Holding Their Manhoods Cheap

The Warrior Dash: All fun and games until someone dies. Then it becomes a pointless tragedy.

(Thanks Shakespeare)

A friend and I were chatting early Monday morning. She mentioned “zorbing,” so I looked it up. OK, people running in giant bubbles. Reminds me a bit of “The Avengers” (an utterly forgettable Uma Thurman flick from the late 90s), but seems harmless. So zorbing leads to the “Spartan Race,” which I’ve also never heard of. I looked it up, it’s an obstacle course like the Warrior Dash, just longer. As if running, climbing and crawling through three miles of mud, water and fire (not necessarily in that order) wasn’t enough, now people want to do this for as long as two straight days.

I have to ask: has this country gone crazy?

There was a time, maybe even as recently as 10 years ago, when running a marathon was considered the pinnacle of athletic achievement. It took years of commitment to both fitness and diet to train for one, and one was where it stopped and started. Now, marathon running has become a hobby (another friend even called it “nerdy”). I know at least two people who have run multiple marathons, and a third who will join that group by the end of 2011.

I think the Internet has a lot to do with this: new exercise and nutrition strategies can be shared so quickly that bona fide training revolutions can happen in a matter of days, with people easily finding scours of like-minded racers to train with and motivate each other. Ultra-marathons seem to have replaced marathons as the new challenge, adding upwards of 75 more miles to a race whose original claim to fame was that the first guy to run the distance died afterwards.

People have always sought physical activities as a means to prove their… something. “Manliness,” I guess, if you’re a man. “Strength,” maybe. Or perhaps just “worth.” But as time goes on, we seem to keep inventing more extreme measure by which to prove whatever it is these activities prove.

I wouldn’t have any problems with this except that it’s dangerous, even lethal. Two people died from heat stroke after a Warrior Dash in Kansas City in July. A third was paralyzed from the chest down the same day at another Warrior Dash in Michigan. Granted, two fatalities does not equal a trend, nor does it suggest anything other than that the race administrators probably should’ve considered the heat before running the race (there were 57 cases of heat stroke). But you have to ask: was there a purpose to these people’s deaths?

There are many professions in which people assume a degree of risk, even life-threatening risk. Firefighters take risks every day, but their actions save lives. Soldiers risk death as well, and whether or not their actions save lives, serving your country is an ideal lofty and honorable enough to justify dying for it. Even professional athletes take on a degree of risk (especially in football), but those giant paychecks glitter so brightly that many can’t help but be drawn to them like flies to the bug zapper.

This is something different, something incredibly unnecessary. There are some things whose proof might be worth dying for. But is saying you ran the Warrior Dash one of them? The two men who died had neither wives nor children. Thank God. How could a widow reflect on her husband’s death and not conclude he thought running through mud was more important than she was? How could a child maintain optimism in a world where deaths as pointless as this can happen? As the mother of one of the deceased said, “What a waste.”

It may challenge conventional notions of “manliness,” but true strength doesn’t come from being able to scale a wall or swim through frozen water. It comes from seeing that challenge, admitting one’s interest is inherently selfish, and then subsuming that urge in the need to provide for one’s loved ones. That’s being strong. If you can run 20 miles, great. Make your kid want to go to college or join Doctors Without Borders, then come talk to me.

This extreme obstacle trend continues to grow, not fade, which means I can’t help but think the next course will be even tougher. The risks will be even greater, which means the value we ascribe to life must inversely decline to justify participation. The Spartan Race already calls its two-day version the “Spartan Death Race,” advertising it as www.YouMayDie.com.

Perhaps we’ll ultimately reach this:

God help us all.