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What Drives Extreme Athletes to Risk Life and Death?

“The Summit” explores the psychological drive of K2 mountain climbers.

A new Sundance film called “The Summit” explores the psychology behind what happened on the deadliest day on K2, known as the world’s most dangerous mountain. On August 1, 2008, 25 climbers set out to summit K2—11 people died in the pursuit to stand on the mountaintop. Why? What drives extreme athletes and mountain climbers to risk life and death? Can athletes push the limits of what is humanly possible without succumbing to what the filmmakers describe as “summit fever,” which is an urge to take life-threatening risks to summit even if it means trying to get back down the mountain and find your way home will kill you.

Are you a novelty seeker or someone who has a strong "Need for Achievement” (n-Ach) personality? I am both. The need for achievement personality trait is characterized by an enduring and consistent concern with setting and meeting high standards of achievement. This need is influenced by internal drive for action (intrinsic motivation), and the pressure exerted by the expectations of others (extrinsic motivation).

How much of the drive to summit K2 comes from an intrinsic drive to achieve personal best, and how much of it is driven by a lust for fame and glory? It’s always going to be a tightrope walk between intrinsic and extrinsic drives when setting out to achieve something extraordinary. Each of us must navigate what motivates us and try to maintain a healthy balance between hubris and humility.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I got sucked into the ‘excelsior vortex’ of wanting to push myself ever higher and farther, even at the risk of killing myself. Pushing my mind and body to the absolute human limit was a rush and became like a drug for me. Everything else in my life fell to the sidelines. For over a decade of my life, I obsessively pushed the envelope to break new ground by doing things like winning 3-triple Ironman triathlons, running 135-miles through Death Valley in July and breaking a Guinness Book of World Records by running 154-miles in 24 hours on a treadmill at Kiehl’s in Manhattan.

“The Bigger the Dream. The Bigger the Risks”

My favorite line from The Summit is, “The bigger the dream. The bigger the risks.” In a previous Psychology Today blog titled “Mediocrity and the Epidemic of Complacency,” I write about a lack of ambition and slowing down seen in American running times that may be indicative of an overall non-competitive plague that has infected a generation.

When you aim high—and give something 110%—you always run the risk of failing and the crushing blow of defeat. It’s a lot safer to say you don’t care about winning because then if you ‘lose’ your ego and pride won't be bruised because you didn't 'really try' or invest any time, energy or emotion. Dreaming big and working hard to achieve a goal sets you up for major disappointment or being labeled a 'loser.' Not everyone can be a winner; And not everyone can summit K2 and come down alive.

After watching The Summit, my biggest question is, "Can someone lead a balanced and healthy life and achieve something extraordinary to become world-class?" I’m not sure. How much of the drive to summit K2 comes from a dark place of ego, hubris and chasing glory—and how much of it is an admirable humanist quest to reach for the stars and maximize one’s human potential? It’s a slippery slope and a dual edged sword. Obviously, every individuals motivations are going to be slightly different.

I retired from athletic competition—after breaking the world record—when I found myself in the ICU at the Beth Israel Hospital for 5 days on the verge of kidney failure. Running 6 marathons in 24 hours is not good for your health. During that run I had elevated levels of CPK at 177,000 units per liter (normal is 24 to 195 IU/L) which caused my kidneys to shut down. CPK is a byproduct of muscle breakdown and is a gloppy and viscous substance that blocks the filtering screens of the kidneys. After the 24 hour treadmill run, my CK-MB (an enzyme that measures heart muscle breakdown with a normal range of 0 to 24.4 ng/ml) was at 770 “nanograms” per milliliter.

The most ironic thing for me about the 24 hour treadmill world record is that my heart started to eat itself for nourishment. My desire to suck the marrow out of life and to squeeze every ounce of energy from my body and turn it into forward movement had backfired. That was the ultimate sign to me that I had to get off the ultra-running merry-go-round, unplug my form of ‘summit fever’ and retire. In the ICU, I realized that with the need-achievement brain chip that I have, when my dreams come true it means I need to raise the bar. I would always feel the need to bite off more than I could chew and as an athlete there was no place else to go.

