Fitness

Pain and the Human Playground (a mini review)

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We watched the first episode of a fun documentary series at my house the other night, The Human Playground. It’s on Netflix, narrated by Idris Elba. There’s a book project of the same name released to coordinate with the Netflix series.

Cover of the book The Human Playground: Why We Play

We watched the first episode, Breaking the Pain Barrier which included a marathon in the desert, bullfighting, a brutal bicycle race, and ice swimming.

What was striking was that three of the four athletes featured were women

The first was Amy Palmiero-Winters who raced in the Sahara Desert, in Southern Morocco in the most painful marathon in the world, Marathon des Sables, French for “marathon of the sands.” It’s a six-day, 156-mile-long ultramarathon, equal to six regular marathons. One marathon a day for six days over blazing hot sand and yet there are hundreds of participants each with their own personal reasons for taking on this very painful challenge.

Needless to say we weren’t tempted and I’m still shocked that there are that many participants. It’s not the back to back marathons that make it look impossible but the conditions including the bright sun, the heat, and the scorching hot sand.

You can watch the documentary or read An Amputee’s Toughest Challenge Yet: Her 140-Mile Run in the Desert in the New York Times to find out more about Amy Palmiero-Winters’ motivations.

Amy racing across the hot red sand of the desert

Next up was cycling and the story of the famous very dangerous Paris-Roubaix race and its first women’s event.

The episode follows Ellen van Dijk, one of the first women to ever compete.

Why is this race so dangerous? It includes sections on ancient cobblestones, the bicycle’s worst enemy. This race is so bad it’s called the Hell of the North. There are numerous inevitable crashes and broken bones and damaged bikes. It looks terrifying to me.

Ellen van Dijk with mud and dirt on her white jersey and helmet and her face

The episode also includes the story of a woman who swims below the ice in bone chilling temperatures. And there was a dude who did some sport that involved risking his life dodging horned animals while unarmed. I confess I tuned out about during that bit. Not because the athlete was a man but I’m not a fan of sports that involve animals in combat.

Back to the theme of pain and suffering.

Now I’ve written about athletes and pain before. See Are athletes masochists?, Greetings from inside the pain cave, and Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance). Also Sam thinks about pain, endurance, and performance (Book review in progress).

And I’m someone who has enjoyed her fair share of punishing workouts and pushing myself. That said, this show did not really help me understand the athletes who seek out the extremes. The ice swimmer’s story involved recovery from sexual assault and she sought out very painful (and very risky) extreme cold swimming as a way of dealing with trauma. But I worried she was going to die beneath the ice from passing out from the cold the whole time I was watching her swim. I thought, “get a therapist!”

The scorching sand marathon? No way on earth. And even the bike racing–the least deathy of the activities and most in my wheelhouse–didn’t appeal even though the worst case outcome involved broken bones and not death and there is skill involved in not crashing. The bike race and the horned animal avoiding sport at least looked like there was more skill involved than just your body’s ability to endure the extreme conditions but still, no way on earth…

Watch it and let me know what you think.

I asked Sarah who watched with me if the show either helped her understand the athletes’ motivation or tempted her to undertake such painful and dangerous sports. She’s promised me her two cents in a separate blog post.

Stay tuned!

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