We can't normalize bigger, faster, farther anymore
It’s time to call bullshit on progression.
Too many of us are beholden to social-media expectations, the subjective scoring of action sports, and a desire to push increasingly out-there limits. Mountain bikers who once explored the woods to simply blow out the lungs now time their descents with Strava. Climbers who used to clip in and coach partners on big walls now free solo for sponsor dollars driven by Instagram. To impress followers, backcountry skiers accustomed to safe low-angle hippie pow followed by hibachi beers now yo-yo laps on the Grand Fucking Teton.
Increasingly, what we do outside is less about enjoying the activity itself as an intrinsic good, and more about planning ways to go bigger, faster, and farther, often for our selfie-stick mounted cameras. And so it went that once healthy outdoor pursuits devolved into suicide clubs.
Don’t believe me? Check the numbers. From 2007 to 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that rates of TBI-related emergency room visits increased by 47 percent in six years—this, while cars were getting safer. Brain surgeons and mountain town ER docs I spoke with have all told me they believe much of this increase was from action sports. More recently, Flight for Life Colorado reported a 12 percent year-to-year risein rescues, with much of the bump in flights, at least anecdotally, attributed to folks crashing mountain bikes, busting themselves up jumping off bridges, and generally getting in way over their heads. Mountain bike injuries are on the rise as a whole. So, too, roadie deaths. In 2016, five cyclists died in Boulder County alone, and one lost his arm after descending a famed local climb too fast and entering the oncoming lane.
I wrote about the rise of traumatic brain injuries in outdoor sports in 2013. But as a longtime outdoor writer and editor, I don’t need to see the statistics to know that we’ve lost all perspective. The list of the dead—my personal list—goes well into the double digits, and it soars again if you include friends with TBIs and broken nervous systems.
There’s been a shift in how we enjoy the outdoors. Back in the 1990s, you expected to hear about high altitude mountaineers dying from objective hazards, but until the past 10 years or so, deaths of elite skiers were exceedingly rare—all of the ski stars from the original Greg Stump movies from the late 1980s are still around on the slopes. As my close friend and ski photographer Lee Cohen, once told me, “Skiing was never meant to be about dying.”
I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Two of my friends and editing colleagues survived the 2012 Stevens Pass avalanche that killed three of their ski industry friends. In 2015, yet another friend—one of America’s top ski mountaineers—watched as a Teton slide pulled two more friends to their deaths. I raised beers with the environmentalist Luke Lynch, one of the deceased, years before at an Outside staffer’s wedding.
In nearly all these tragedies, some element of the progession mindset played a role. Elite athletes and adventurers charging, pushing the limits of their skills, the snowpack, or the mountains, and suddenly running out of room for error. Since the 1980s, avalanche forecasters have known that the more avalanche knowledge a backcountry user acquires, the more they believe that they can “manage” the snowpack. The dynamic is known as negative event feedback—the more events you survive, the more invincible you think you are. But avalanches don’t work that way, which, beyond the exposure, is perhaps why avalanche forecasters die in avalanches at higher rates than citizen backcountry skiers. Counterintuitively, skill—progression—only increases risk.
It’s not just the skiing, BASE jumping, and climbing communities in places like Tahoe and Jackson that are endangered. The latest development in mountain biking—an amalgamation of trail riding and downhill racing known as backcountry enduro—is a disaster disguised as a sport. In it, competitors ride uphill over untimed sections before racing the clock on rough trail. It’s gotten ridiculously fast as the gear and the riders get better and better.
Nick Truitt, the owner of Breck Bike Guides and a former enduro racer with a cross country background, says he doesn’t race enduro anymore because the fields are too stacked with ex-downhill racers who push the descents to suicidal speeds—without the once-standard DH safety gear like chest pads and a full-face helmet. Enduro pioneers way back in 2013 could win while riding at 80 percent. Now younger racers are riding at close to 100 percent just to end up in the top 10. “At those speeds,” says Truitt, “if one lug is torn off your tire or you strike a pedal, it can kill you. I have downhill skills but I’m no longer willing to take downhill risks in the backcountry."
