Why are Americans so extreme?

Heather Havrilesky wants to know what it is about extreme fitness that fascinates Americans:

A blond woman in a hot pink spandex tank hoists a sledgehammer over her shoulders, then slams it down with a dull thud onto the big tire in front of her. Beside her, another woman swings her sledgehammer even higher, grimacing and groaning with the effort. Their faces are bright red and dripping with sweat. It’s 9:45 a.m. and 85 degrees, and the sun is glinting off the asphalt of the strip-mall parking lot where the women are laboring."Swing it higher, above your shoulder!” a woman bellows at them, even as they gasp each time they raise their hammers, each time they let them fall.

Scary thing is, Havrilesky isn't making this up:


As one woman pauses to wipe the sweat from her eyes, she spots me studying her. I’ve been trying not to stare, but it’s a strange spectacle, this John Henry workout of theirs, hammering away in front of a women’s fitness center, just a few doors down from a smoke shop and a hair salon. It looks exhausting, and more than a little dangerous. (What if a sledgehammer slips and flies from one woman’s hands, braining her companion?) It also looks fruitless. Why not join a roofing crew for a few hours instead? Surely, there’s a tunnel somewhere that needs digging, or at least some hot tar that needs pouring.

Love it when a writer can get sarcastic in the sober, sedate NYTimes. But she has an idea — Puritanism, of course. OF COURSE!

The whole notion of pushing your physical limits — popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality — has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The “extreme” version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

She's probably right. Here's another example that freaked me out — a laconic extreme hiker, who did (not walked) the John Muir Trail this summer when he had a few days to spare — and who now intends to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail….in winter

Justin Licheter writes:

The plan is to try to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail this win­ter. By thru-hike, I mean use what­ever human pow­ered means of travel is best for the con­di­tions. This will range between, hik­ing, snow­shoe­ing, and back­coun­try ski­ing, and stay­ing along thePCT cor­ri­dor. We are call­ing it the PCT cor­ri­dor because due to con­di­tions and snow cover it will be vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to stay on the trail at all times. Often the trail tread will be buried under 15 feet of snow.

Well, my research indicates that the winter is likely to be dry for the next couple of months. Perhaps Lichter and his companion will have finished before the big snows hit the Sierras. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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