MARIKA SBOROS: Nothing like standing on the edge to conquer life’s fears
‘With extreme sports you live in the moment while going against gravity and all self-preservation instincts’
You don’t need a death wish to enjoy the life-enhancing benefits of extreme sports. I don’t mean ultramarathons, although running the Comrades is risky and finishing it can feel as if you’ve survived a life-or-death struggle. I mean recreational activities involving a high degree of risk. These may involve speed, height, a high level of physical exertion and highly specialised gear.
To survive them intact, it helps to be naturally athletic and stable, relatively speaking. Extreme sports are a danger to life and limb if you aren’t in tip-top condition in body and mind.
Urban areas tend to be natural habitats of lovers of life-threatening exploits. Big cities are teeming with them. London is no exception. The latest I bumped into in the city last week is Paul Barr, 36, a skydiver. He voluntarily jumps out of aircraft high up above the clouds with nothing more than a parachute attached to his back. His highest jump has been from 18,000 feet.
I’ve always marvelled at the courage it takes to leap out of an aircraft. Barr seems not to have a vertiginous cell, never mind bone, in his body.
In 2010, he flew to Madrid to do an accelerated freefall course. It takes you speedily from beginner to solo (not advanced) skydiver (without connection to an instructor). Barr had more than 150 dives under his belt two years later, all freefall.
Not content with tempting fate and gravity, Barr was off again to Austria in 2012 for more tempting of fate and gravity. This time, he did a base jumping course.
Base is an acronym for the most extreme and thus riskiest form of skydiving. It stands for four categories of fixed objects from which these brave — or batty — people are prepared to jump: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs).
Unlike skydivers, base jumpers have one parachute only, no reserve.
Barr has 13 base jumps under his belt. "Most fun," he says, was a base jump off an 850m cliff in Monte Brento, Italy. The lowest was from a 70m antenna. Barr confesses that he jumped from the antenna at night so the land owner wouldn’t know. The climb was up a vertical 70m ladder with no safety backup. When he got to the top, he was "pretty nervous". But he just didn’t want to climb back down an easy ladder. So, he just "jumped anyway".
Whenever Barr goes on holiday, one eye is continually scanning for "drop zones". That means he can get even more adrenalin coursing through his veins with a climb and jump in one day.
Barr is also a climbing instructor at London’s famous The Reach indoor climbing centre. He climbs real rocks or cliffs as well, the harder the better. He scales them with such consummate ease, he must have been a mountain goat in a past life.
Ask what drives him to do extreme sports and he looks quizzical. He doesn’t consider skydiving, base jumping or mountain climbing to be particularly extreme.
"Generally, those who teach and offer these sports enforce the safety surrounding them," he says. "If you follow the protocols, the chance of a catastrophic accident is reasonably slim."
In skydiving, for example, there are checks to all equipment before getting on the aircraft to make sure it is fitted correctly. Someone, preferably including the skydiver, will also check and repack the secondary parachute every six months. Failure rates are "pretty low", says Barr.
It’s down to the jumper to maintain and pack equipment properly to ensure it is in working order. Barr says preparation directly links to how nervous you will be when about to jump. "After that it is too late to check, so just enjoy the ride," he says.
Interestingly, while Barr fully respects the potential for fatality in extreme sports, he finds climbing scarier than skydiving.
"You are always in a position of fear," he says.
"You are fighting the primal urge not to fall."
The fall itself is not scary, Barr says. In his book, Perfect Technique For Climbers, he deals with fear and how to conquer it.
If he were forced to choose between climbing and skydiving, he’d choose climbing. He owes climbing his life, he says. In 2009, he was diagnosed with a life-changing disease that sent him into a depressive spiral. Climbing lifted him back up.
Barr is probably lucky that he has never been seriously injured in his many climbs, sky dives and base jumps. He would still love to base jump from a building.
He agrees with sports psychologists who say high-risk sports are an excellent form of fear management training. And it won’t only be Buddhist psychotherapists who say that doing something death-defying is an instant lesson in mindfulness. Mindfulness is also known as "living in the moment". It’s a key component of mental health.
That makes extreme sports such a thrill. After all, it’s hard to be living anywhere other than in the moment while going against gravity and all self-preservation instincts.
Teetering on the edge may also boost levels of a neurochemical in the brain known as neuropeptide Y (NPY). US forensic psychiatrist Andy Morgan at Yale University showed NPY is an abundant amino acid involved in regulating bodily functions such as blood pressure, memory, learning and appetite.
NPY also alleviates the debilitating effects on the brain of excessive levels of fight-or-flight hormones. These are the stress hormones, such as adrenalin. They course through the bloodstream at breakneck speed in times of intense stress and fear.
American poet and scholar John Berryman once exhorted us all to "travel in the direction of our fear". It could be the mantra that inspires the extreme athlete.
• Sboros is editor and publisher of Foodmed.net.