Beware of ‘Summit Syndrome’
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m rarely lost for words. But for this issue, I really struggled. Not because I had nothing to say, but because I wasn’t sure if I should say it. You see, I’m a bloke. And white. And privileged. Which means these days, pretty much everything that comes out of my mouth makes me the target of ‘White Male Privilege’ criticisms. Which, apparently, means I’m mostly only allowed to comment on things that affect straight, white males in the western world, for fear of being told I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Or worse.
Alas, following rules has never been my forte so I’m going to come right out and say it. I love that women are staking their claim in the adventure space. I love that women are making progress in all sorts of areas, actually. I know we’re still a long way from true ‘equality’, but for the most part, women can be anything they want to be. Astronauts. Taxi drivers. CEOs. Adventure guides. Prime Ministers. The list goes on. But there’s one thing I really hope women won’t ever be… and that’s men. I’m not talking gender reassignment. If that’s your thing, more power to you I say. No, I’m talking about some of the less favourable characteristics often associated with the male of the species.
Let me explain. In my last book, I wrote a section about “just” and “only”. My background is in trail running so naturally, I started out relatively modestly then worked my way up to ultra. Next stop: 100kms. And after that, the natural progression was the mythical ‘miler’ - a 100-mile race. But somewhere along the way, something kind of weird happened. I realised I didn’t really enjoy running 100kms all that much. Did it a couple of times. Was pretty satisfied with the achievement. But can I honestly say I enjoyed very much about it? Not really. Now when I go for a 10 or 20km run, I really enjoy that. A lot. I don't have to worry about muscle meltdown, chafing in places you don’t want to be chafed, kidney failure or being rescued by helicopter - that one time was one time too many thanks very much. But that classic male ego part of me said I was supposed to keep pushing. Doing more. Going further. And my ego wasn't the only one saying it. So were some of my well-intentioned mates. Well, bugger that. These days, my personal summits aren’t summits. They’re more like base camps. And that’s just fine with me. I refuse to fall victim to what I’m going to call ‘Summit Syndrome’.
My days of getting sucked into the black hole of “only” running 20kms are done. I’m not gong to feel less than for “just” running the 50km race for crying out loud. Just because there’s a longer distance or a more difficult race or a bigger adventure, in no way does that devalues my own. Mine is mine. Yours is yours. Simple as that.
As a bloke, let me tell you, that hasn’t been easy for me to deal with. I just completed my first adventure race and it took me months to have the conviction to “only” do the half distance, even though it was clearly the best, smartest, wisest decision for me to make for all sorts of reasons. I’m all for redefining crazy, one of my personal mottos, but doing the full distance, reaching for that particular summit, would have been genuinely stupid. And possibly dangerous. So I didn’t do it.
What I’ve been seeing lately is an increasing number of people, women included, who are DNFing races. Whether it’s their own personal drive or a bit of good old ‘support’ (AKA peer pressure) from those around them, I’m not sure. But I do wonder if there’s a bit of what I’m going to call 'destructive encouragement' going around, pushing people on to peaks they have no real personal desire to bag.
Hell, David Turnbull recently broke the FKT for the Heysen Trail in South Australia. Ran 1200kms in less than 14 days. Then uploaded his Strava data showing he was equal 4th in the world for most kilometres run that month with two days still to go. Rather than be satisfied with that, an amazing feat in itself, there was then a whole conversation with people egging him on to run a little further to move up the rankings. Since when was running 1200kms in a month, not enough? Where were the people just celebrating that achievement without there needing to be more miles run to bag another summit? Or maybe I’ve just gone soft in my old age?
Of course, I’m well aware none of this is for me to say. I can only speak for myself. I’m sure many of you are pushing on, doing exactly what you want to do, regardless of those around you. As a bloke though, I know I’m constantly hit by a barrage of what people think I should and shouldn’t be doing. By ‘Summit Syndrome’. And it’s been really difficult for me personally to draw the line. And based on a few conversations I’ve had lately with others, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s something that’s very much starting to happen on your side of the fence as well.
So by all means, be adventurous. Be awesome. Be determined. Be strong. Be daring. Be committed. Be what you want to be. But for crying out loud, please, please don’t be a stubborn, pig-headed man and get sucked into that sort of bullshit competitive one-upmanship. Define your own summits. Even if they’re more like other people’s base camps.