Last month, ultra-runner Karl Meltzer broke the speed record on the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes.
That’s only a mere ten-hours faster than the previous record, and one that might hold-at least until the previous record-holder hits the trail. Either way, Meltzer’s accomplishment is an astounding feat, to be sure. We offer accolades and feel awe and shake our heads a bit at the madness of it all.
Hearing about this new record naturally invites the obvious question:
Yes; we know, Hillary: “Because it’s there.” But pull back from that question a bit and the real reason might linger in the trend that has dominated the outdoor and sport industries for decades.
It’s what we call the “-ests,” as in the fastest, the deepest, sharpest, longest, or shortest.
It’s a trend that’s complimented by the “firsts” the first to conquer a mountain, ski down a slope, take on a new route, explore native caves, or dive under the waves for the longest time. Naturally, the landscape of “firsts” have evolved into a long list of qualifiers that jumped the shark long before we had internal-frame expedition backpacks.
Have you heard about the 35½ year old woman from the South Pacific who summited Everest the fastest-while carrying her adopted infant on her back, walking backwards and reciting the Greek alphabet backwards, eyes closed, while chewing gum, rubbing her belly, and tapping the top of her head?
It’s a FIRST!!!
Sure, beyond the WTF awe and car-accident-watching element of learning about someone’s suffer-fest, there’s also an element of aspiration. I may never hike Everest or K2, but reading about someone’s exploits just might inspire me to hike the tallest peak on the East Coast. Damn it, see? Another “-est” just snuck in. I’m coming for you Mount Mitchell!!
We here at the Columbia Blog fall into that trope as well. We pen stories about the top places to mountain bike, the best places to ski, or the can’t-miss sunset peaks. And we brag about skiing the most dangerous black diamond run or successfully scrambling up the best damn day hike in the area. It’s a mainstay of all sorts of media. Humans, it seems, like to have things ranked.
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But it shouldn’t always be about the best, biggest, or fastest. Sometimes the joys of the outdoor world can be found in the smaller elements-finding a wildflower or mushroom growing on a remote trail that weaves through flat wilderness in a two-mile loop in a regional park that no one outside of your neighborhood ever visits. Catching a sunrise off the front deck in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Making a successful two-pitch climb on an easy grade and then belaying down to the canyon floor.
This may qualify as “Type One” fun-if that. It may not make it into your next humble-brag narrative or flood your social media streams. But in many ways, that almost makes the quiet accomplishments better. They become your secret, and fuel you to keep playing until you take on that next must-do, can’t miss activity.