to images on Instagram and social media that imply (usually inaccurately) that others are living far more interesting and “epic” lives. While this is patently untrue, those who were weaned on social media seem to be more vulnerable to the notion (in part due to their age and inexperience). In a world where everyone’s life seems more exciting than yours, it’s easy to think, “I have to outdo [whatever perfectly-filtered feat someone else accomplished] or else my life is meaningless.”
I’ve participated in many sports throughout my life. At 65, I still engage in a number of them. But my inspiration for doing the sports I love, from horseback riding to skydiving to bungee jumping to mountaineering, has nothing to do with trying to outdo someone else. It never has. My choices are driven by personal passions, inspiring people I’ve met, and a natural curiosity to see what I can do. As soon as I notice myself wanting to outdo someone else’s record, I know I’m headed toward disaster.
Like anyone else, I have been inspired by amazing photos of people kayaking nearly face-first down long waterfalls. That doesn’t make me want to do it. This doesn’t make me right or better. It’s just a different way of engaging in certain sports and activities, particularly dangerous ones.
I know, from years of experience in the outdoors, that the people in these photos are not only awesome athletes — they’re also the very best at what they do. Unfortunately, these photos, taken without context, can inspire people with far less skill and experience to hike for hours to spots in Southwestern Colorado and attempt similar stunts on spring flows so dangerous they’re unrated. They do it all “for the gram,” and it can be life-threatening. My best friend Paul, a first responder, has rescued these first-timers — they’re sometimes found with compound fractures, or worse.
Needless to say, it’s not the Instagram shot they were planning on.
Social media not only encourages people to attempt dangerous activities without proper training, it compels them to document everything as well.
Depending on the user, Instagram can hide the immense amount of work invested in an activity beforehand — and this doesn’t just apply to sports. While some people are careful to document their efforts, others only post the end product, which is misleading.
Sometimes, people will approach me at the end of a speech where I received a standing ovation. They want that standing O, and they have a hard time imagining how many years of work, coaching, research, and practice went into that speech. What looks effortless to them most decidedly was not.
The problem with this idea of instant gratification—beyond the danger of discouraging preparation—is that it denies the dignity of effort. The pleasure taken in hard work is noting each step and acknowledging gains, losses, and lessons learned. In our eagerness to be superior, to out-epic the other person, we forget that time and practice exist for good reason. They make us smarter. Wiser. Better. We gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes only with the sacred beauty of our own blood, sweat, and tears.
This is the difference between being helicoptered to the summit of a massive mountain and doing the hard, slogging climb. Social media not only encourages people to attempt dangerous activities without proper training, it compels them to document everything as well. That’s why the dumb shit people do to take selfies continues to rise. I am weary of those whose GoPros get in the way of paddling in Class V rapids or prevent them from riding horses safely. Today, there is a host of activities in which rank rookies are determined to film themselves looking competent. All the while, they not only demonstrate their incompetence, they also put others at risk.
Just ask any of the avalanche rescue experts in the high country how many people ignore them, skiing lines in dangerous areas because they want that “epic experience.” Who’s pulling them out, several tons of snow later?
Those rescues cost us all.
I am about to go on my own “epic” adventure, soon — to Mt. Kenya in Africa. I’ve prepared, and I’m counting on not being rescued. So far, I’ve run 66,000 steps with a heavy backpack just since early July, which doesn’t count the other miles I’ve run, weights I’ve lifted, and related work I’ve put in.
By the time I get on the airplane, I will be in unbelievable shape. I still might not make the summit, whether due to altitude sickness or injury or any of a hundred other reasons. That won’t reflect badly on me. I’ll be as prepared as possible. I value my health and safety more than proving something to someone else.
Proper training means that when I do injure myself — and I will — I will be able to not only survive, but thrive.
While my tender ego takes immense pleasure in being considered “a badass” by people a third my age, the term invites a certain amount of thoughtless preening, which can be dangerous. The simple truth is that I love being in the air, on the water, on a mountain, and on a spicy, spirited horse.
Though these choices have, on some occasions, landed me in some pretty nice hospitals around the world, I can continue to make them because I train. Proper training means that when I do injure myself — and I will — I will be able to not only survive, but thrive.
An epic life is a life well-lived, by our own definition—not someone else’s. It’s less about stunts than it is about our ability to decide how we uniquely define “effort.”
When we understand our intrinsic worth, we embark on adventures based on respect for ourselves and others. That’s an entirely different epic adventure indeed. It’s a private, deeply personal journey, not one that should be splashed all over the internet as an attempt to prove we matter. Because we already do.