THERE ARE A handful of accomplishments that can anchor your expedition résumé. Summiting Everest. Sailing around the world alone. Schlepping to a pole. Then there’s the rare feat of crossing the Bering Strait, a physical challenge that few have even attempted, due to dicey international politics. In 1987, at the height of the Cold War, open-water swimmer Lynne Cox finagled permission from the USSR and swam the 2.7 miles from the U.S.’s Little Diomede Island to Russia’s Big Diomede Island. In 2006, Briton Karl Bushby and Frenchman Dimitri Kieffer walked on ice across the entire 51-mile mainland-to-mainland route—and were promptly detained by Russian authorities. The same thing happened to six guys on personal watercraft who filmed their crossing for an obscure reality-TV series.
This summer, 28-year-old Sonya Baumstein added her name to the Bering Strait short list. On August 1, Alaskan Inupiaq hunters dropped off the Florida native and her 14-foot-long, 25-pound carbon-fiber stand-up paddleboard in dense fog 15 miles south of Big Diomede. Eleven hours and 25 miles later, she landed on a sandy beach north of Wales, Alaska, where she became the first person to SUP the channel.
Some people define a crossing as island to island. Others are strictly mainland to mainland. To sidestep the Russian bureaucracy, Baumstein split the difference and launched her bid in international waters, which will no doubt add an asterisk to the record books. Still, just getting there was a heroic effort. Baumstein struggled for 11 months to get the funds, then she waited more than three weeks for a weather window.
Now Baumstein is using the feat as a spring-board for an even more ambitious undertaking. In April, she and Lia Ditton, a 32-year-old British sailor, plan to set out from Japan and row 6,000 nautical miles across the North Pacific to the United States in a custom, self-supporting rowboat. The duo will carry $30,000 worth of food and 50 pounds of research gear for NASA’s Aquarius Mission, a satellite system that monitors the ocean’s currents, salinity, and surface temperature. “We’re going to be a moving science float,” says Baumstein.
DROWNED The Rio Tulijá is a remote white-water river that snakes its way through the rainforest of southern Mexico. Often called Agua Azul because of its swimming-pool-blue color, it features a stunning stretch of five waterfalls ranging from 40 to 70 feet tall. This past March, a team of four world-class kayakers—Rafa Ortiz, 26, Rush Sturges, 28, Evan “E.G.” Garcia, 27, and Gerd Serrasolses, 24—attempted to descend the falls as part of an expedition they were filming for a documentary. The previous day, they had become the first paddlers to drop all five waterfalls on the nearby Río Santo Domingo, arguably the steepest navigable section of whitewater on earth. The Agua Azul mission was to be their final day of filming:
RUSH STURGES: We were coming off the biggest descent of our lives and were tired and sore. I had two black eyes and a broken nose. We were really pushing ourselves to get this helicopter footage on the Agua Azul.
E.G.: We had driven six or seven hours in Rafa’s van, slept for like five hours, then woken up at about 6 a.m. The plan was to meet the heli in these flat pools about two-thirds of the way down to the big waterfall set.
RAFA ORTIZ: At the pools, I paddled upstream, away from the guys, to get in my zone, and Gerd kept practicing his hand rolls.
GERD SERRASOLSES: As soon as we saw the chopper, we all got fired up.
E.G.: We had scouted the hell out of the falls when we ran them a week earlier, so I knew exactly where I was going.
GERD: We had to pretty much go one after the other. I watched Evan drop over the lip, then Rush. I wasn’t too nervous. I had done it before and knew what I had to do. I went over and threw my paddle.
E.G.: I got out of my boat and was standing on a ledge about 25 feet from the base of the falls. I watched Rush come off. Gerd came next on a similar line, but he corked out and missed a few hand rolls.
GERD: I tried to roll up, but I wasn’t feeling any grab.
RUSH: E.G. and I were right there with throw bags, but I didn’t think it was that bad.
GERD: I tried to roll a few more times, then got pushed up against some rocks. I grabbed them, but my hands slipped and the water pushed me back down somewhere else.
RUSH: Gerd’s boat was full of water and spinning like crazy in this vortex of an eddy. We’re not seeing him come up. Fifteen seconds go by. Twenty. Thirty. I was like, Dude, we gotta do something.
GERD: I kept fighting to get to the surface, but I couldn’t get there. I remember opening my eyes and saying, Fuck, I’m running out of air.