Will Olson was one such backcountry enduro athlete. A top-ranked Colorado enduro racer in 2015, it’s believed he struck a pedal on a rock while going 25 miles per hour during a Brush Creek race in Crested Butte and forcefully ejected over the bars. Like most competitors in backcountry enduro events, he was not wearing a full-face helmet or pads. He did not survive the trauma to his chest.
Hell, it could have been me. It took a series of crashes over two seasons to change my outlook. It began with broken ribs when I stuffed my front tire on a rock, progressed to a shattered helmet and a fractured hand when I washed out in a turn, and culminated in an exploded collarbone for me to recognize the dangers of routine charging on wheels. When my collarbone broke into shards, I was a fraction of force away from breaking my neck. Again I was lucky—it took an actual broken neck for a ski buddy from Montana to learn the same lesson and rein in his shredding.
Today, I can’t watch action footage without feeling sick. The joy of digital voyeurism is lost on me. I refuse to even glance at Alex Honnold outtakes. After 20 years reporting on outdoor sports death and losing friends, all I can think is how short such careers and lives prove to be. Most of the dead on my list were skiers, but “skier” was just a part of who they were. I miss seeing Shane McConkey lighting up the dance floor in Valle Nevado or Billy Poole cracking me up over breakfast at Snowbird. As a father and a husband, a brother and a son, I’m left to empathize with what their families went through. I close my eyes and see children growing up without parents.
Most recently, this past August, 17-year-old Carter Christensen fell to his death on Boulder’s First Flatiron. By all accounts Christensen, who grew up in nearby Longmont before his family relocated to Minnesota, loved the outdoors. He aspired to be a Navy Seal. Moments before he fell he posted a selfie to Instagram. The caption: “Free climbed 1st flatiron.”
Filed To: Racing / Athletes / Sports / Mountain Biking
The Happiness Effect of U.S. Nordic Skiing
Feb 16, 2018
The sudden, joyful rise of America's cross-country squad makes you wonder: Is happy faster than angry?
For the past 2,000 years, nordic skiing hasn’t been particularly lighthearted. Paintings of the original Birkebeiner, the heroic Norse rebels from the 1100s, depict two bearded Vikings skiing through a storm with battle axes and swords drawn as they haul their young prince to safety. The warriors are grimacing; the toddler is grimacing; and every nordic ski racer since has grimaced, too. We once called it the hardest test of athletic endurance on earth.
Catch the starting line of a modern World Cup or Olympic nordic event and the Swedes grimace, the Russians grimace, and maybe one of six Norwegians in the front row will crack half a sardonic smile before catching themself and reverting to dour. Don’t blame them for this. This is the sport of Vikings, after all, and when Vikings vanquished their enemies, they would projectile vomit into... their... mouths.
But then the camera pans to the American superstar and multiple Pyeongchang gold-medal threat Jessie Diggins, who took fifth in the 10K freestyle on Thursday, her third event at the 2018 Olympics. Her face is streaked with neon pink war paint and an amazing amount of glitter, and she’s jumping up and down and bobbing her head from side to side. She’s also waving spastically at the camera and grinning infectiously and, unless your heart resides above Whoville, you cannot help but laugh with her.
Diggins has won three World Cups outright and stood on the podium of three more. She is also the pep maven of the the U.S. Women’s nordic squad—the happiest team on earth. But it wasn’t always this way. For most of the history of U.S. nordic ski racing on the international stage, the team had little to be peppy about. The Americans would often field only partial teams—and often without enough bodies to enter a four-person relay race. Other than Bill Koch, who won a silver medal in 1976, U.S nordic skiers standing on World Cup or Olympic podiums pretty much didn’t happen. We sucked and we knew it. So why smile?
