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Dispatches : Athletes

5 Near-Death Experiences from the Adventurers Who Lived

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.

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First Look: 'The Armstrong Lie'

“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 Lies is 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.”

Check out a trailer for The Armstrong Lie below:

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Obstacle Racing's Breakout Star, Amelia Boone

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."

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Cracking the Sub-Two-Hour Marathon

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?

22 Years and Three Minutes
In 1991, the world best for the marathon was 2:06:50. That year, I published a theoretical article on how fast the optimal human distance runner might go for the marathon. I recently updated the paper, and both papers suggest that we might someday run the marathon much faster than we currently do.

So why are Kenyans leading the charge?

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.

For more on the science behind the two-hour marathon.

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.

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Jeb Corliss on The Flying Dagger

On September 28, aerial stuntman Jeb Corliss plans to jump out a helicopter and pilot his wingsuit through a 30-foot-wide fissure in a nearly 900-foot-tall fin of rock, called Mount Jianglang, in China. The stunt, which Corliss is dubbing “The Flying Dagger,” requires that he fly with more precision for a longer period of time than he ever has before. And he says pulling off such sustained control isn’t even the scariest part of what he’s attempting.

It's been a rough year for BASE jumpers. So far in 2013 there have been 21 deaths in the sport, the deadliest year on record, according to Blinc magazine. Corliss, arguably the biggest name in the game, has had his share of close calls. Last year he crashed into South Africa’s Table Mountain while flying at more than 100 miles per hour. He recovered from near kidney failure and a torn up left leg, then jumped off the same mountain where he got hurt. He's also helped organize the world’s first proximity wingsuit race in China, had surgery to fix a torn ACL, and jumped all over Europe. Now he's organized his most challenging stunt to date. We called him up to hear more about how he plans to take a stab at the “Dagger.”

OUTSIDE: Where did you get the idea for “The Flying Dagger”?
CORLISS: Frank Yang of Pan Pacific Entertainment contacted me in late April or early May and wanted to know if I thought it was possible to fly through this crack in China. Normally, when non-jumpers come to me with something like that, I’m really skeptical. They don’t really understand what we do.

They flew me out and took me to three locations that were all very cool, very remote, and very unique. I thought, “OK, these are cool. I could do any one of these.” Then the final spot they took me to was this crack. When I got there I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this.” I didn’t understand how nature could create something like it, with almost perfect 90-degree lines. I walked into the bottom and put my arms out. I had four feet on either side of me.

It’s just not that it’s narrow; it’s also really long. It’s three football fields long. It’s about 15 feet at the bottom and 60 feet at the top. So you’re looking at two people holding hands at the bottom and maybe a bus at the top. It was a very shocking thing to be standing in. My friend Iiro said, “Is this possible?” I said, “Yeah, it is possible. This can totally be done.”

What will be different about this flight?
A lot of us have done a lot of very precise flights, like I’ve hit the string on balloons, and gone by the arms of the Christ statue, and flown through a waterfall. But in those jumps I was only super precise for a split second—two seconds max. This time, I’m going to have to be super precise for somewhere between 10 to 30 seconds. The length of time makes it different.

This is also a very committed jump, because once you’re in you just can’t come out of it. It’s so narrow that you can’t deploy inside of it. You have to come out of the crack before you pull your parachute. It’s a very committed flight. Once you enter, you have to complete it. The deeper you go the narrower it gets.

Do you know how you are going to get into, and out of, the jump?

Well, here is the thing. I actually just went to Hungary where we are using augmented reality to test our ability to render this mountain or canyon in space. So, I am able to jump out of an airplane and picture flying through the canyon three times during each jump. This thing is rendered three dimensionally in front of me. It was interesting training, and I would say I impacted about 50 percent of the time.

Wait—you crashed during half of your training runs?
Yeah, but it’s augmented reality. You’re pushing a lot harder in there because it’s a unique way of training. It gave me the ability to get a real sense of what I’m doing before I get anywhere near real rock. I think it is going to be the future of how we train for these things.