Is That All There Is?

What does a mountain climber do once he or she has summited K2 or Mt. Everest? It can make returning to the work-a-day world seem very ho-hum unless you realize the most gratifying things in life are ultimately the joy and laughter of social connectivity and spending time with loved ones. The saddest thing about the mountain climbers who died from summit fever is the void they left in the lives of their loved ones. It makes the intrinsic drive to stand on a mountaintop for a few minutes seem really selfish.

One aspect of mountain climbing is the ‘bucket list’ aspect of being able to brag at a dinner party that you ‘climbed Mt. Everest,' which drives a certain need-for-achievement type of person with financial resources to buy his or her way to the top without proper training.

At the start of many Ironman triathlons you will see a lot of very successful banker-lawyer types with the financial resources to buy the most expensive bike equipment but haven’t really earned the bragging rights like a Sherpa would. I believe the same is probably true with some urbanites who want to climb Mt. Everest or K2. I have images of someone at Equinox climbing the stairmaster for a couple weeks and then saying, “OK. I think I’m ready to climb Everest now. Book the tickets and hire the Sherpas to lay down the climbing ropes!”

The summit fever trap that I see with many triathletes and ultra-runners is that people decide to make the extreme sports pursuit a lifestyle. In the quest for more medals or trophies—and the neurobiological bliss aerobic exercise creates—athletes often disconnect from the people in their lives. Anyone who knows someone who has caught the ‘Ironman bug’ knows how all consuming the training becomes to the point that causes social connections to inadverdently be pruned and wither on the vine.

Conclusion: Peak Experiences and the Excelsior Paradox

I was born in Manhattan and have always glommed on to the New York state motto which is “Excelsior” (Latin: Ever Higher.) The skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline are the man made equivalent of the Himalayas to me. Like building a skyscraper, there is something humanist and romantic about wanting to summit the world’s highest mountaintops and maximize human potential. I think every individual needs to take inventory and decide when ‘summit fever’ or reaching for the ‘precious’ gold ring becomes part of a monomyth that is taking you away from the the most important thing in life which is family and friends.

Abraham Maslow defined a peak experience as 'a profound moment of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture. Or when a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient, and yet more a part of the world.' I call this a state of Superfluidity. The paradox of pursuing peak experiences like summiting K2 is that it creates a psychological trap ultimately. Standing on a mountaintop can fill you with a sense of rapture, but it is also a vacuum that makes you less a part of the world.

The cinematography in The Summit is breathtaking. You can see why someone would be drawn to the majestic beauty of being on the top of K2. You almost want to inject those panoramic views of the Himalayas under bright blue skies into your veins. But there is a dark side to the lure of that beauty. I felt the same thing running the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley. It would flip between being the most ecstatic landscape to the most sinister.

To some degrees these extreme athletic environments peel back all the layers and make a person feel very raw—and from that place you tap into your ‘gestalt’ and see everything in your psychological spectrum from the noble and ignoble forces that motivate your actions and pursuits. These experiences can give you life changing epiphanies about what makes you tick, but again... one should proceed with caution. The pursuit of peak experiences—like summiting K2—can literally kill you.

Watching The Summit reminded me of the epilogue of my book The Athlete's Way titled ”Solo Crossings: Telescopes and Islands.” I conclude, “The Athlete’s Way is not just about trophies, standing on mountaintops, winning medals, or crossing a finish line. It is about what happens along the way. The connections to friends and family matter most...Being ‘in the world but not of it’ is not an ideal state of existence. We need friends and we need community more than anything else. Find the balance between your individual life experience and that of the collective. Reach out, give back, and share it with other human beings, but also treasure your success inside the individual process. That is the ultimate tightrope walk, and mastering that paradox is The Athlete’s Way.”

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