Then, in 2005, a woman from Alaska with a superhero physique and pink streaks in her hair showed up on the European circuit and changed the dynamic. Kikkan Randall looked around and realized that none of her Scandinavian competitors expected anything of her, which made her believe that she could surprise them. “It started for me personally going into my first Olympics [in Torino in 2006],” Randall told me just before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. “We weren’t planning on winning medals, but I started to think that we could do this. It was such an elusive feeling. But when I got my first World Cup win, it was no longer a theory.”
Randall went on to earn three season titles, 13 World Cup victories, and stood on 29 podiums. She is unquestionably the best nordic racer the U.S. has ever produced. Still, it would take more than Randall’s individual success to create the happiest team in the world. Former Ski Racing editor Peggy Shin recounts what happened next in her new book, World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Team. The epiphany involved socks. Just prior to a 2012 World Cup, Randall, who was injured, bought four pair of wildly striped stockings for her teammates who would be competing without her in a relay. She thought it would make for some fun team building. Her young teammate Diggins applied the face paint and glitter. “As the U.S. Women warmed up for the relay,” Shin writes, “the other teams looked at them like they had lost their minds. Who were these clowns?”
The squad finished fifth, the best result by a U.S. nordic team in relay history. And every year since, the U.S. women have been podium contenders in nearly every international race they’ve entered. In Pyeongchang, Randall was a medal threat in two events in her fifth Olympic Games. (She finished 16th out of 90 racers in the 10K skate.) The team is rounded out with proven distance racer Liz Stephens, tested sprinter Sophie Caldwell, and two-time Olympians Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen. Diggins now takes point on team spirit, helping with dance video campaigns and applying sparkles and pink paint to unsuspecting roommates. Her goal is to bring the joy to the entire U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, not just the women’s nordic crew. This fits with her high school nickname: Sparkle Chipmunk.
The U.S. nordic women’s sudden rise makes you wonder: Is happy faster than angry? Is there a strategy in giddiness? For Diggins, the answer is an enthusiastic—more accurately, irrepressibly enthusiastic—yes. “I’ve always been a really happy athlete,” she says. “That’s how I race fast. When I’m having a good time, that means I’m believing in myself and my team. I get out of my own way. I’m often dancing on the start line, because I’m here to have fun and go so, so hard. That’s where the sparkles come in. It’s a promise to myself that I’m going to give my all.”
For a scientific take, I turned to Gretchen Reynolds, who writes the PhysEd column for The New York Times. She pointed me toward two studies that show endurance benefits from smiling and a positive mental attitude in the form of an upbeat mantra. The studies imply that much of what we experience as fatigue might be initiated in the brain, and a smile and happy self-talk can short those circuits, letting you go harder longer. The key, though, is that you have to believe the positive self-talk. That and your smile should be intermittent and genuine. A death-mask grin doesn’t work.
Thing is though, as happy as the women’s nordic squad is before and after races (and every other minute of their apparently blissed-out existences—they make skiing for a living look fun) I’ve never seen any of them smile in an actual race. Nordic racing is simply too hard for that. No matter the distance, the final stretch of every race is an all-out effort. The skiers in podium contention are burning it past redline.
Who knows, maybe the smiling and self encouragement is the secret sauce. Or perhaps, as Shinn posits, it’s the teamwork thing. The 2004 Red Sox had that going on, too. But if you ask me, women just dig deeper. On race day, Diggins eyes squirrel around in her head and her form goes to hell as she breaks at the waist and poles wildly. If it was humanly possible she’d vomit up her lungs and employ them as sails to hold a lead. Joy awaits.
Can you see that same spirit in the women who are running for office and displacing misogynists? It’s such transcendence that captivates us. Watching the U.S. women’s nordic team go from glitter pixies to shield maidens and back is the antidote to the times.
Except they’re stronger than Vikings, they’re women nordic racers.