The X Games—the extreme sport events broadcast on ESPN—just had their first death, . A snowmobiler trying to launch an airborne back flip was run over by his snowmobile, fatally injuring his heart and brain. Such high risk competitions have become so popular that there are now six annual X Games, up from one in 1995. Meanwhile, less publicized tests to push the body to its breaking point–such as this (insane) in sub-freezing Northern Minnesota, in which participants lug all their camping equipment and supplies–continue to grow in number, difficulty, and participation rates.
(The wife of a participant in this year’s Arrowhead 135 snow race in Minnesota describes his experience:
There was a very wet snowstorm—about 10 inches of wet snow that started about 7 p.m. of the first day. By 10 p.m. he was soaked to the skin and couldn’t get dry. Plus the snow was so thick on the ground that he was pushing his bike (loaded with 50 pounds of gear) through the snow at a rate of about 1-2 miles per hour. Finally, he thought he was heading toward hypothermia ( a real risk) so he got out his survival gear—an arctic sleeping bag and a tiny water proof tent, set it up, stripped off the wet gear, and called for a snowmobile rescue. The ultra elite bikers who got through the hardest part of the race before the storm hit were able to finish and the rest either dropped out or took a very long time to finish—you must finish in 60 hours, and there were a few who went that long. )
It’s a curious thing, this persistent desire to scourge the flesh and to engineer the risk of death. Even as life grows more and more comfortable, healthy, and safe, and as we become more fanatically risk-averse regarding any possible hint of chemical toxins (see the current campaign against fracking and other excesses of the environmental movement), an ever-larger portion of us seek new ways to inflict pain on ourselves and to court danger. Are thrill- and pain-seeking genes an evolutionary advantage? Perhaps it is the competitive and self-testing impulse that confers the benefit or perhaps it is the crown of victory that creates a leg up in reproduction. Of course, if you die before you breed, you’re out of luck.
War used to be a regular outlet for young men seeking glory through the risk of an allegedly heroic death; Stendhal’s’ Charterhouse of Parma portrays one such young man (Fabrizio Valserra), desperate to join the resurgent Napoleon’s army. As war has become de-glamorized and less common, males (and a lesser number of females) create non-military combat for themselves, pitting themselves against the limitations of their own flesh. It’s as if there is a dynamic equilibrium for risk: take it out of the fixed environment and we will put it back in in controlled doses. (If the military manages to , the appeal of war as a showcase for male valor will diminish further, given the . No women, BTW, finished the Northern Minnesota snow race.)
These ever more masochistic races seem to embody as well a lingering desire to mortify the flesh—we may no longer set off on flagellating pilgrimages, but we can punish our bodies in secular ways, including anorexia. Cartesian dualism may be a scientific dead-end in explaining consciousness, but the mind’s separation from the body, to the point of antagonism or revulsion, seems to be a lived reality.