Wingsuit flying? Dogsledding? Running 100 plus miles? Cave diving inside an iceberg?
I’ve got 15 adventure athletes you’ve got to meet! When I first started writing Thrill Seekers: 15 Remarkable Women in Extreme Sports, I realized an unfortunate fact. I barely knew anything about adventure sports, let alone the people who practice them. I’d never heard of ultrarunning, and what on earth (or above earth as I found out) was highlining? Who knew that a wingsuit flyer could zip into a human-sized ‘flying squirrel’ suit in order to jump from a cliff or helicopter and soar horizontally?
While I’d never given much thought to these various outside-the-lines pursuits, what I did understand was that adventure sports are high-risk. So why do them? What is the draw for highlining, balancing along a flexible 2-inch cord sometimes hundreds of feet above the ground? In some instances without a tether. Why would someone sign up to run 50, 100, even 200 miles or more in a race against time or other athletes? Wasn’t participating in a 26-mile marathon superhuman enough?
The women I interviewed for Thrill Seekers are all adventure athletes, enthusiastic about their sports, sure, but also tapping into something more. I decided to figure out what that ‘more’ was all about.
I’m probably average when it comes to sports and fitness. I’m not super coordinated, nor exceptionally strong. I grew up in Canada so skiing was our thing, but I was never much into organized sports. I did used to run—still do—but it’s at a snail’s pace and only a couple of miles three times a week. Running is simple and it’s safe. I lace up my sneakers, plug in earbuds, and go. In my case, whenever I get to any sort of elevation, I slow to a walk. Like I said: safe. Yet …
Inspired by the passion of the ladies I interviewed, I decided to do some firsthand research. First I tried scuba diving. It was pre-Covid, and we were at a resort that offered an all-in-one lesson package. I showed up, put on the gear, and initially sat on the bottom of the swimming pool using weights to hold me down. Though it was only a two or three feet to the surface and easily reachable by standing up, this was the scariest part for me. Breathing underwater felt wrong. I had to set aside logic to take breath after breath without panicking. It was happening, though, and so when we took it a step further and walked into the ocean from the beach, I had reached an understanding that breathing underwater was going to be okay.
Under the surface of the ocean, the water was clear, but it wasn’t like looking at the horizon on land. There was limited visible distance. It crossed my mind that a shark could easily come out of the murk at any time. No sharks appeared, thankfully, but we did see a stingray laying on the sandy bottom. As the divemaster shooed it away, it rose up and soared into deeper waters.
Okay, so scuba diving was checked off my list, albeit the beginner’s version. Next, intrigued by the idea of high-stakes racing, I signed up to do a ride-along in a modified Formula racecar, another of the chapters I’d covered in my book. As I stepped onto the Richmond Raceway, I could smell the oil and, I swear, the adrenaline. Once strapped into the seat of the racecar, a driver jockeyed from the pit to the track. He accelerated, and we were off at a breakneck pace. I do recall raising both hands from the wheel to do a rollercoaster-esque no-hands wave—but only for a second.
Perhaps the best experience I tried, once again inspired by interviewing some truly amazing people, was skydiving. It was tandem, of course. Apparently rules dictate that you must dive strapped securely to an expert for a minimum of 25 times before going at it alone. Fine by me!
Every part of this experience was a joy. From walking on the tarmac to the plane, from cramming inside that small bird to perching on the edge of the gaping side door, every moment was novel and exciting. With the wind whipping past us, my instructor—his name was Cornelius—asked me if I was ready. Then, after a one, two, three, we dropped from the plane … and kept dropping. At that point I had little awareness of the ground, only the sense of falling. Sometime during the freefall we flipped over. When Cornelius deployed the parachute, the mad rush of air was replaced by a profound beauty and peace.
Once earthbound again, I played over the experience. Yes, there had been an element of real risk. There were definitely things that could have gone wrong … Ultimately, though, what I felt was a heightened sense of being alive. Ah-ha, I thought, this is the “more” those extreme sports ladies have tapped into. More joy. More life. More appreciation. It’s a precious feeling.