By Nicholas DeRenzo
The Active Times
Hear the phrase "extreme sports" and you might immediately think of the X Games.
This twice-annual Olympic-style tournament, which comes in Winter and Summer editions, showcases the best and brightest in sports like skiing, snowmobiling, biking, and skateboarding. The events are understandably well-publicized, but they’re only the tip of the extreme sports iceberg.
Outside of these arenas, there’s quite literally a world of extreme challenges and championships, many of which you may never have heard of. In fact, many of these events take place in appropriately extreme destinations: Imagine running 135 miles in the hottest place on Earth -- in the middle of summer; or crossing an ocean using only human muscle.
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How about diving 400 feet on a single breath into the world’s deepest sinkhole, or surfing down the face of a 50-foot wave?
If these events sound death defying, that’s because they are. To take big wave surfing as an example, the sport has claimed the lives of several of its leading lights, and more are likely to follow.
If you think getting swallowed by a giant wall of water sounds scary, then imagine flying around a mountain -- literally -- in a wingsuit, or flying down one -- metaphorically -- on a skateboard.
But the risk of drowning or slamming into a mountainside isn’t the only thing that makes a sport extreme. We found one centuries-old precursor to football where brawling is encouraged, and another oddball competition where your worst likely fate is throwing your back out.
Far and wide, you’ll find athletes in peak physical condition battling the elements and testing their own limits as they compete to be named the fastest, strongest, bravest -- and perhaps the craziest.
Cliff diving is one of those extreme sports that inspires foolhardy confidence in spectators: Watching divers take the plunge from a beachside bar might make you think -- especially after a few margaritas -- that you could do that too. But though they make it look easy, cliff diving is a sport of extreme precision and skill. Just check out the athletes at the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, who do much more than simply get from point A (the cliff) to point B (the sea). After diving from their perch of between 85 and 92 feet high, divers display their most difficult acrobatic twists, turns, and flips on the way down, reaching speeds of up to 53 mph. The 2013 World Series will bring divers to destinations as far-flung as the Azores, Rio de Janeiro, Wales and Thailand.
The North Shore of Oahu is renowned for massive winter waves that attract some of the most daring surfers in the world. In 1978, the notoriously rough surf claimed the life of Eddie Aikau, a lifeguard and big-wave rider who was lost at sea while rescuing fellow paddlers on a capsized Polynesian canoe. Since 1984, Waimea Bay has played host to a big-wave invitational in his memory. But the conditions have to be just right: Instead of a set competition date, there’s a “holding period” between December and February, and the contest will only go on if waves reach a minimum face height of 40 feet. As a result, this exclusive event has only taken place eight times, with the last tournament being held in December 2009.
Think modern-day Italian soccer gets tempers flaring? Check out the no-holds-barred calcio fiorentino (or the Florentine kick game), a brutally violent sport which was first played during the 16th century and was later reintroduced (appropriately) in the 1930s by the Fascists. Taking place on a sand pit in the Piazza Santa Croce each June with teams representing the city’s four historic districts, the game is an update of the Roman sport of harpastum and a precursor to modern rugby and soccer. The rules are easy: Using your hands and feet, simply get a ball across a goal line. Then what makes this game so extreme? Players are invited to punch, elbow, head-butt, or even choke each other -- everything’s allowed, in fact, except kicks to the head and sucker punches.
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray’s attempted prison break, the 100-mile Barkley Marathon traces a path through Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains where he was once imprisoned. In fact, the former penitentiary is even part of the course: As the 35 runners make their way up the trek's cumulative 60,000 vertical feet, bushwhacking through thick saw brier much of the way, they’ll have to wade through a watery tunnel under the prison yard. Instead of using switchbacks, the course designer often sends the racers directly up mountainsides. Along the way, they must find paperback books hidden in the woods and rip out their assigned page number. As of this April, only 14 runners have completed the race in the required 60 hours since 1986. The only prize? Stopping.
Combining roughly the route of Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage and the back-to-basics methods of Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Kon-Tiki rafting expedition, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is one of the most extreme rowing races in the world. The trans-Atlantic journey takes place every two years, with the 2013 route stretching 3,000 nautical miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua. Alone or in teams of up to six, rowers man a nearly 25-foot-long boat, equipped with little more than a solar-powered GPS, a reverse-osmosis water maker, and 90 days of rations. The harrowing journey usually takes between 40 and 90 days to complete.