RUSH: He’s under for about a minute and a half, and we’re panicking. I clipped E.G.’s rope into the back of my life jacket and went over to the spot where Gerd disappeared. I stuck my leg in the water and could feel it sucking down super hard, like a siphon. I didn’t want to go in there.
E.G.: I looked downstream and suddenly saw Gerd’s yellow vest.
RUSH: He was facedown. It was the absolute worst-case scenario.
E.G.: I jumped into Rush’s kayak. No helmet, no skirt. I paddled like a bat out of hell in this heinously flat pool.
RUSH: Gerd was probably 100 yards downstream from us, and the next waterfall was coming up soon.
E.G.: Rafa actually ran the first waterfall while this whole thing was going on.
RAFA: At the bottom I looked around, and there’s no one there. Then I see Gerd floating facedown and E.G. and Rush chasing him.
E.G.: When I pulled him up he was super heavy—like some weird Jell-O object. I was screaming and slapping his back, then started in on CPR. Rush and Rafa got there about 20 seconds later.
RAFA: Gerd’s eyes were open a little but not showing life, and he was a mixture of white, purple, and black—the color you see in zombie movies.
RUSH: We were taking turns at CPR and slapping him in the face. It was a primal feeling, just the strongest desire to save a friend.
E.G.: I was yelling at him, “Come on, Gerd! Fight!” He was vomiting up some real nasty mucus and blood. Then we got the idea to pull off his life jacket, and we loosened the neck gasket on his drytop.
RAFA: For four minutes, we were doing CPR on a dead body. I don’t remember having much hope. But then he took a breath.
RUSH: His eyes literally lit up.
RAFA: That’s when I jumped up and started looking for the heli.
RUSH: The chopper hovered over the middle of the river. We carried Gerd to it, and Rafa jumped in with him. He was breathing a bit but still convulsing and coughing up water.
E.G.: After the chopper flew away, there was this weird quiet.
GERD: The next thing I remember is trying to wake up. I was hearing all these loud noises—the chopper, screaming—but I couldn’t react, and I couldn’t see anything. Inside, I was screaming to try and regain power. And then I woke up in the hospital in Palenque.
“I DIDN'T LIVE a lot of lies,” Lance Armstrong says at the beginning of Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “but I lived one big one.”
The film’s title, The Armstrong Lie, suggests an exposé, but that heavy lifting has, of course, already been done. Rather, Gibney looks at the Lie as a thing that took on a life of its own, regarding it from every angle. And that includes Lance’s. Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, had unprecedented access to Armstrong’s tightly guarded camp from 2008 until his teary-eyed Oprah confession. So while there are other retellings in the works—Hollywood is reportedly working on two biopics, and New York Times reporter Juliet Macur’s forthcoming book Cycle of Liesis also slated to go to film—The Armstrong Lie is the first and last Lance pic you’ll ever need to see.
In 2008, Gibney set out to chronicle Armstrong’s return to cycling as a friendly embedded in the Lance camp. He was on the Astana bus as Armstrong spied on teammate/rival Alberto Contador’s press conference. He was in the team car as director Johan Bruyneel hatched race strategy. He was at Armstrong’s Aspen house, camera rolling, when the drug testers showed up. The following day, when two more sets of testers came calling, Armstrong snapped: “This is fucking ridiculous!” Watching the film, even this nonfan had to agree.
But then, well, stuff happened, and Gibney was forced to drop the celebratory doc he—and, no doubt, his subject—had planned to make. He phased through stages of disillusionment, anger, and finally confrontation. After Armstrong’s downfall, Gibney goes back, camera in hand, to ask his subject some tough questions.
Gibney performs a masterful balancing act, being tough on Armstrong while remaining fair, although he largely skips over Livestrong’s role in buttressing the Lance myth, as well as the final remaining chapter in this whole saga—the $100 million lawsuit being pursued by the Department of Justice. Regardless, The Armstrong Lie will appeal to curious rubberneckers and cycling fans alike. We hear from two key players who have been largely silent, teammate George Hincapie and Dr. Michele Ferrari, who oversaw Armstrong’s training regimen until doping suspicions forced him to the sidelines. In one scene, a shunned Ferrari, stopwatch in hand, watches on TV as Armstrong tackles Mont Ventoux during the 2009 Tour, still intently tracking his protégé from afar. And we’re offered a few mini scoops, including a suspiciously timed $100,000 donation to cycling’s governing body, the UCI, in 2007, around the time it cleared Armstrong of positive urine-sample tests from 1999.
