Creative Nonfiction and Extreme Sports

This is an essay by Elizabeth Simons.

Running High and Low

Creative nonfiction blends the thrill of a good story with already established facts. Crucial to good creative nonfiction is how the story is told, because the author already has a plot and sequence of events. It’s like a painter who doesn’t have to start with a blank canvas because the background is already there.

I’ve been fascinated with those people who love the thrill of extreme sports. I have great tolerance for unavoidable pain (think childbirth or surgery) because these are things that happen to you and call upon your inner forces to deal with something known. But forcing my body to perform beyond my comfort level? Not happening.

I know several people who like to push their bodies to the limit, and when I asked what compelled them to do it, the most frequent response is that they loved the high they got from pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do. Some take it a step further with a strong need to face fear head-on. If your body is in good condition and you know what you’re up against, fear of the unknown factors (as in mountain climbing or sky diving, for example) become an addiction.

Two books that explore the motivation behind endurance or extreme sports are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The first is a chronicle of the events that led to the tragic death of 12 individuals on Mount Everest in May of 1996, and the second is an exploration of the Tarahumara Indians who live in Copper Canyon, Mexico.

Krakauer, a mountain climber himself, wanted to write an investigative piece about the often haphazard conditions under which individuals from all over the world climb Everest, the world’s tallest peak. Previously open only to seasoned climbers, Nepal began to allow expeditions for less experienced climbers. Krakauer was assigned by Outside magazine to look into how these expeditions were conducted.

McDougall’s motivation was based on his quest to find out why his own feet hurt when he ran, and why there were so many feet and leg issues among distance runners.

Both authors are great storytellers. Reading Into Thin Air, I felt amazement, compassion, joy, and ultimately fear. How could things have gone so terribly wrong? How was it that two seasoned expedition guides—who had taken numerous climbers through the Everest experience—could perish on the summit? Krakauer described the lengthy and arduous process of climbing, about how long it takes to become acclimated, about the pervasive cold and wind, about the clumsy and sometimes terrifying oxygen masks that were barely adequate at extremely high altitudes. He intersperses this with descriptions of the climbers in his party, about forging friendships with people he would never see again. He wrote about seasoned climbers and some who were wealthy but inexperienced thrill seekers who wanted to be led through the process so they could claim their right to having climbed the world’s tallest peak. After he wrote his piece for Outside magazine, Krakauer felt compelled to write a longer version of the story, a book that might help dispel some of the nightmares surrounding the event. He concluded that opening Everest up to unseasoned tourists and the competition among expedition organizations for their dollars were the first signs of trouble. The expedition leaders’ complacence and the lack of cooperation among these leaders created a perfect storm that led to tragedy. Teamwork and loyalty were essential to safety, but when the storm struck it became every man for himself.

McDougall’s feet hurt. He wanted to know why. In his investigations on running shoes he learned about the Tarahumara, an elusive tribe of Indians in Copper Canyon, Mexico, whose lifestyle had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. What’s more, they ran. Not just a few miles, but hundreds. They ran for the sheer joy of running. Money was irrelevant to them, and their lack of competitiveness frustrated race organizers, particularly the running shoe manufacturers that wanted their piece of the pie by persuading the Tarahumara to wear their shoes when they raced. McDougall meets Caballo Blanco, “white horse” (aka Micah True), a fiercely independent man who lived in Copper Canyon and interacted with the Tarahumara. Their meeting put the various situations into play that culminated in an event pitting traditional ultramarathon runners with the Tarahumara, the race of all races.

McDougall is a bit introspective and often didactic, but he has the good sense not to get in the way of a good story. While weaving the facts that led up to the Big Race, he tells you about his explorations into the running shoe industry. According to McDougall, running related injuries accelerated when the athletic shoe industry with its cushiony soles took off. He describes how the Tarahumara run with a short stride, in a perfectly upright position, in sandals (mostly to protect their feet), and they are virtually injury-free. What’s more, they exude pure joy when they run. No grimaces from pushing one’s body to the limit. They seem to sail effortlessly as they traverse often unforgiving terrain.

But the most important takeaway from this story is that the Tarahumara are shy, non-combative, non-aggressive, non-competitive and gentle. McDougall posits that this may be based on how early human beings hunted. He tells the reader that human beings are unique in that they sweat, which gives them the ability to go long distances. Without weapons or claws or fangs early humans just kept running until their prey succumbed to overheating. (He didn’t go into how they divided the meat without tools, but maybe that’s another story.)

Krakauer tells us that lack of trust and cooperation led to tragedy. In cotnrast, McDougall’s is a story of people who are loyal and joyful. The concept of competition is foreign to them, and when they didn’t want to hang around, they disappeared, leading to extreme frustration among race organizers and the runners who lived to compete. The Tarahumara survive in extremely harsh conditions because they take care of each other. Their lifestyle is a unique event. McDougall points out that running and their plant-based diet of corn and beans wards off the modern diseases that plague our more civilized society.

Everybody runs, for the sheer joy of it. It’s common to see 80-year-old men and women gliding through the canyons with women and children.

I’ll take cooperation over competition. And I think I’ll throw out my running shoes.

One thought on “Creative Nonfiction and Extreme Sports

  1. OMG RLW is back! Once upon a time Brandon hired me to help with guest posts. So happy to see some of his best contributors taking the helm. :-)

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