IGSA World Championship for Downhill Skateboarding and Street Luge: Teutonia, Brazil
Street luge got its start, as you might have guessed, on the streets of Southern California, when skateboarders decided to trade in all their tricks for one simple goal: go faster! To become more aerodynamic, they decided to lie down on their boards, mimicking lugers in the process. Once a part of the X Games, competitive street luging is now governed by the International Gravity Sports Association. The 12th annual world championship will be held this November in Teutonia, Brazil, on what is widely considered the fastest downhill skateboarding track in the world. Perhaps this is where the current record-breaking speed of 97.81 mph, set in 2008, will finally be broken.
Highland games throughout Scotland are known for uber-masculine "heavy events,” such as shot put, hammer throw, and tug-o-war. But none epitomizes the Scottish spirit as much as the caber toss, which involves throwing a 16- to 20-foot long pine log -- roughly the size of a telephone pole! The event supposedly got its start during ancient battles, when logs were tossed over streams as a quick means of bridge-building. The thrower cups his hands under the pole and props it upright against his body, before getting a running start and tossing the pole end over end. Throws are not judged by distance but by accuracy: A caber should land straight ahead from the thrower at 12 o’clock, and scores are allotted based on deviations from this central mark. Though you’ll find caber tosses the world over, Scotland’s largest games are Dunoon's Cowal Highland Gathering, which sees some 23,000 annual spectators.
Sometimes the most extreme sports can seem the simplest. Freediving -- which requires no gear aside from optional fins and guide ropes -- involves reaching ridiculous underwater depths on a single breath. At 660 feet deep, Dean's Blue Hole in the Bahamas is the world’s deepest underwater sinkhole and the site of an annual freediving invitational. It was on this site that New Zealander William Trubridge reached a record-breaking 397 feet deep on a single breath in just over four minutes. (That's 92 feet deeper than the Statue of Liberty is tall.) Though you might think holding your breath is the hardest part, remember that this is only one of the physiological strains you’ll face on the dive: Unusual levels of gases in your brain can cause narcosis, which may lead to hallucinations, blackouts, panic, and even feelings of intoxication.
You might say the heat is on at the Badwater Ultramarathon, which takes place in the dead of summer each year in the hottest spot on Earth. Death Valley, which also happens to be the lowest and the driest place in North America, broke records in 1913 with recorded temperatures of 134 degrees F. Average July highs aren’t much cooler at 115 degrees F, with nighttime temperatures rarely dipping below 85°F. The 135-mile route is no less extreme than the weather. Starting in Death Valley at 280 feet below sea level (the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere), the 135-mile route ends at nearly 8,300 feet above sea level at the Mt. Whitney Portals, the trailhead to the highest summit in the Lower 48!
If you ever watched Rocky the Flying Squirrel take to the air and thought you might want to try that someday, wingsuit flying could be the extreme sport for you. Nicknamed flying squirrel, bat, or birdman suits, wingsuits are specialized jumpsuits with extra fabric in between the arms and legs to allow for increased surface area, added lift, and the ability to glide over great distances. Think of it as horizontal skydiving! The sport is so extreme that only 20 people qualified to compete last October in the inaugural Wingsuit Flying World Championship in Zhangjiajie, China. Flyers jumped from Tianmen Mountain in Hunan Province, descending from a height of almost 5,000 feet, completing a loop, gliding about three-quarters of a mile, and then parachuting down to the finish line. The winner, now a world-record holder, completed the flight in just 23.41 seconds.
Since 1992, the Finnish town of Sonkajärvi has played host to one of the most unusual sporting events in the world. Eukonkanto, or “wife-carrying," involves running through a quarter-kilometer obstacle course while holding a full-grown woman. Despite the name, she doesn’t have to be your wife, but she does have to be over 17 and weigh at least 49 kilos. "Wives” can be carried in any position: piggyback, slung over the shoulders, or the ever-popular Estonian-style, which involves wrapping the woman’s legs around the racer’s neck with her body dangling down his back. (It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Estonians were undefeated between 1998 and 2008!) If the sport sounds barbaric, consider its origins: Some say the practice is based on the exploits of a legendary 19th-century thief named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen. Luckily, the grand prize is a little sweeter, as the couple that completes the course in the shortest time wins the wife's weight in beer.
Rock climbing may seem like a challenge to some, but even the most daunting rock faces will offer friction to help you on your way up. Now imagine reaching similar heights on a vertical wall of ice -- as slick and slippery as a skating rink turned on its side -- using only two ice axes and crampons! The 2013 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour brought daredevils to South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Romania, and Russia to compete in both speed and lead competitions. Keep an eye out in 2014 when ice climbing will be showcased as a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with the hopes of eventually having it join the games as an official medal sport.