Outdoor adventure doesn’t have to hurt

The other night I found myself changing channels between Masterpiece Theater and the X Games. Masterpiece Theater had been on my calendar for weeks, but during a commercial, I came across two young men and women riding a halfpipe and hurling their bodies into the air, trying to achieve the perfect height, speed, and spin. It was a stark contrast to the Jane Austen special I had been watching.

Why would these young men and women risk their lives to attempt these insane stunts? The same reason people train for Ironman triathlons, thru-hike the A.T., run marathons, climb K-2, or spend weeks behind sled dogs in the Iditarod: Because they can. They are a unique breed of individuals who are not satisfied with anything less than amazing challenges. They live for the rush associated with pushing the limits and shattering physical boundaries. They are hard-core.

How do you know one of these hard-core athletes when you see one? As the United States Supreme Court said in a 1964 decision on pornography, “You know it when you see it.” Hard-core people are easy to spot and generally stand out in a crowd. They have black eyes from where they were kicked during deepwater swims. The scars from their knee surgeries do not tan in the summer sun. They are carrying 35 pounds of gear on purpose, and go online only to price the latest and greatest ice axe and crampons. They are intense, focused, and ready for action.

Not all of us, however, are eager to join in such intense sport. Most of us—including me—are not hard-core.

Two years ago my husband and I planned a long weekend hike on the Appalachian Trail between Grayson Highlands and Damascus. I purchased gear and planned meals that would impress any experienced hiker. As we walked through tunnels of blooming rhododendron and admired the ponies at the start of the trail, I commented on how we should do this more often: “Let’s hike every weekend and bring the dogs,” I said.

By the morning of day three, tears were streaming down my face, my blistered feet screamed with each step, and I knew I would never be a thru-hiker. I also knew I would not be back to repeat the hike anytime soon, at least not without new footwear and Advil.

I recall feeling hard-core only once in my 30 years. At age 8 I kicked ass in the 25 fly, breaststroke, and 100 IM in the Old Dominion summer swim league. The expectation of athletic greatness was quickly extinguished by next summer’s 9-10 age group and 50-meter pool. Even recently my athletic goals (headstand in yoga or a 28-minute 5K) have been overshadowed by my failures (falling face first while attempting crow pose in yoga). When colleagues and loved ones discuss their next century ride or half marathon, I congratulate them on their skill and promise to bring tasty snacks to the finish line. I have never once been tempted to join.

At age 30, I know myself well. I don’t like being cold, wet, uncomfortable, in pain, or on the verge of any of these. I support any athletic activity that involves my two dogs, food or friends.

I am soft-core and proud of it. I can golf, fish, swim, run, bike, hike, raft, or ski with enough skill to make each activity enjoyable. I follow college and professional sports but not fervently. A rock-climbing trip in college seemed to be fun at the time, but even now I remember the sunset over the mountains more than the cliffs or rock face itself. For years my husband has begged me to run with him, and occasionally I am dumb enough to submit. A few moments into each run, I am reminded how not fun it is to sweat and grunt 100 yards behind someone who runs with little effort and great skill.

There must be thousands of other soft-core outdoor enthusiasts—people who enjoy sport for reasons other than mere physical exertion or challenge. We soft-cores love being outdoors, visiting with friends, and enjoy learning something new. We buy gear and magazines, attend events featuring our more intense friends, and cheer wildly as they cross finish lines. We even make excuses when their training interferes with family gatherings.

We will support the hard-core unconventional habits of others, but may not fully understand the attraction. We do not see why longer is better, and we cannot honestly empathize when a 50-mile bike ride is rained out on a cold Sunday afternoon.

Why are we soft-cores unable to change the channel when hard-cores sweat on screen? I don’t have an answer. But I am happy to just watch, cheer, and be amazed by how different we all are. And while they are busy training hard and pushing themselves to extremes, I’ll be leisurely strolling down the trail with my dogs, enjoying the sights, scents, and sounds of the larger world around us. •