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The challenge of challenge culture

The writer enjoying a challenge on Mt. Colden. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Over the past couple of months, you may have noticed the resurgence of a variety of challenges in the social media universe. Whether it’s a challenge to post a picture a day during quarantine or to see if you can do 50 pushups a day for 30 days in a row, I’ve noticed them popping up all over the place. Normally, I ignore them and brush right past. I hadn’t considered myself a member of that challenge culture, but this week I was forced to reconsider.

I was looking for information on a race that I normally run at the end of May, and like so many other events, it has been postponed indefinitely. In its place, however, the organizers are hosting a digital version of the event. They’re encouraging would-be racers to run their own course of a similar length, record it however they see fit, and post it to a shared page.

At first, it struck me as odd that people would want to share this kind of experience digitally. Viewed from a different angle, though, it’s just as odd to think about a group of people gathering once a year to run 14 miles through the woods in a couple of hours. Why is it that we form strong bonds of community and friendship around an event where we sweat profusely, strain our bodies and get eaten alive by blackflies? Many of us go for runs and hikes on our own to train or for pleasure, so why is a culminating act of group exercise like this race so important to us? The answer was simple enough, even if I didn’t want to acknowledge it — because the race is a challenge.

Challenges and the culture that has grown up around them are nothing new. We’re especially familiar with them here in the Adirondacks. The standing challenge to hike all 46 High Peaks, for example, has held its own community enthralled for more than 100 years. The Adirondack 46ers organization has grown to more than 11,000 official members, with many thousands more aspiring to join them someday. Now we also have the Saranac 6, Lake Placid 9, Cranberry 50, the Fire Tower Challenge and dozens more local versions and variations. Some are designed to be completed over a long period of time; some are end-to-end endurance slogs. Some are done alone; others are group affairs. They’re attempted and completed by locals and visitors, alike. But to what end? Why do we find ourselves so hooked on challenges?

On the one hand, there are elements of this challenge culture that can be considered contrived or vain. Perhaps the goal of social praise is most important to some people. For others, it could be getting that perfect photo of themselves and the view. Maybe it’s gaining bragging rights or being able to share some particularly intense story about difficulties you faced with fellow challengers. Perhaps it’s just a sense of conquest and the pride that comes with overcoming adversity.

An unfortunate consequence of this challenge culture is that, often, completing the challenge becomes the sole focus and people lose sight of everything else in that pursuit. We see this on quite a few local trails. It leads many hikers disregard basic environmental considerations just because they “came here to get the peak.” That notion of “conquest” quite foolishly leads to some appalling behavior. This mentality has led to serious damage on many of the busier trails and spills over into the community as well, creating divisions and animosity.

Despite all that, there is also an undeniable allure associated with challenges. They create an object of intense focus that helps put the difficult or unpleasant aspects of the activity in perspective. In this way, they help some people persevere when they otherwise might lack the fortitude to do so. They’re a powerful motivator and can serve as a foundation in forming communities of like-minded enthusiasts. There are even organizations, like the 46ers, that give back to the community and do great work protecting and improving the venue for their challenge. So how do we reconcile the positive with the negative here?

A few years ago, while leading hikes for a local summer camp, I was fortunate to witness a more nuanced benefit to challenge culture. Many of the campers aspired to become 46ers one day. They often started out as little “peak baggers,” often despising the act of hiking and only concerned with the glory of getting to the top of the mountain. They would have to be constantly reminded not to drop their garbage, not to strip leaves off trees or to stay on the trail. As they logged more long days in the woods, though, they grew more mindful and more humble. I watched this peak-bagging culture and the attendant carelessness dissipate in camper after camper. It gave way to a deep appreciation of hiking and of the mountains themselves. The goal of hiking all the mountains was still there (no small number of them completed this goal by the age of 15, which is pretty impressive), but how they engaged with that goal had changed. Knowledge, experience and a sense of belonging to something greater took the place of a vain pursuit of recognition. In that way, and with some positive encouragement from trip leaders, they wound up using a challenge as a vehicle to develop an abiding passion. Many of them have gone on to become hike leaders themselves, thereby passing on that passion and the associated ethic to the next generation of would-be 46ers.

When you break it down to its elements, there is nothing wrong with challenges or challenge culture, per se. What’s most important is finding a balance between passion and obsession, thinking hard about our motivations and about the effects our actions have beyond ourselves. The impact — positive or negative — that challenges have comes directly from how we choose to relate with them. So, will I relate by recording myself running 14 miles at the end of the month? Probably not, but maybe I’ll go for a nice long trail run, if conditions are good, knowing that there are other people out there doing the same thing in the spirit of solidarity.

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