Roger Cox: Most extreme sports are essentially frolicking with toys

FILLING up the car at Lochgilphead petrol station the other day, noodle-armed but happy after a few days of surfing my brains out in the Hebrides, I overheard a conversation between two twentysomething guys on the other side of the forecourt.

“You look like you’ve been busy,” said one, “what you been up to?”

“Triathlon in Aberfeldy,” said the other. “Did a 750m swim, a 20km bike ride and a 5km run.”

“How did you get on?”

“Yeah, did OK – quite tired now though.”

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On any other day of the year there wouldn’t have been anything remarkable about this exchange – it only struck me as odd because it took place at the peak of the mini-heatwave that left the nation gasping and sweaty at the end of May. On the scorching Sunday in question, Scotland had been hotter than Nairobi, yet this triathlete still felt the need to go out and flog himself half to death in the sweltering conditions. Surely, I thought to myself, as I dribbled about five quid’s worth of unleaded all over my sandalled feet, there must be more pleasant ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Increasingly, there seem to be two fundamentally different schools of thought about how best to interact with the outdoors. On the one hand, there are the competitive types who see the natural world as little more than an arena in which to achieve their next personal best. These are the people who will typically mention the number of miles they walked/ran/cycled yesterday in every email they send and every Facebook post they write. It’s this kind of mindset that drives some of our most accomplished sportsmen and women to achieve incredible things, but it’s also the mindset that induces people to queue up in the Everest death zone, waiting for their turn to reach the summit.

By contrast, there’s the more nature-oriented approach advocated by writers like Tristan Gooley. In his recent book, The Natural Explorer, Gooley pours scorn on the extreme athletes who insist on finding “novel ways to punish themselves by exercising in remote places” and champions a more mindful methodology, where the point of venturing out into the wilderness is to try to understand it better rather than simply to conquer it.

I can see the merits of both philosophies – and I can think of plenty of people who quite happily combine the two – but I’d like to propose a third way of being in the outdoors: the way of the frolic.

Animals are expert frolickers, but somewhere along the line we humans seem to have lost the knack. In the week before my encounter with the petrol station triathlete, I’d been spending most of my time surfing at a place called Balevullin on the Isle of Tiree. Every day, usually at high tide, I’d be joined by an inquisitive seal who seemed to like nothing better than messing around in the surf. To begin with I thought he must have been hunting for fish, but as the days passed I realised that he was just playing: zooming around underwater, splashing about on the surface and popping up at intervals to see what the rubber-clad human interlopers were up to. Once – and I’m sure he did this on purpose – he surfaced noisily only a couple of feet away, giving me a momentary attack of shark fever before ducking back under the water and scooting off again with a quick flick of his tail. If he could’ve shouted “boo” as he surfaced, I’ve absolutely no doubt he would have done.

The trouble is, frolicking doesn’t have a very good image. Frolicking isn’t cool. Nobody goes to work on a Monday and tells their colleagues they spent the weekend frolicking. But in truth, lots of people frolic. Doing laps of your local ski hill is frolicking; riding a mountain bike is frolicking; bouncing down a river in a kayak is frolicking. Most so-called extreme sports are essentially frolicking with toys. Our mountains, rivers and seas offer us a whole smorgasboard of sensory delights, but somehow, trapped between the competitive jocks and the earnest intellectuals, we’re in danger of only ever using them for either slog or schoolwork. Don’t forget: there’s no law that says the outdoors must be treated entirely seriously. If you’re not frolicking, you may be missing the point.