“I do stupid, I don’t do dumb” – my approach to risk-taking in extreme endurance, and would you hurt yourself for a medal?

By SOLO

Your name is Yvette. You are a 20-year old international level swimmer. At a recent orthopedic check-up it showed that you have advancing osteoarthritis in your right and left shoulders. In addition, it demonstrated severe lower back disorders at lumbar 4-5. The prognosis is that if you keep up with this swimming through the Olympics (you have a shot at a medal), then you will become crippled by the age of 40. What do you do? You have a chance to achieve what few people can: an Olympic medal (or more than one medal counting the relays). This is a short-term gain. On the other hand, you will be a cripple by the age of 40. Age expectancy for an eighteen-year old woman in the United States is around 80. Thus, half of your life you will be a cripple.
[Source]

What would you do? What’s the right thing to do?

You can answer the first question for yourself. The second question is, of course, rhetorical.

HOW you arrive at the answer is the most interesting part. What do you take into account? How do you go about weighing pros and cons? What ethical approach to decision making will you follow?

Are you an utilitarian at heart? You will aim to maximize utility – greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Are you an ethical egoist? Then the morally right action is the one that promotes YOUR own interests.

In either case, you will have to estimate consequences of considered action, and weigh those against the benefits.

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind”, summarizes everything we know about biology in three words: “Organisms are algorithms”.

Those who predict the outcomes correctly, go on to to procreate. The ones who do not die off eventually (or at least hurt themselves enough to be out of running for a medal).

Few years ago, in an attempt to understand my approach to racing better, a friend asked: “How much pain is too much? Would you be willing to risk an injury?”.

Would I be WILLING?

Yes, of course.

Not to sound dramatic or anything…  ok, lying here… totally to sound dramatic, but after dozens of signed death waivers, I (technically) risk an injury every time I toe the start line.

“But, is it worth it?” My friend presses on. “If you actually DO sustain an injury, is it worth it?”.

I pause, thinking.

She tries to be more specific: “Say, breaking a bone. Would breaking a bone be worth it in a race?”.

A confident “yes” flies off my tongue without hesitation, surprising even myself.

My friend is a little taken aback, but yet continues. “What about losing a limb?”.

I wince. My friend and fellow racer Mark Webb lost his foot in a motorcycle accident only months before.

“No”, I say quietly. “THAT would not be worth it. But only because it would significantly impact my ability to do what I love”.

And, while I’d risk a broken bone in a race, I would not risk one in training, or a CrossFit competition. Cost-benefit analysis, bitches.

I have a saying when it comes to risk and cost-benefit analysis.

“I do stupid, I don’t do dumb”.

You may think it’s a fine line. And it is. And sometimes, things that I deem to be only stupid at the time, turn out to be (very very fucking) dumb.

But it’s a distinction that works for me.

What’s the difference between “stupid” and “dumb”?

Showing up to a 50k trail race untrained is stupid. [Done it].
Showing up to a 100 mile trail race untrained is dumb. [Not planning on it].

Olympic triathlon untrained? Stupid. [Done it. Slow as fuck for obvious reasons, and not enjoyable. But done].
Ironman triathlon untrained? Dumb. [Nope. Once I commit to this distance, I want to respect it. I also want to enjoy it – 13-16 hours is a long time to be miserable].

Stupid or dumb?

This is highly individual, of course.

Struggling to keep my balance on top of wet rocks along the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua during the Survival Run, I have asked myself this question many times.

Then, I slipped.

The aggressive tread on my Salomon shoes – invaluable on technical trail – was only marginally more helpful than a pair of stilettos when it came to gripping onto the slimy mossy rock face.

In the fractions of a second that it took me to fall, I thought: “This can be really bad”.

I landed on my side – hard. On my way down, I hit some sharp rock shards, and scraped some skin. Finally, at rest, I stayed lying down in the water, too afraid to move, too afraid to learn how bad the landing was.

It was a lucky fall. All I got as a reminder was a big bruise that blossomed blue and then green on my side few days later.

This was all part of the adventure.

Yet… what if the landing was not as successful? What if I broke some ribs? What if I fractured my skull? What would I say? What would others say?

“Scrambling on slippery rocks in the middle of the night in the water on an island in Central America? That’s just dumb. Reckless!”.

We make predictions. We make educated guesses, based on the information we have at the time. And sometimes, we guess wrong.

The more I race, the longer I train, the better I am able to walk that line. The better I know my body, and my potential. The better I can predict what is likely to break first.

I know plenty of badass racers who can show up to a 100-miler untrained, and finish – barely checking off the “stupid” box. And for others, a half marathon untrained would be plenty dumb. This will depend on your current fitness base as well as the personal unique set of skills, talents, injuries, and predispositions.

Why all this discussion?

Well… a friend recently shared on Facebook that he broke a world record – most kettlebell swings in 24 hours. Awesome, right? Only that record cost him a diagnosis of compartment syndrome, multiple surgeries, dead muscle tissue in his back, and an uncertain prognosis of full recovery.

I have to admit that my first thought was: “What a stupid fucking thing to do. He almost killed himself for WHAT!”. Yet, after thinking about it for a couple of days… I get it.

We make predictions. We make educated guesses, based on the information we have at the time. And sometimes, we guess wrong.

Would I ever attempt something like this? A highly technical weighted movement at extremely high reps?
NO.

Yet, I have attempted (and succeeded at) many things that others would call downright stupid, or even dumb.

Now, back to the original case study.
Your name is Yvette. What will you do?
Medal or disability?

Each of the choices will come with costs. However, how costly those costs are to YOU in relation to the possible benefits, will differ. And this is where WE may differ. And thus, arrive at different conclusions.

And no, deciding that you’d rather give that medal a shot, even if it means you are crippled twenty years later, is NOT dumb. It’s not even stupid.

Just like deciding that you’d rather call it a day, and retire from the sport, and concentrate on sensible weight-bearing resistance training to preserve your joints the best you can, is NOT necessarily better or more wise.

It’s just… DIFFERENT.

Medals, races, world records.
Elections, policy changes, hate speech, censorship, racial tensions.

Funny how we keep forgetting that DIFFERENT is not the same as BAD.

Hugs,
SOLO

57ethics-scale

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Posted October 13, 2016

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