My biggest concern isn’t the flight through the crack. I’m pretty confident I can do it. I’m more concerned with what happens to me when I come out the other end. It’s about 870 feet tall and 900 feet long, but once you come out of it you can’t get any more altitude. So when I fly out of this thing, I could be deploying my parachute at pretty low altitude. The problem of pulling at a pretty low altitude is that I’m over a jungle and there’s a fairly small landing area. You want to avoid landing in trees whenever possible, but if you have to land in trees, you have to land in trees. So it could be very exciting.

To put it in perspective, the cave I flew through in 2011 was 400 feet tall, 100 feet wide, and 200 feet deep. So the measurement was quite large compared to “The Flying Dagger.” I had a big long flight after the cave where I had a 2.5 glide ratio and 45 seconds to deploy the parachute. This stunt is so much narrower, from 100 feet wide to 16 feet wide, and so much longer, from 200 feet to 900 feet long. The fact that I have to fly through a narrow window for such a long period of time, there really hasn’t been another flight like it.

Do you have a team of people that help you prepare? How do you figure out the physics of it?

Yeah, I have a whole team of people that help me with everything.  When it comes to the wingsuit flying and the physics? That comes with my many years of experience. There aren’t a bunch of people that can help me with that. When it comes to training in a safe way? Yeah, I have a list of people who come up with ideas and make this stuff as safe as it can be done.

Describe the augmented reality training a bit more.
Augmented reality is the opposite of virtual reality. Augmented reality is actual reality with objects three-dimensionally rendered in real space. You don’t have goggles. You just have glass that you can see completely through and the images of 3D renderings are projected on that glass. It tricks your mind into believing they are there.

So you were actually jumping out of a plane and had goggles on? And you had the image of the canyon below you?
Yes. I can’t tell you exactly how I saw it, but yes. The best way to say it… was when I jumped out of the airplane at 12,000 feet, 1,000 feet below me was the canyon. As far as my brain was concerned, that canyon existed. As far as my eyes were concerned, I was flying through a mountain. I was flying not just through any mountain. I was flying through the exact mountain I’m going to jump through in China. They went and did a computer rendering of this exact mountain. It was the exact size. The angles were exact. Everything was exact.

So what caused all the simulated crashes?

Well, some of it was due to glitches in the augmented reality. Every once in a while I’d be flying near the mountain and all of a sudden the mountain would move 30 feet. There wasn’t much I could do with that. The system and is still in beta. Luckily, in the real word, the mountain is not going to move. Aside from that, it was just me choosing the wrong angle. I’m coming in and I get a little too far back and all of a sudden I’m too shallow and I can’t make it all of the way through. I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” Obviously I have to come at this thing high enough and be at the right angle to make sure I come out the other end. If I’m too low, then I flatten out and don’t have the glide anymore and would just impact halfway through. That was interesting. I was like, “I have to make sure I don’t make that mistake.”

With wingsuting and proximity flying, what’s the direction you want to go in? More stunts or more races?
Well, I really do enjoy the large stunts. I like to see how far we can push—I don’t really want to say the sport—but how far we can push ourselves. And this just happens to be one way that I can push myself, to see what I’m capable of. How accurate can I be? How long can I be accurate?

As far as a race is concerned, I see the importance of competition in sports. I understand that is how sports grow. I understand that is how people become professional athletes. I understand that is important for the sport to have a competition. I’m not into that competing, but I understand why other people are and why it’s beneficial and helpful for them.

I also see the amount of energy and effort it takes to be competitive, to be .10 seconds faster than the other guy means you’ve done a few hundred more jumps than he did that season. I already know I’m not going to win the World Wingsuit League race. It’s the guys that are out there jumping non-stop, everyday, 11 jumps a day. It’s crazyiness what they’re doing. I’m much more interested in the proximity megastunts.

So can you describe for me the feeling you get after a megastunt? Take the jump at Tianmen Cave or what you might feel after you’ve done “The Flying Dragon”?

I can’t tell you what I will feel after this one, because it’s always different. And these feelings are a little bit complicated. You have all these dreams. It takes you months, and in some cases years, of practice. When you finally get to the place and succeed in turning one of your dreams into a reality, the feeling is one of pure joy. It makes you feel like you can do anything. It’s very powerful. It gives my life meaning.

This interview was edited from a longer conversation.

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