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Crashed! Extreme Sports And The Deathly Allure of Risk

Extreme athletes continue to take on death-defying feats again and again, chasing the adrenaline rush like drug addicts.

The world's mountain biking and extreme sports communities went into shock on February 1 of this year when Kiwi mountain biking legend Kelly McGarry died after collapsing while biking on a Queenstown trail. The 33-year-old from Nelson, New Zealand, was biking on the local Fernhill Loop Track with his sponsors when he suffered a cardiac arrest while riding an uphill section of trail. McGarry was a trailblazer, a likeable badass, always smiling and encouraging others to have a go. His most incredible feat, among many, was a backflip across a canyon in Utah during the Red Bull Rampage in 2013, which has been viewed more than 28 million times, making it the most watched mountain biking clip ever. Watch if you dare. Back at Fernhill Loop, emergency services did not initially name the man, who died at the scene, however, his sponsor, German bike company YT Industries confirmed McGarry’s death in a statement. “Kelly was a warm-hearted, friendly and relaxed guy. He stood for the true essence of mountain biking through every aspect of his life…The mountain bike world lost an exceptional character.” While McGarry’s death was totally unforeseen and did not occur during a daring feat or in the midst of adrenaline-fuelled competition, his death represents one name on a long list of fallen comrades within the (often secretive) world of extreme sports. Any search engine will reveal the sordid details of base jumpers, big wave surfers, heli-skiiers, high altitude climbers, ultra runners and more, losing their lives while participating in their chosen sport. Sometime deaths are the result of split second decisions gone awry, or exponential fatigue from long duration and high intensity efforts, and sometimes weather and the forces of nature have come out to play with unimagined ferocity. According to author Jenny Palumbo, who writes for the daredevil website Nerve Rush, “Extreme athletes push their minds and bodies to the farthest possible limit of human ability while simultaneously risking their lives. Extreme athletes are who we look to when trying to understand and measure what is humanly possible. They serve as self-appointed test subjects, leaving most of the average population watching (and studying) in awe from afar. Extreme athletes continue to take on death-defying feats again and again, chasing the adrenaline rush like drug addicts. They are truly a different breed.” (See the full article here     Pushing the boundaries, as was the case with Kelly McGarry. It is a fact that extreme sportspeople play with fire, and getting burned is a stark reality. The element of risk is a subtle, often unconscious driving force behind the intrinsic desire to partake in such sports. This concept can be visualized as a delicate balance between risk and reward; a moving see-saw with risk at one end and reward at the other.    Chris Makuch, a 34-year-old mountain biker from Courtenay, BC, who in 2015 won the Vancouver Island Cup Enduro Overall title, says, “I define risk as an equation.  Risk = the extent of failure, injury, or pain multiplied by the odds of that bad thing happening. Risk is also a product of perception. Perception is based on your knowledge, abilities, and experience.”    He adds, “Risk is always something I think about, maybe not consciously, but that’s not only relevant to mountain biking.  Humans, like all creatures, are designed to analyze risk.  What motivates us to take risks are the potential rewards. So the cliché of risk vs reward is present in everything we do. Generally speaking, while I'm riding I'm not thinking about risk until something happens that overwhelms my skills, knowledge, or experience. That's when my perception changes from something I can handle to something I perceive as risky. The brain changes from subconscious mode to conscious  mode and I start thinking about what's going on, and the potential consequences, and weighing in on the potential reward; whether that be a personal sense of accomplishment, recognition from a group (i.e. peer pressure), or a competitive result.”   Makuch adds, “If I spent my entire life focusing on the risk equation I'd be overwhelmed and not get anything done. But every once in a while something happens; maybe I have a close call, or get injured, or a friend gets hurt, or a pro rider gets seriously hurt, and it definitely makes me question what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.”   So, does the element of risk push or limit personal boundaries? While everyone is different, Makuch says, “For me it limits boundaries in a good way. I know what I can do and knowing the risks keeps me safe to ride another day… Self-preservation needs to be focus #1. There's risk in everything we do, but I can mitigate that risk by doing what I can to eliminate anything that is in my control. I can control my skills by developing them, I can control my equipment, and I can control my physical health.”   As an afterthought, he adds, “There are things that I can develop to offset risk. For me, I'll gain the skills, knowledge, abilities, whatever I need, then go for it when I'm ready. It's the whole Yoda thing; ‘Do or do not, there is no try’.”   Over the years, as extreme sports have developed, has the risk equation changed at all? Bigger, bolder, faster and more demanding pursuits – sometimes driven by TV cameras, fame and fortune - have been offset by better equipment, new modes of training, and better mental preparation. But the uber-competitive, sometimes testosterone-fuelled realms still exist and always will. Mantras such as ‘Go hard’ and ‘No fear’ are ever-present. Some argue that these phrases define extreme sports and the people who tackle them.   In terms of mountain biking, Makuch concedes that at the top end riders are still pushing the boundaries and taking risks, but that “Things have toned down a bit in more recent times.  I think maybe that's a result of my generation, the ones that led the freeride charge, getting older. We're realizing that you can have 95% of the fun, with a lot less risk. That doesn't mean we're going slow. It just means we're thinking about things a bit more before just going for it, making sure we're prepared instead of the “fuck it” attitudes we maybe had 15 years ago.”   Extreme sports are more popular than ever before, both doing and observing, as are endurance sports. In amongst the mundane existence of everyday life and the stresses thrown at us, people yearn for an escape outlet; something that heightens the senses, spits a potent mix of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, then leaves a powerful afterglow.   This behaviour in itself is nothing new. For a lot of years people turned to substance abuse for this type of updraft. For many in this day and age the allure of nature and physical activity has taken centre stage as a clean and powerful release. But for those few who stand on the outer edge of performance - predisposed to bigger, faster, and ever more daring accomplishments - the risk versus potential reward equation lingers closer and echoes louder. The consequences, as everyone knows, can include devastating injuries and death. But the thrill of success is so vast and utterly enticing it simply cannot be measured. It is eternal and it is what makes us human.  By: Kerry Hale