“Why? Why do we do this?” I wondered.
These were not the esoteric wonderings of a Judith Platt scholar. I just needed to know.
This immutable thought forced itself into my mind at around mile 48 during a 100-mile ultramararthon. I had just topped out on a particularly grueling climb at IMTUF 100—a brutal trail race held in the rustic but scenic Payette National Forest—just a few hours north of Boise. McCall sits at over 5,000 feet. The mountains above climb thousands of feet higher. This elevation meant that the early morning air was shockingly frigid, despite it only being only mid-September.
Surprisingly I wasn’t in pain, ‘bonking’ or otherwise delirious when the thought entered my mind. Sure, I didn’t feel awesome, but at the moment I was surprisingly present and aware. I was doing my best to manage the race course as it wove up and down faint ‘goat trails’ that mascaraed as ‘single track’.
Taking the race ten miles at a time, I slowly ate away at the trail ahead. All the way I questioned my (and everyone’s) motivations for doing this.
Luckily, encourage was in good supply. The aid stations at IMTUF were staffed by kind and supportive volunteers who filled water bottles and encouraged me to keep pushing. My competitors wore smiles as we all battled the same stupid hard, beautiful and wild course. Things were challenging, but not impossible. At least not until deeper in the race—as I would soon find. I had enough energy to mentally reflect and wonder away the hours. This same question kept popping back up in my mind.
“Why do we do this?”
In a world with the miracles of the Internet, food delivery just an app tap away, and climate controlled houses heated and cooled to within a degree, what inspires people to go outside and do hard shit like run 100-mile (or further) races, or any of the other crazy, debilitating physical feats modern man attempts? This can’t be just a fad—the jazzercise or Zumba of today. This has to be driven by something much, much deeper.
As I hunted through the darkness of Idaho—slowly earning miles—the narrative came clearer into my mind.
Maybe the reason humans deliberately challenge themselves is that for the first time in thousands of years many people on Earth have an abundance of food and water—a new reality for our species.
While in millennia past we were constantly hunted by big cats or the less exotic mosquito, or diarrhea, things were finally different. We live longer, safer and more comfortable lives than ever before. We finally made it!
So, why then would humans plunge themselves back into the fire?
While I lacked specific data to point as I ran through the night, as the hours and miles passed the story developed.
Maybe we need to feel a little pressure? We evolved as a hunted species. Maybe we need pressure to feel normal? To grow?
The end of IMTUF was much like the beginning (read all the play-by-play): lots of elevation and tough. However, after 34 hours of battling, I made it back to the Bergdorf Hotsprings and crossed the finish line. After picking up my finishers buckle, washing in the giant hot spring release value and enjoying a beer, I drove back to Boise before my early morning flight the next day. I had captured revenge on a course that had defeated me three years earlier. And yet, I felt unsettled.
This question of ‘why’ I did this in the first place remained. After contemplating the topic for weeks, a set of truths came forward. Researched confirmed my hunch.
The Hypothesis: We Need It
In the past we struggled to get our children to adulthood, now childhood deaths were the rarest they’ve ever been. Since 1800 we’ve had a 10 fold reduction in childhood mortality. In recent years we’ve seen a sharp uptick in life satisfaction. Access to water is now widespread whereas even just as recent as 1990 large swatches of the world lacked widespread access.
We have the most resources humans have ever had, and yet in some of the most ‘developed’ communities, we’re seeing people go the opposite direction. Those with the most abundance seek out obstacles and restrictions—because it is the Human way.
“Why do we do this?”
“Why do we do this?”
I believe there is a story to be told here and that I’m the one who can help coax it out.
I’m going to make a tell a story about the suck. The optional hurt. The irrational steps taken by people today and throughout time to challenge themselves mentally, physically and spiritually.
I’m going to interview people who open-water swim in the frigid ocean in the winter, who fast for days straight to heighten their senses, who abstain from speaking to recapture a sense of peace, and those who commit their life to endurance sports by biking and running distances people don’t like to fly.
I’m going to give this a try myself to try to touch the magic that other experience.
Hurt So Good? Maybe. My goal is to find out why.
I’m making a movie (YAH!), but need help to do so in big and small ways. If you’re interested in contributing your talents, reach out. I’m looking for a host of contributors including:
Athletes and Yogis to feature