/ 21 December 2012

Addicted to extreme performance

Graeme Pope-Ellis.
Graeme Pope-Ellis.

He is known widely as Dr Evil. In a prosaic twist the philosopher Hannah Arendt would fully appreciate, he lives in the seaside-resort banality of Plettenberg Bay. Banality is, of course, only obvious in long shot, in wide screen. Once you examine the details, as Arendt would probably agree, it tends to degrade into something else.

So let’s ignore the limping geriatrics slathered in unguents, the cheerful beach umbrellas, the melting ice-cream cones. Concentrate instead on the forest-clogged hills. Because that’s where the agony lurks – agony Dr Evil mines and sells at a premium.

His real name is Leon Evans and he’s only evil because every April 1 200 A-type pain junkies desperately need him to be. Since 2004 he has designed the course for the Absa Cape Epic, a nine-day mountain-bike trek widely considered to be the off-road Tour de France. Anyone can participate – anyone, that is, with R39800 (for a team of two) and the fitness and will to ride about 100km a day over brutal terrain with a teammate who must finish alongside you, share in your scant glory and enrage you in ways that you had never before thought possible.

All over the world, there are thousands of Iron Man competitions, 24-hour races, channel-crossing swimathons – the Epic itself is based on the La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica.

But why is South Africa such a repository for the developed world phenomenon of otherwise sane, moneyed folk paying for a sporting challenge that can easily end in dismemberment or death? What psychological or physiological processes urge an increasing cohort of the middle class to seek out physical duress so extreme that professionals think twice before committing themselves? What does postmodern life deny us; why can’t we just shovel down brunch and get fat with dignity?

Full disclosure: I’m one of the shaved-legged legions. Fuller disclosure: if the unexamined life is not worth living, then pop me in a Lycra-clad coffin and nail the lid shut – I’m too afraid to ask myself why. I cycle almost 11 hours a week, which equates to 11 hours of lost productivity both at work and at home. It’s been centuries since even kings have had so many hours to blow on useless fancies; in fact, I would argue that never in the history of our species has such leisure time existed. Like fools, we fill it with leisure’s direct opposite.

It’s not just cycling. An amateur triathlete would chuckle at my 11 hours – a mere warm-up. Let’s consider a niche sport such as kayaking.  South Africa’s paddling Epic is the Unlimited Dusi, a three-day timed event that last year drew 2000 paddlers and 3000 support crew. The race’s “Bruce Fordyce” is the legendary Dusi King Graeme Pope-Ellis, who won the event 15 times and competed on 46 occasions, until his death in a farm accident in 2010.

Dig divots
We don’t jog in South Africa; we never have. We compete in the Old Mutual Two Oceans ultramarathon (56km), which vies with the Comrades (about 89km) for primacy on the endurance-running calendar. Two Oceans boasts 11 000 participants; the Comrades has 19 524. Put another way, almost 40 000 entries are sold for two events that make regular marathons resemble TV aerobics. The logistics in these proceedings are staggering – the Comrades has an army of physicians waiting at the finish to mop up what remains of the zombies crossing the line.

Golf this isn’t. But then golf’s social matrix is embarrassingly simple. A day on the links allows business folk to make deals, forge relationships and dig divots into immaculately manicured grass. But extreme-sport participation has its own social paradigm.

A Comrades certificate hanging on an office wall or a Cape Epic album burnishing a Facebook profile makes a statement about the character of the participant. He or she is tough; he or she is uncompromising; he or she has integrity and grit and fortitude – and knee surgery scheduled for the off-season.

My friends in finance tell me how easy it is to work with other endurance athletes: 90% of a business lunch consists of racing blather and 10% concerns hammering out the terms of a deal that was a foregone conclusion in the first place.

Like Freemasons, World War II vets and mommy bloggers, this is a cabal that rejigs social boundaries, creating a fecund new business community – lean, sunburned, but not necessarily effective. There is no earthly correlation between coming eighth in an Iron Man and being a great accountant. But big-name execs are by no means in the minority.

In a related matter, you’ll perhaps have noticed the big brands that stud this essay like gemstones on a Breitling watch. Banking giant Absa sponsors the Epic; insurance Goliath Old Mutual backs Two Oceans. Medical fund Bonitas pours money into the Comrades as well as a cycling team helmed by local legend Malcolm Lange. Nedbank contributes to the Comrades and hosed cash at a mountain bike team, only to pull out when one of their stars, David George, was bust for doping. The companies do this because brand association with endurance activities hits their demographic where it hurts – nothing makes a logo look better than when it is draped across the neck of a winner.

There are many marketing specialists who would disagree with that last statement and they would probably be correct. The real reason big financial and insurance institutions sponsor biking, paddling and running is because their executives belong to the cabal. Like Manchurian candidates, amateur endurance athletes stud the upper ranks of big business and they happily pay it forward, steamrolling over baffled public relations and marketing departments in the process.

Runner’s high
Still, we haven’t determined what those execs and those who benefit from their largesse get from all this – a few deals, some zinc medals and hip dysplasia notwithstanding. One could interpret their zeal as an extension of the health fanaticism that followed a slew of influential studies in the 1970s and 1980s that determined the close relationship between physical activity and longevity. But as my father, an endurance cyclist in his own right, has often said: “We don’t do this because it’s healthy; we do it because it’s fun.”

I’ve always believed that there was something amiss with his statement. A crackhead would hardly describe a five-day binge as “fun”. He would say it was “necessary”. Over the years I’ve cycled with four people who regularly attend AA meetings, as many with eating disorders and a baker’s dozen who had once considered chopping a line of coke the apex of physical activity. Addicts of one stripe or another, all of them have replaced something presumably deadly with something reportedly healthy.

You’ve heard of a runner’s high? It’s an actual high, comparable to anything a mad professor has cooked up in a lab and just as addictive. The comedown can be severe – an injury can send an athlete into a tailspin of depression and anxiety as hard to overcome as any withdrawal.

Anecdotally, most of us are familiar with a version of the following story: “He was superfit and had run 12 Comrades. One day, he was watching Generations and his heart exploded into his brain.” It is a familiar trope, mostly because extreme activity is not good for you. There is no appreciable evidence linking endurance sports with longevity – no long-term, broad-based studies have been satisfactorily undertaken, because the phenomenon is relatively new.

I would argue that we do what we do because we are addicts and religious fanatics hiding in bright, tight clothing. Agony has a purifying quality, an ecstatic dimension that hair shirt-wearing monks understood all too well. When you want to know not only your own limits, but also obliterate the very concept of “knowing”, it helps to push yourself beyond the point of a heart attack.

Dr Evil provides a window into non-being and delivers a fix. He allows a generation that has never known battle to feel hell’s whip. He builds a community.

The reward he delivers is a sense of accomplishment that can be acquired in no other way. Just ask the 24000-odd participants of the Momentum 94.7 bike race, which winds through Jozi every November. They could be eating brunch. But why would they do something like that?

Richard Poplak is a freelance writer living and cycling in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter