Why men, adventure (and often lycra) are a magic formula.
I’ve just got back from a gruelling weekend of cycling with some friends. It was a cross country trip over a few days, with our gear strapped to our road bikes. The distance and terrain were already pretty challenging, but became something else altogether as we were lashed by a storm for two days, leaving us wet, frozen and exhausted as we covered almost 300 kilometres.
We were battered by cold easterly headwinds, consistent heavy rain, and winter temperatures that caught us off guard and under clothed in June, as we tackled 4,500 metres of climbing. We were never dry or warm whilst on the bike, and a couple of serious mechanical issues threatened to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. In the evening, we peeled off soggy clothing, shovelled food into our mouths and made tired conversation over beers before falling into bed exhausted. Our social cycling trip became a mixture of endurance test and adventure.
And we loved it. Although I won’t lie, there was one point where, shivering uncontrollably, I point blank refused to leave a cafe and get back on our bikes until I was a little bit warmer. That mild fit of pique aside, I felt invigorated physically, mentally and emotionally.
You might wonder why. I do too, every time I come back from a trip like this. There’s no single or obvious reason but many years of adventures like this with my mates has given me some idea of why.
First, like all humans, we’re designed to stay active and mobile throughout the day, our bi-ped, upright bodies reflect our origin as foragers and hunter gatherers. Me and my mates? We sit behind desks all day, staring at screens and shortening our hamstrings. We have responsibilities to partners, children and loved ones. We have bills to pay and everyday things to worry about. Yet, whether we hear it or not, there’s a yearning deep down for activity, adventure and even jeopardy.
This desire to experience a wilder, outdoor world is met by a fundamental characteristic common in everyone who pursues any passion: the desire to test ourselves, to push beyond our boundaries, and to see what we’re capable of. None of us fits the description ‘alpha male’; we’re not motivated by beating others or conspicuous achievement, but we do relish the challenges like this that enable growth and resilience.
Don’t get me wrong. None of us are David Goggins (who is?). And it’s not like we’ve gone out and hunted a wild boar to feed the family, but by comfortable Western lifestyle standards, we have chosen an endeavour that requires physical and mental toughness in the face of a punishing physical challenge, tough conditions and a little bit of danger. There’s plenty of literature on why humans seek out adventure in the modern first world, and it usually points to the safe, cosseted lifestyles we lead that are at odds with the primal engineering that exists in our bodies – we now use adrenaline and dopamine in ways that are harmful to us, no longer feeling the fear of being eaten by a wild animal and instead fretting over getting that next client on board or whether we’ve caught up with that Netflix series everyone is talking about. Not to mention the dopamine hits we get from our smartphones.
So we like the adventure, and we like the challenge. Is that it? Not quite. I think there’s something else, a more fundamental reason that sits beneath it all: for many men, this is the best and healthiest way to spend time together. It’s how we connect - with each other and with the natural world.
Men are less accustomed to sharing their feelings or inner thoughts, meaning they are less well adapted to connecting emotionally. This carries an alarming impact on mental health and wellbeing. Research consistently shows that men are less likely to talk about difficult feelings or reach out for help. This suppression of emotions can manifest in anger, depression, substance addiction and violence. All of which contributes to some alarming statistics: men are much more likely to commit suicide than women, and suicide is the highest cause of death in men under 45.
Yet, put us all together in a shared endeavour, involving physical activity and a common purpose, and something happens. There’s something nourishing and remarkably normal about the way we look after each other, tend to each other’s kit and equipment, work for the group and check in on each other. This isn’t exclusive to men of course, I guess any group of adults would act the same way - it’s just that it’s more of a break from the norm in which we plod on, not thinking to ask our mates how they’re feeling or let others know how we are. It’s as if adversity and a challenging environment gives us the permission to be nurturing.
All very deep stuff eh? I’m not a doctor, scientist or sociologist but I do know how trips like this make me feel: fantastic. I know they give me a sense of satisfaction and purpose much more profound than the data of the distance covered or metres ascended. I know they make me feel much more alive and connected to others.
So perhaps the real question is not why we go on trips like this, but why we go on them so infrequently?