This past week brought news of the death of Henry Worsley, a retired officer from the British military who had dedicated himself to Antarctic travel, inspired by his hero Ernest Shackleton. Worsley, who was attempting a coast-to-coast trek of the Antarctic continent, was airlifted only 90 miles from his objective after 71 days and 913 miles of self-supported travel — pulling up to 300 pounds of gear — before dying in hospital from complications of peritonitis. Others have made Antarctic crossings but Worsley’s was to be the first unaided trek . Before his trip, Worsley raised $142,000 for charity to go to the Endeavour Fund, managed by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, a charity that aids wounded British service men and women.
A few days prior to the news of Worsley’s death, I received an e-mail from a relative I do not regularly hear from, a letter announcing his plans to participate in a 170 mile bike ride to raise money for a camp for children with disabilities, a worthy cause. Like Worsley, my cousin is using his participation in a strenuous event to raise money for charity. And he is far far from the only one trying to raise money by participating in an outdoor adventure. In fact, I would say the practice has become an epidemic. Every 5-K and marathon seems to be a fund raiser. And even if you do not win the lottery to run in the vaunted New York marathon, there is a back door to get a guaranteed spot in the race by running with and financially supporting the New York Road Runner Team for Kids by raising $25,000 for a team of ten runners. Even establishment institutions like Backpacker magazine promote their annual ‘Summit for Someone’, a way to raise money for Big City Mountaineers to support outdoor adventures for disadvantaged youth. Participants must raise several thousand dollars to earn a spot on a guided climb of famous peaks like Mt. Rainier or others.
So what is going on here? For hundred of years, adventurers needed no outside encouragement for their adventures. They were self-motivated. Sir Edmund Hillary famously quipped that he climbed Everest “because it was there”. That was actually a throw-away line answering a reporter. He climbed Everest out of a deep attraction to the outdoors and a desire to see just what humans can accomplish. And so it has been with expeditions around the globe. Alexander von Humboldt attempted in 1799 to climb Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, thought to be at that time the highest mountain in the world, documented so well by Andrea Wulf in the beginning of her 2015 book “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World“. Sir Ernest Shackleton’ famously attempted to cross the Antarctic. The world’s highest and most difficult mountain peaks have all been summited by intrepid and driven individuals, for example Mt. Meru, climbed in 2011 and featured in a recently released visually stunning documentary.
Why do we as a society think that participating in a 5-k race or marathon or 3-day bike riding event is worthy of fund raising? Why do we as participants in these events think that our friends will want to donate money based on how may miles we run or bike ride? And why should we as friends and relatives of the runners, bikers and climbers give anyway? What exactly is the message of “sponsor me to run” that we are conveying?
Outdoor adventure was once a necessary way of life for much of our history, from providing food and fuel to building shelters and settling new territory, with all that is entailed. Physicality was just a part of life.
Until recent times.
For most of us, our lives are strikingly without great need for physical prowess, No need to hunt or gather or pack up the home and move camp miles away to higher ground when the season’s change. So perhaps, we satisfy our innate need for adventure and physical challenge by setting goals that are a true physical reach for us. For some, the reach is running 5 kilometers ( 3.1 miles), without stopping. For others that challenge is running 100 miles. In either case we are quenching a deeply entrenched human need to push ourselves toward our physical limit and at least know what that limit is.
But the question remains: Why connect that need for personal challenge to raising money for charity? Shouldn’t my desire to challenge myself remain personal? Fund raising is that thing you do by naming buildings and libraries and college campuses for wealthy donors or for the more plebeian among us, simply asking your Facebook friends and people in your e-mail address book to support your worthy cause.
Running 26.2 miles, on the other hand, is that thing you do to see if you can do it. Could you follow that marathon and swim 2.4 miles and bike ride for a 112 miles to complete a triathlon? Can you cross the Antarctic from coast to coast self supported? Yet for some reason we connect the two events, endurance and charity, and they are connected week after week with the ever present 5k rfund raising ace that take pace on so many weekends. Indeed, in the past year or so, more than 500,000 people in the U.S. completed a marathon and many of them were no doubt raising money for charity.
In the radio interview before his trip, and subsequent death, and in response to the incredulity of the interviewer at the sheer difficulty of his planned Antarctic trip Henry Worsley humbly said, “It’s no black art to sliding one ski in front of the other, but what will drive me on is raising money for these wounded soldiers…”, referring to the charity he was supporting, the British Endeavour Fund
Worsley. then, touches on the answer. We do not give money to charity to see people punish themselves physically. Quite the contrary. We give to help motivate the athlete motivate himself, to keep running when he wants to quit, to keep cycling when he wants to rest, and to keep pulling a sledge with hundreds of pounds of supplies across the frozen landscape of the Antarctic in sub-zero temperatures against all odds.We help motivate him and he gives money to a good cause. He does our work.
Clearly, millions of dollars are raised each year for charities through sponsored events. And for that reason, I should leave this question alone. As a society, we should be very proud that we rally around supporting our non-profit organizations, the not so hidden fabric of many of our lives. And for spectacular high-profile never-before-accomplished feats like the one attempted by the late Henry Worsley, the endeavor is a great opportunity to shine light on a worthy cause. For those people who will not get themselves out but for the fund raising angle, then the charity connection is indeed mission critical. And you could even say that by donating in support of a run or bike ride you build a stronger connection to the charity you are supporting. It’s all good, it seems.
But perhaps the point at which we as a society have arrived today, where so many either need the motivation or the validation to challenge themselves to run for a cause or summit for someone should make us stop and think. Will we push ourselves when there is no cause? We should ‘summit for someone’ if we can, or run to raise money for the kids, but, I feel, we should also aspire to return to the status quo ante when we valued physical challenge and adventure as an integral part of life, where enduring a daily physical challenge was simply part of what it meant to be a human being.
By the way, I plan to support my cousin’s bike ride.
Howard E. Friedman