Photo: Chris Daniels

Photo: Chris Daniels

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Risk taking is an integral part of our lives. No matter how much we try to insulate ourselves from the dangers of the outside world, decisions that we sometimes must make require taking risks. Sometimes these risks are calculated, and sometimes they’re accidental.

In his modern philosophical text The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

“I insist on the following: that we got here by accident does not mean that we should continue to take the same risks.” (Emphasis added.)

To provide some context, in this section of his text Taleb is referring to the idea that in order for human beings to evolve to our current state, our predecessors had to take certain risks, and those risks ended up working out for us, because… well, here we are. However, in this sentence he’s arguing that just because those risks turned out well for our predecessors, that there’s no reason for us to continue taking the same risks. We now know better and can make more informed decisions, only taking the risks that are necessary and have a greater possibility for positive outcomes vs. the possibility of negative outcomes. (For more on that topic, you’ll have to read his book.)

But as I read this, I wondered to myself: “Is this the inherent dysfunction of extreme sport athletes–that they (really, we) continue to take the same risks despite being intimately acquainted with the very real negative consequences of what happens when shit goes sideways?”

Rider: George Brannigan. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Rider: George Brannigan. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Do the truly top-level extreme athletes need to be dysfunctional in order to keep taking the same risks… be somewhat messed up in the head to succeed at their sport?

I mean, seriously now: after breaking an arm or a leg going big on the mountain bike, or worse, doing something like breaking your back, how do you go about mentally recovering from that injury, and then come straight back to doing what you were before when you got injured?

For some actual insight into this, be sure to read my column “Giving Up Isn’t an Option — On Overcoming Injuries“:

And despite all the things I said in that column, when I think about the athletes that wrack themselves, get hospitalized, and come back to do the exact same thing that they were doing when they got injured, I have a hard time comprehending it. (See: Tracey Hannah)

It isn’t logical.

It doesn’t make sense.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb would not be happy.

Jenny Herbold looked at the psychology of injury in her excellent Rampage-based article, discussing how the top 1% of mountain bikers deal with fear, and how they deal with the trauma from bodily injury.

And the more and more I think about it, the more I think there’s a screw loose in the heads of these guys.

Anton Thelander, after breaking his arm at Red Bull Rampage. Photo: Jussi Grznar / Red Bull Content Pool

Anton Thelander, after breaking his arm at Red Bull Rampage. Photo: Jussi Grznar / Red Bull Content Pool

But then I turn my focus inward. I tore my ACL downhill skiing last year and despite that injury, as soon as the snow started to fall this year, out came the skis, out came the climbing skins, and away into the mountains I went, searching for powder turns.

I’m not alone in this: with millions of mountain bikers and millions upon millions of winter sports athletes worldwide, we all face down our demons of injury, and then continue on in the face of fear, taking the same risks that we took before.

But maybe our dysfunction isn’t craziness. Maybe, instead, it could be better labeled as addiction. Addicts do crazy things all the time that, in their normal minds, most humans would never do. And most addicts, if they’ve been at it long enough, know that the substance they’re abusing isn’t good for them. They know that it’s hurting their bodies, and that they could potentially overdose.

Yet despite all the logic they can bring to bear, so often the addicts ignore the danger, ignore the damage they’re doing to their bodies, and they head out on the streets anyway, looking for their next hit.

Substitute “streets” with “trails,” and that hits awfully close to home.

# Comments

  • triton189

    I am 55 years old and most of the people my age who know my love for mountain biking think I am a total idiot for doing it. I no longer seek out big jumps or sketchy terrain, but my wife and I do truly love going out on single track in the mountains. I will even race a couple of times a year and ride my fat bike in the winter when the snow flies. I figure sure we are assuming a certain amount of risk doing what we do. I have separated both shoulders and my wife fractured an arm. But we figure we would rather do what we love and the hell with the chance of injury. I always tell my kids I would rather die falling off a mountain trail than get a heart attack on the couch.

  • John Fisch

    I love the Taleb quote! So true. As Neil Peart wrote in the lyrics to “You Bet Your Life” from the Rush album Roll the Bones — “The Odds Get Even”

    As far as having a screw loose, it does seem to be something like that. I watched a documentary on risk taking in which they explained that mortal fear spurs the production of a chemical we need to stay in balance. Extreme risk takers are naturally deficient in this chemical, while risk averse nervous Nellies naturally have an abundance of the same chemical. The people who are constantly laid up are basically following a compulsion driven by a chemical imbalance.

  • JeffX264

    I would disagree with your premise. I don’t think we come back “doing the same thing” as we did when we got hurt. I believe we should come back SMARTER or better as a result. I had two major injuries within a year’s time. That year was also within my first year and a half of my riding “career”. First, a broken collarbone, then 8 months later a concussion, tooth knocked out, stitches, etc. Both times I simply ran out of talent about halfway down a steep roller on a black diamond and ended up in a ball at the bottom (at least on the first one. I don’t remember the second one). After the second time, I told my family I was done. I thought I had to stop. Then I remembered a thing called “Beginner Trails”. I could still have fun on a trail without killing myself. Then I moved on to Intermediate trails and now I ride some black diamonds once in a while. I guarantee you I have become a better rider since those wrecks. Stronger and faster. But, also SMARTER. Now I know when to say “No”.

  • Dirtyrig

    There’s also another category for risk takers that has not been discussed, the “stubborn” angry mule. I don’t like getting hurt, just like the majority of the population, and big moves will bring on fear, I’m thankfully not missing that chemical, but I’m stubborn as a mule! I don’t like the control that fear has on me and I definitely don’t like thinking I can’t do something because of the fear of getting hurt. My drive is pure stubborn anger directed at myself for getting hurt! I want to conquer the move that broke my arm or leg because of anger and stubbornness! Fear is like a parent telling you you can’t do something, well F@#k my fears I’ll do what I want when I want. Now please excuse me I have to go change my diaper.

  • hproctor

    At 64 years old and a big responsibility at home, I have become very careful. That said, I still have an occasional tumble. Most my rides are semi-technical XC types but once or twice a month I get inspired to try a tougher trail or feature that is merit badge worthy. Most my spills are due to fatigue or carelessness. A little Advil and merthiolate and I’m good to go!
    That cover shot looks familiar……….C.O.D. near the Lair, @Chris Daniels?

  • mongwolf

    I, like many others, crashed a lot when I first started riding a few years ago. For me that was a function of a lack of skills and a bike that was too small for me. Now, I rarely crash, probably because I often stay within my limits. The great thing though is that my limits are gradually expanding to more and more technical trail.

  • lfg929

    My favorite quote is by T. S. Eliot – “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” The limit is different for each of us, but if we never exceed the limit then how do we ever find out just how good we can become? Personally I find a lot of peace internally when I am doing something that requires so much focus that one wrong move could result in disaster and I am always working towards improving to the point that I can be in that focused mode for as long as possible. I don’t enjoy the pain or the downtime but it is an unfortunate part of the equation occasionally.

    • Greg Heil

      Wow, that quote is SO GOOD! Writing that one down…

      Thanks for the comment man!

  • Greg Heil

    Just came across an interesting interview with Adam Craig about his retirement from enduro racing. Key quote:
    “To be competitive at that requires a pretty serious risk-taking mentality that I’ve never really had. I’ve acknowledged that humans are pretty fragile, so I feel fortunate to have gotten out of that career without any major injuries.”

    Source: https://bangordailynews.com/2017/02/01/sports/great-outdoors-still-beckons-recently-retired-maine-olympian/?ref=SportsBox

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