Living to Old Age is the Best Thrill


Benjamin Reich has a great story to tell his grandchildren, and fortunately he's still alive to tell it.

As you read this, Mr. Reich, who just graduated from Severna Park High School, sits in a Spanish hospital recovering from a skull fracture and neck injuries after being knocked unconscious and nearly trampled during the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Another young man from Illinois was not so fortunate. He lost his life.

Mr. Reich's mother, Pamela, says his picture made the front page of the Pamplona newspaper. "It shows his friend carrying him, he's bleeding, with the bulls two feet behind him." She can laugh about it now.

Still, I have a feeling that her first words when she got to Spain last Wednesday were, "Are you out of your mind?"

At least Mr. Reich, who is only 18, has youth as an excuse. "He thought it would be fun, he saw a lot of people doing it and he didn't know how dangerous it was." That's more than can be said for a third American, who also got gored last week. He was 70.

Why do people do things like this? Sure, everybody needs a few thrills and chills every once in a while. But wouldn't a ride on a really big roller coaster do the trick? Or maybe a whitewater rafting trip with a guide who knows what he's doing?

Apparently not. Everywhere you look these days are people who feel life isn't worth living unless they're trying their darndest to die.

Bungee jumping and sky-diving? Pshaw, those are for wimps. What's the challenge of jumping off a bridge as long as you've got a big rubber band to save you before you hit water? True fulfillment demands the risk of certain death.

Ropeless rock climbing, in which would-be Stallones cling to skyscraper-sized slabs by the tips of their toenails. Skiing down avalanche-prone mountains. Surfing gigantic waves in areas too hazardous for the U.S. Coast Guard. Racing bicycles down cliffs speeds of 60 mph.

Within the last two months Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time all highlighted the latest trend: "extreme sports." The first "Extreme Games" championship, telecast on ESPN last week, featured "athletes" jumping out of airplanes with video cameras attached to their heads, taping partners stunting on mini-surfboards. Others skateboarded off the tops of snow-covered mountains and strapped themselves to boards before careening down a steep street.

I always thought the Ironman Triathlon, in which one female competitor once collapsed and lost control of her bodily functions on national TV, was the epitome of insanity. But now they've got extreme marathons, in which you run for about 100 miles, then bicycle for another 200, then swim across an entire bay before walking on your hands for three days to the finish line, that make the Ironman look tame.

People get seriously hurt in these competitions all the time. Some even die. And still the "athletes" keep going back for more! Once you've experienced the rush of slamming headlong into a tree after falling from your mountain bike at warp speed -- well, they say, winning a doubleheader for the Pasadena Men's Softball League just doesn't cut it.

I have my own theory.

I think all this business about adrenaline rush addiction is just a cover. I think these people are willing to get killed doing something stupid because they don't have much to live for. Because if you've got a life -- children depending on you, a spouse who loves you, a job worth doing, a home worth coming back to -- you don't want to lose it.

That's why most of us get more careful with our lives the older get. You realize life isn't a toy, that being here is nothing to take for granted.

You have the tires checked before taking a trip, keep that annual appointment with the doctor, teach the kids to look both ways before crossing. You grow up. You stop needing to prove how cool you are.

And you get a little more afraid, too, because you start to see that living responsibly isn't always enough. A 38-year-old father dies driving home from work when somebody throws a rock at his car. An experienced Annapolis sailor drowns cleaning his boat. A family happily driving south on vacation crosses paths with a speeding tractor-trailer.

What would these people and their families give for an ordinary day, the kind of go-to-work-and-come-home, have-a-picnic-in-the-backyard day ultra-marathoners and hurricane wind-surfers hold in such contempt?

There's no such thing as a risk-free life. A high-school football game, the community pool, a horseback ride, a juicy rare hamburger -- they're all fraught with danger. We can't give them all up, or life really wouldn't be worth much.

But these human moths who can't get close enough to the flame have it all wrong. They don't have to jump out of planes or hurl themselves in front of stampeding bulls.

Making it to old age is challenge enough -- and, if you do it right, exciting enough -- without that.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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