Steph Davis scaling new heights
Keith Ladzinski
“There’s an almost religious aspect to doing these kinds of physical tests,” explains Duncan Simpson, an assistant professor of sports, exercise and performance psychology at Barry University in Miami. “There is a spiritualism involved, an opportunity to be alone, to be reflective about themselves and the world. These people find a higher power, not necessarily in a religious sense — but it is a transcendence when they push their bodies to the limits.”

During her solo trip to the South Pole, Aston often asked, “Why me?”

It wasn’t self-pity but a deep, internal probing — a way of trying to figure out why she was one of the lucky few who got to see the beauty of the ­Transantarctic Mountains and had the privilege of pushing her body past what she thought was possible.

“One day, I came to the edge of a rise, and the view was so great it felt as if I could see the ocean,” she recalls. “It made me want to cry. It was a spiritual experience, just realizing the beauty of what we have and how lucky we are to experience it. That feeling happened a dozen times a day.”

Everyone experiences those moments in life that truly capture the role of luck — but extreme athletes tend to seek out those moments more actively and feel them more frequently, says Kristen Dieffenbach, a USA Cycling elite-level-licensed coach and certified consultant with AASP.
Steph Davis base jumping
Keith Ladzinski

“There is that perfect marriage of exertion and euphoria, where time stands still and everything is right,” says Dieffenbach, who has completed­ a triple Ironman (that’s right: 24 miles of kayak­ing, 78.6 miles of biking and 78 miles of running). “That’s what they are after: that moment in time, that feeling.”

While many athletes say they fear growing addicted to the euphoria, in practice, few find the transition from the natural world to the concrete one to be a burden. In fact, those who study sports psychology find that conquering extreme feats allows these athletes to embrace the joys that others take for granted.

It’s much easier to appreciate the mundane privilege of sleeping in a bed after spending 50 hours (two sunrises) paddling, biking and running, Dieffenbach says. Having a cup of tea is a great pleasure when one doesn’t have to melt snow to make it, according to Aston.

A significant part of attempting these feats is realizing one’s ability to overcome fear and pain to accomplish a goal. As athletes continue to push the boundaries of what’s physically possible, people who study them are realizing that the mind is just as great an impediment as the body.

“We are just scratching the surface of what our physical and mental capabilities are,” says Simpson, who has interviewed dozens of ultraendurance athletes.

Extreme athletes use that awareness not only to appreciate the petty comforts of everyday life but also to overcome the nuisances, and here is where researchers see a significant direct benefit to taking part in sports.

The mental skills people need to push themselves through exhaustion, pain and hallucinations also allow them to seemingly ignore daily inconveniences. Bart Yasso, the chief running officer at Runner’s World magazine, says something always goes wrong during an ultramarathon, but those who compete actually look forward to those challenges.

“If you’re not challenging yourself, you’re missing out,” he explains. “If I didn’t do a race because there were a lot of hills or because it was hot out, I would have missed out on so much.”

In most extreme sports, the actual moment of competition is a time of solitude. Sprinting through the woods or climbing a vertical rock face without ropes are solo pursuits in which one is competing mostly with self-doubt and fear. This aspect of such events makes it easy to bestow on participants reputations as loners.

Solitude is a powerful motivator for many athletes, but so is the community that develops around these sports. Very few people become celebrities outside of the tiny worlds in which they compete, so it’s common to meet world champions as well as to toe the starting line right next to them.