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Opinion What’s with all the extreme fitness challenges?

Endurance challenges are becoming more commonplace, but what are we trying to prove?

SO THERE I was the other day, sauntering along in my local pool at my own distinctly middle aged, pedestrian pace, when I came up for air and my tranquil underwater world was abruptly shattered by the rantings of some manic little man in Lycra, blowing his whistle and bellowing orders into his microphone at his spinning class.

As I continued my lengths, and tried to block out the vibrations of the Prodigy bouncing around the walls of the gym, I observed his obedient disciples regress from being healthy-looking, content individuals, to sweat drenched, miserable wretches who physically winced every time he blew his dreaded whistle. And I found myself wondering, had a band of aliens landed in the car park and wandering into this virtual hell hole, would they have asked what heinous crimes these individuals had committed to deserve such brutal punishment? And how utterly confused and perplexed would they have been to discover, that these individuals, so precariously balanced on their bikes in a state of near collapse, were taking part in this ordeal voluntarily?

What happened to the good old fashioned days of the daily ‘constitutional’, or a casual jog around the park? A leisurely cycle, or kicking a ball around the park with the kids? When did the need to stay physically fit develop from these moderate activities to the kinds of extremes we are now seeing?

I did (part of) a triathlon years ago. At the time there were very few of such events in the country. Now there’s practically one in every town. You’re almost considered a lazy git these days if you’re not doing one. For the avoidance of doubt and for the benefit of the, as yet, uninitiated, a triathlon is the equivalent of 60 lengths of the pool (1,500m), followed by cycling from say Dublin city centre to Bray (40km), and then continuing on foot halfway to Wicklow (10km run). Clearly not for the faint-hearted. Or for those of us who consider the odd jaunt in the pool, or jog around the block, a more than adequate ‘regime’.

It seems we quite simply cannot get enough of challenging ourselves physically to the absolute limit through these forms of extreme exercise. I call it exercise rather than sport, because to me the latter, by definition, involves some element of ‘team’ or skill or ball maybe – some social interaction and working together – whereas the kinds of extreme activities which now seem to be taking the country by storm, are very much focused on the individual, and how far they, singularly, can push themselves.

Can you imagine years ago if your Da had upped and decided he wanted to complete an Ironman? Yes, enough of this running around the pitch with the lads twice a week and the odd round of golf. Dad’s gonna don his lycras and his wetsuit. Your mother would have called the men in the white coats. Yet nowadays an event which involves challenging the body to ridiculous extremes is no longer something reserved for professionals or body builders, WWE contestants or freaks. Completing an event which involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride and a 42.2km run (that’s basically the equivalent of going from Dublin to Galway under your own steam), has not quite become commonplace, but it is certainly no longer as remarkable as it once was. And us eager Paddy disciples are even hosting Ironman events here in Dublin in 2015 and possibly the following year also.

I can’t help wondering, what has changed within us; what is this growing need to challenge ourselves to the extreme? What are we missing in our day-to-day lives, that necessitates spending our weekends in such gruelling endeavours? And, ultimately, is it healthy? Clearly participation is preferable to watching it in the local, but what happened to ‘everything in moderation’?

Take the recent addition of the delicately entitled ‘To Hell and Back’ event. It is, very honestly, described as ‘Ireland’s toughest physical and mental endurance challenge’. They don’t try and sugar-coat it, to be fair. Because they don’t need to. And that’s exactly my point. There is an insatiable appetite out there amongst us for anything which pushes our bodies to the absolute extreme, and no shortage of thirty-something men and women who want to get themselves knee-deep in mud, in near freezing temperatures, so that they can ‘experience’ various forms of what is effectively self torture.

Tired of your 9 to 5pm midweek routine? Finding life a little mundane? Well then, why not sign yourself up for an event which features such delights as ‘the Shock of Horrors’, where competitors crawl, commando style, through a muddy trench under dangling live electric wires? Or, if electric current’s not your thing, ‘Nightmare on Hell Street’, where instead, barbed wire is traded as the prop of choice?

As we remember various centenaries around this time, you got to wonder what our ancestors would have thought of this being a growing means of passing the time of a weekend. I suspect they would raise their eyes to heaven and conclude that the world had officially gone mad – that they would look with a certain level of pity on us that our daily lives have become so sanitised, so prosaic, that we have to shoot each other for kicks (the event also involves a ‘Sniper Run’). And then, maybe, they would have headed off for a pint with those aliens I mentioned earlier.

Another variation, ‘Tough Mudder’, was held last weekend at Punchestown Racecourse. Some 6,000 eager punters with masochistic tendencies took part (not to mention the rubberneckers who paid a tenner for the privilege). Treats for participants included the ‘Arctic Enema’ – jump into an ice bath and them swim under a wooden plank and out the other side ‘before you become hypothermic’ (their words, not mine). Or its delightful pal ‘The Ball Shrinker’ (I’ll leave the details of that particular ‘event’ to your imagination). Not challenging enough for you? Then how about ‘Electroshock Therapy’ –sprint through a field of live wires carrying as much as 10,000 volts! What a blast!

Oh, good Jesus. I know I sound like my mother now, but what on Earth is the world coming to? Some of the pictures are reminiscent of a scene from the Lord of the Flies.

What’s next I wonder? Base jumping off Liberty Hall over lunch? Or perhaps just wearing hair shirts into the office ‘for the laugh’? Hellish enough for you? Is this normal, I hear you ask? What kind of person signs up for such an event? Well, our very own Minister for Health for one. Oh, the sheer irony of it.

And to be fair to the organisers, it is fulfilling a definite need. Thousands of people have competed in these particular orgies of mud, sweat, (occasionally blood), and tears. I just wonder is there not something more constructive all this surplus energy could be channelled into of a weekend, rather than paying good money to effectively replicate hellish scenes from what is (thankfully) our past? And in some parts of the world, some other poor unfortunate’s present.

Me? I’ll stick to the pool thanks. With the odd venture into the Jacuzzi. And if I’m feeling REALLY adventurous, I might even manage a cold shower in between. So go ahead and shoot me for saying it. But some of these pursuits just seem more than a little Over The Top. Excuse the pun(s).

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read more of her columns here

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