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Endurance Sports Obsession On Being the Toughest

What lies behind the human need to always push it further, more extreme, harder in endurance sports?
Runners Marathon des Sables
Runners at Marathon des Sables

We all had this debate when we were kids in primary school. Who can run faster? Who likes that girl more? Who is the smarter? Then around 20 or 30 years later, you picked up running (or cycling), went down the rabbit hole of endurance racing and the debate comes back. You have that colleague who always goes a bit further than you.

Half marathon. Marathon. Flat 50-miler. 100k with 5,000 D+ in the Alps. 100 miler in the Amazonian jungle under a tropical rain. 100 miler around the tallest mountain in Europe. 6-day race in the Sahara Desert. 1,000 miles in Alaska during winter.

We could have gone forever but you got the point. There is always someone who wants and does a bit more every time: longer distance, more elevation, further from human civilization, less support, more danger, worse weather conditions. It is the primordial need to be the toughest that lies under the genuine desire to challenge ourselves outside the comforts of civilization. To different degrees, we are all moved by it in our journey into any sports, and life in general - “I need to catch and surpass that guy running ahead of me”, you pick up the pace and forget you were out on your slow run.

A few months ago while scrolling the usual running content on TikTok, the algorithm decided to feed us David Goggins, who many consider the toughest man in the world. David Goggins is a Retired Navy SEAL and the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces to complete SEAL training, Army Ranger School, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller training.”, With this background Goggins approached endurance sports, running, cycling, and training after his retirement from the army. Two videos caught our attention. The first features Goggins telling the story of how he entered Badwater 135 in 2006. He got challenged by a friend about running a 100-miler and he went on the quest for the toughest race he could find. Badwater 135 brands itself as “The World’s Toughest Foot Race”, starting from the lowest point in North America and going through challenging terrain and weather conditions. Goggins was all over it. He ran a qualifier just a few weeks ahead and lined up at the start line. The second video features a friend of Goggin’s talking about how he struggles during the race and he overcame his difficulties to have a good finish - a typical ultra-running story. What caught our attention here is the admiration you can spot in the eyes of the man while telling the story. It is through these words that the toughness myth keeps feeding itself.

If David Goggins is just a human like me and he is so tough, how much am I worth if I run a mere 50k after months of preparation and he completed the toughest footrace on the planet with little preparation? For how much we are not attracted by his rhetoric we understand why many adulate him and consider him as a source of inspiration for their training and life. His whole rhetoric fits perfectly into the narrative that ultra runners and cyclists need to be heroes who stand out from the crowd and embark on crazy challenges.

When you browse on Google looking for your next race, “toughest” seems to be the magic word for organizer. We went 5 pages deep into Google results to find all sorts of articles routing up the most “Toughest Races” with some making the cut every time, Badwater 135, Hardrock 100 and Marathon des Sables, and others depending on the writer preferences, you can range from the Amazon forest to the less exotic Spine Race in the UK. The toughness is real. Races arbitrarily brand themselves using this word to raise awareness among potential participants. The Badwater 135 is “The World’s Toughest Foot Race”, the Marathon Des Sables is “the toughest footrace on earth” and the Race Across America is “the toughest cycling race in the world”. In the end, there isn’t an official “toughness committee” declaring which race is the toughest, so if your race is long enough, hard enough, and remote enough you can claim that title - our ideal “toughness committee” would include David Goggins, Bear Grylls, who literally had a TV show called “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji”, and other crazy people the algorithm hasn’t feed us yet.

death valley temperature tweet July 2023

On top of the locations and course, climate change started to play a bigger role in events organization and we hear more and more races facing strenuous weather conditions that put participants on the edge. This summer, a record temperature of 52 degrees Celsius was recorded in Death Valley, where Badwater 135 takes place, and pictures of people standing next to the thermometer went viral for the irony of celebrating an event signaling a threat to humanity. Paradoxically this is a positive phenomenon for the Badwater 135 that will continue to be the toughest and becoming tougher if global warming doesn’t stop. On the other hand, if you are the organizer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 1,000-mile race in Alaska in February, you might be worried that your race is becoming less tough due to less severe temperatures.

Remco Evenepoel Giro d'Italia 2023
Remco Evenepoel during Giro d'Italia 2023

This is not just about colder or warmer but also atmospheric events affecting the course during the year and the competitors during the race. This year, cyclists competing at Giro d’Italia went through severe weather conditions, from crazy temperature swings to rain, causing a record number of DNFs. One of the stars of the race, Remco Evenepoel, retired after testing positive for Covid-19 and it generated a lot of buzzes in the media and among fans about how today’s cyclists are not tough as they were back in the old days - aaah always the good old days. Why does a pro cyclist fighting for the win keep fighting against the course, other participants, extreme weather conditions, in addition to a debilitating illness? Just to show how tough he is even if struggles to make the cut-offs and post-illness effects that might drag on for months affecting his career? Many fans weren’t seeing it this way and got frustrated when Evenepoel dropped out of the race voluntarily (at this year's race, if a participant tested positive for COVID-19, he was not automatically disqualified) because his body couldn’t handle it anymore, but the message that arrived in the media was that Evenepoel was not tough enough.

Runner Iditarod Trail Invitational
Runner at Iditarod Trail Invitational. Image: Air Force

If you came all the way down this article, you already guessed that this is not our vibe. We are not here for the “hero rhetoric” in endurance sports. You don’t need to be a brave hero to run 80k or UTMB. We believe in being moved by the inner desire to challenge ourselves up to a certain point. We don’t see the need to venture into the never-ending quest of being tougher and tougher. Is it necessary to run in the North Pole or in the Amazon jungle? Is it ethically right to leave our footprints in such pristine natural areas? Do humans need to put themselves in certain situations to feel fulfilled?

Every person will have his/her own answers to these questions. For us, you can practice endurance sports for many reasons but proving to be tough is not one. We just go out running or cycling because makes us feel well, no matter the distance, the elevation, the asperities, and the toughness competitiveness. The movement, the incremental challenges, and the small rewards are enough to feel rounded. What all this means to you depends on your personality and what you look for in the sport. But as far as you can, there will always be someone tougher than you. Do you really want to start that race?


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