Sporting excellence: taking it to extremes

Ultra marathons, adventure races and multi-disciplined ‘athlons are coming into their own as sportspeople seek out new ways to push themselves in longer and tougher physical challenges. Rob Kemp investigates the growing appeal of new, multi-discipline events

According to the latest report from Global Industry Analysts (GIA) the worldwide demand for extreme sports is set to surge as more and more of us sign up to the likes of snowboarding, paintballing, kite-surfing, ultra races and urban climbing or buildering, as it’s also known.

Bruce Duncan, 31, from Keswick, Scotland, is one such adventure racer and one of the growing band of amateur athletes for whom the everyday distraction of team sports, the gym or the golf course just isn’t enough.

Lifestyle choice

For Duncan, spending his weekends and vacation time taking part in events such as the Abu Dhabi adventure race, and the Wenger Patagonia Challenge, a hobby has become way of life. “I think the first Patagonia one was my toughest race so far,” says Duncan. “I was struggling with trench foot and exhausted after pushing myself cycling, rock climbing, trekking and ice climbing. Yet I thought – yeah, this really is what I want to do in life.”

Today he is an adidas terrek-sponsored Adventure Racer. “Extreme sports, by definition, have a greater risk and so with that comes a greater sense of achievement.” They have their down sides. “I broke my shoulder whilst hill-running a while back,” he adds. “But to visit some of the most amazing scenery in the world and to experience the feeling of conquering the challenges nature throws at you is unbeatable.”

The GIA cites the promotion of extreme sports by media channels such as ESPN, Sony and Star Sports as being especially influential in attracting the teens and 20-something generation – the main participants in extreme sports.

“More and more people are participating in adventure sports because the opportunity to do so has increased greatly in the past five or six years,” suggests Paul Wilson, Associate Editor at The Red Bulletin, a sports magazine aimed at the new breed of thrill seekers. “TV has caught up too, and the internet means you can watch a video of someone kayak over a waterfall in Mexico, or follow the progress of an ultramarathon in real-time online.”

Whether it’s the gruelling six-day, 251km Marathon Des Sables through the Moroccan Sahara, or the crashing spills and thrills of an off-road contest like the China-Sanya International Rainforest 4×4 Challenge there’s no end of opportunities for modern amateur athletes to push themselves to the limit.

“What used to be minority sports and pursuits are no longer marginalised,” adds Wilson. “It's easy now to find, online or at clubs and societies, like-minded people looking for a challenge and adventure.”

Breaking records

Another sportsman constantly on the hunt for new personal challenges is Richard Donovan, an international ultramarathon runner and the first person to run marathons at both the North and South Pole. Donovan holds the record for running seven marathon distances on seven continents (in 5 days, 10 hours, 8 minutes) – to complete that task he also ran a specially created marathon course in Dubai.

“I had run a marathon in both Antarctica and Cape Town, South Africa the previous day. The Dubai Creek Striders set up a custom-made 3.5km marathon circuit in Al Safa Park that I had to repeat 12 times.”

The effects of such a task are tortuous on both mind and body – so why do it? “Ultramarathons are addictive,” says Donovan. “You learn a lot about management: managing your mental, emotional and physical resources.”

It’s not only research by the GIA and American Sports Data which says that the numbers of people taking part in ‘extreme’ sports is on the rise. Just look at shelves in the sports section of any magazine store – groaning under the weight of ever more outdoor fitness titles aimed at runners, cyclists, climbers, triathletes, hikers and rapid water sports enthusiasts.

Social networking sites are also buzzing with ‘show off’ posts from members who have just clocked up their personal best times or are appealing for sponsors ahead of their Kilimanjaro hike. For Wilson, there’s never been a better time to go to extremes: “If you want to explore your sporting limits, there's nothing stopping you.”