Fear Factor: Success and Risk in Extreme Sports

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2004

Yesterday four men were gored during the running of bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

But if you think the risk of serious injury failed to keep hundreds more from running with the 1,300-pound (600-kilogram) behemoths again today during the city's famous multi-day festival, think again.

What it is that drives some to embrace extreme risks, while the rest of us scurrying for the safety of the sidelines?

Lester Keller, a longtime coach and sports-psychology coordinator for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, says that not everyone has the mental makeup to excel in dangerous pursuits.

"It takes a certain kind of person," Keller said. He notes that most of us hit a natural ceiling that limits our appetite for extreme risk and, as a result, our ability to perform well in dangerous conditions.

But others have a much higher tolerance, if not craving, for risk. For example, Keller points to Daron Rahlves, a top U.S. downhill ski racer who spends the summer off-season racing in motocross competitions. "He enjoys the challenge and the risk," Keller said.

"The high element of risk makes you feel alive, tests what you are made of and how far you can take yourself," Rahlves said in a previous interview with U.S. Ski Team staff.

"I'm not looking for danger. I'm in it for the challenge, my heart thumping as I finish, the feeling of being alive," he said. "I definitely get scared on some of the courses. It just makes me fight more. … The hairier the course the better. That's when I do best."

The fear that drives many people away from the risks of extreme sports may be the same ingredient that keeps others coming back for more.

Mountaineer Al Read has logged many notable first ascents over the course of his climbing career. Read now serves as president of the Exum Mountain guides, a preeminent guide service based in Wyoming. The company that leads paying clients to the summits of some of the world's toughest—and most dangerous—mountains each year.

Having climbed for over 40 years, Read says he no longer pushes to the extremes as he once did—but the feeling is still vivid.

"I can remember when I was getting into situations where I thought that at any moment I could be killed," he told National Geographic News. "I'm not particularly religious, but I would say, Oh God, don't let me be killed here. I'll never do this again."

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