There are at least four Lances on display here: the teenage Texas punk who drawls, in a priceless archived clip, “Ah just love beatin’ people!”; the shameless liar who won the Tour seven times; the cocksure 2009 Lance, certain that he can win it once more; and the chastened, post-Oprah Lance, who is far more reflective and sympathetic than the jerk we saw squirming in his chair.
To hear him tell it, Armstrong’s decision to dope made perfect sense: he set out to beat the Europeans at their own game, nothing more—and nothing less. Not surprisingly, Armstrong still shows no remorse. “I know what it took to win those Tours,” he says. “Well, it was a little different from what you guys were told, but I know what it took.”
IF OBSTACLE RACING has a breakout star, it's Amelia Boone. The 30-year-old Portland, Oregon, native has won, or scored a podium spot in, each of the 14 races she's entered, and she's done it while working 80-hour weeks as a corporate bankruptcy attorney for one of the world's largest law firms. At last year's World's Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour championship race in Englishtown, New Jersey, Boone traversed 90 miles and more than 300 obstacles to take first place among women. She also finished second overall and a full ten miles ahead of the guy in third. As an encore, this summer at the eight-mile Spartan Super Championship, she got lost and was forced to run an extra mile—and still won the women's division.
THE ASCENSION: In 2011, Boone, who was a high school soccer star but gave it up in college, registered for her first obstacle race, a Tough Mudder event in Wisconsin, along with three colleagues. "Within five minutes," she says, "I ditched my coworkers and floored it up the mountain."
PROUD WARRIOR: Boone's office is littered with racing paraphernalia—the orange Tough Mudder headband, liability waivers, a faux skull from one of the three Spartan Death Races she finished. "My bosses are a little scared," she says, "but they're always very interested in what I'm doing."
FEAR OF FRYING: "I'm petrified of electricity now," she says. "I crawled through the Electric Eel nine times at World's Toughest Mudder last year. One time I got blasted so hard I nearly blacked out. I fell and hit my head and started crawling in the wrong direction."
CALL IT A HOBBY: For the moment, there's no such thing as a professional obstacle racer. That could change soon, though, as the fledgling sport gains sponsors and a TV audience; September's Spartan World Championships, with a $250,000 prize purse, was filmed for the NBC Sports Network. It's easy to see how Boone could make a career of it—if she had any desire to. "I'm not sure I'd want to do it full-time," she says. "I like using my brain too much."
UP NEXT: Boone defends her World's Toughest Mudder title on November 16, then heads to England in January to tackle her first Tough Guy, a nine-mile, 40-plus-obstacle event held in the dead of winter. "I have a feeling it will be an entirely different level of suffering," she says. "I hate the cold."
This weekend, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya ran 2:03:23 at the Berlin Marathon. He broke Patrick Makau’s world record by 15 seconds. The first recognized world record was 2:04:55 by Paul Tergat at Berlin set in 2003. Prior to that, only “world bests” were recognized.
In light of Berlin, will humans ever crack the two-hour mark?
The VO2max values and lactate thresholds for the elite East Africans are impressive but not exceptional for world-class runners. However, they are very efficient, allowing them to generate more speed with less oxygen. Their small size might also permit them to thermoregulate better. Finally, a lifetime of physical activity at high altitude can’t hurt.
The graph below shows the projections my colleagues Alejandro Lucia and Jonaton Ruiz made in the updated paper. The faster of the two projections shown in red is based on an average improvement of about 20 seconds per year and the slower blue one is based on ten seconds per year.
Breaking the Record A number of people think the sub-two-hour projection is nuts. As I've noted, the improvement to 2:02 might happen quickly—only to then slow down. My rationale: Until recently, the marathon mark was relatively slow compared to the 5k and 10k records on the track, pointing to room for improvement. Depending on which formulas you use, the current records project out to a marathon time of about 2:02. The other issue is what role doping is or is not playing in all of this.
That having been said, a targeted world record attempt on a special circuit of a few miles is a fascinating idea to consider. The surface of such a circuit could be tuned for maximum speed and the course absolutely flat. The attempt could be made at twilight on a cool windless evening. To break 2:02 the average 10k pace would need to be just less than 29 minutes, extremely fast but maybe not so fast for a top marathoner who can break 27 minutes.
If a sponsor put up the right kind of prize money, my guess is we could get very close to 2:02 in the next four of five years and then the chase for 2:01 could start. There are only 204 seconds left to get to two hours. The record continues to fall, and I have not lost the argument yet.
Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the past 25-plus years, he's published hundreds of studies, many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes at Human Limits. The views expressed in his posts are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.