Will Gadd
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

There is something wonderful about punching the gas pedal as hard you can on a 1,000-horsepower racecar, especially when it’s not your racecar. 

A few years back, I went to the most amazing business meeting ever: The North American Red Bull Athletes Summit. It was held in Las Vegas, with a three-day racecar-driving school thrown in. Yes, it was as fully hedonistic, environmentally questionable and just downright insanely awesome as it sounds. But after three days (and nights) of racing action, I started to notice differences among the athletes. The physical differences were obvious on the outside (stork-like skateboarders, strong surfers, skinny triathletes with ridiculous calves), but the really interesting differences showed up when all 50 of us started racing on a track. 

The motorcycle racers were perfect and untouchable. The triathletes were hopeless, literally unable to get out of second gear. We were also put through a battery of reaction time/speed skills to learn how to deal with emergency situations, and in these the alpine skiers and BASE jumpers did supremely well, but it was a skateboarder who won. And the worst athlete—thankfully not me—was a rock climber, who seemed to have a half-second delay on his inputs. He won the “Miss Daisy” award, which was cooler than it sounds—it came with the carbon wing from one of the Red Bull Indy cars that a Baja-racer had wrecked by hitting a light pole while driving backwards faster than the triathletes and rock climber could drive forwards. 

These differences would often carry over into the après events: the extreme skiers ruled the tables and bars, while the only bar the aerobic athletes hit was covered in pasta. Personality is clearly linked to sport choices. And while the camp was an excessive amount of fun, the concentration of world-class talent made me keenly aware of the differences in mental-wiring and attitude in sports. 

 

I often get emails excitedly asking, “Where do I learn to paraglide? I’ve always wanted to, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, sign me up!” My answer usually starts with a question: What other sports do you do, and what else do you like to do in your free time? If the reply is, “I do a lot of Class V paddling, ski like mad in the winter and am currently modifying my truck for better off-road performance,” then I usually respond with, “Yeah, you’ve got the mental wiring, free time and spare cash to fly.” 

People such as this will possess the sense of flow that comes from paddling off a big drop and knowing you must figure it out through the drop and out the bottom. Launching is optional, but landing is inevitable. Like kayaking and steep skiing, paragliding is a dynamic balance sport. And with enough technical “geek” interest (the truck modification) to deal with such a gear-intensive sport, it’ll probably work out.

But if they say, “Well, I really like long-distance walking and will be on the Appalachian trail for two years starting next week,” then I’d suggest not taking up paragliding. Paragliding, kayaking, steep skiing and other “flow” sports demand an ability to process information on the fly, close focus on the immediate situation and an ability to keep your shit together when it hits the fan at high speed. None of that is evident in Mr. Trekker’s life.

Over the years, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of rock climbers break themselves while learning to paraglide. Relatively few kayakers break themselves while learning to fly. Extreme skiers are great at the flying part, but often don’t find it stimulating enough long-term and move on. Paragliders move into BASE jumping when paragliding gets boring for them, but few BASE jumpers get very involved in paragliding. Why?

The Five Factor Model (FFM) is a classic psychology test that measures personality in five key areas: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. I tested—and I think most people who know me would find this unsurprising—very high on Openness to Experience, low on Conscientiousness, low on Extraversion, low on Agreeableness (but I think the test was wrong about that) and low on Neuroticism (well, a little higher than low). Pretty typical for an outdoor sports enthusiast. But why did I quit BASE jumping, yet love flying?

For outdoor sports, I think the FFM is useful, but we could also classify the participants by the Red Bull Sports Camp (RBSC) behaviour characteristics, and with more fun-sounding categories: Huckers, Collectors, Trekkers, Lungs, Achievers and Technicians. In the Red Bull event in Las Vegas, most would fit into the “Achiever” category due to their competitive results. (Most Trekkers would not; I don’t think there were any Trekkers there.) But the motorcycle racers would also score high on Hucker—meaning throwing yourself off cliffs or other high-speed/high-risk behaviour—while the paragliders and hang-gliders, surprisingly, don’t respond well to high-level “hucking,” and didn’t score nearly as high on the speed tests. They’re more likely Technicians (a totally gear-dependent sport), with a still present, but much milder, “hucking instinct.”

Aerobic athletes are, of course, pure Lungs, often with a lot of Technician thrown in if they are triathletes (the two nerdiest publications in the world are Semiconductor Monthly and Triathlete Magazine), with a strong Achiever base. Lungs are people like my friend and one of Canada’s top endurance runners, Adam Campbell. He is at least 37.5 per cent lungs by physical volume. I’m pretty sure his lungs extend into his part-gazelle legs. My dad, naturalist and author, is a pure Trekker—he doesn’t care how fast he gets somewhere as long as it’s before dark-thirty. His goal is to be outside, trekking along at a pace conducive to describing anything interesting that goes by.

Occasionally Trekkers will mistakenly get mixed in with Lungs, usually starting with a friendly, “Let’s all go for a hike!” The Trekkers will show up with a three-course lunch (and enough extra food for the night, just in case), the 22 essentials and a sleeping pad to keep the long rests comfortable, while the Lungs will have 1.674 litres of electrolyte mix, shaved legs in case of a random marmot attack, a heart monitor and a day’s objective longer than the Trekkers were planning to hike on their three-day backpacking trip later that summer. Friction will ensue until the Lungs bound merrily into the distance and the Trekkers find new uses for their sleeping pad. (Lungs tend to be single.)

Then, there are the successful business-people who come up to me after a speaking engagement, usually to say, “You’re inspiring but totally crazy!” followed by, “I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain. How hard would it be to climb all seven summits? How do I do that? I can hire a trainer, coach, whatever it takes! I just joined the climbing gym and did my first 11a yesterday.” I know right away I’m dealing with someone the first person to climb the Messner List of Seven Summits, Pat Morrow, called a “Collector,” with a strong Achiever bias.

When Technicians get into a sport, they tend to be the gear freaks—the GPS-based planners, the surviving BASE jumpers (Technicians likely score high on the FFM category of Conscientiousness. This explains why I quit BASE jumping—I didn’t have enough Technician in me). They’re perfect to take charge of major things like gear lists, and also the detail work like determining where you’re travelling to, and so on. As an aside, the best video- and camera-people working in the outdoor field are usually Technicians; if they were Achievers (and higher on the Extroversion portion of the FFM), they would want to be on the other side of the lens.

Much like butterflies, we all go through a series of changes during our outdoor career—sometimes even seasonally. Most men in their early stages are Huckers, as a quick perusal of YouTube will indicate. (Relatively few women are Huckers, but they often act as a strong catalyst for “hucking behaviour” among young men.) High-achieving Huckers—if they make it to actually be older and that’s not a sure thing as it’s the technical-minded Huckers who survive longer—tend toward Collecting and Trekking. Older Trekkers tend to, well, become older Trekkers. 

You can also switch this wiring around to some extent; during kayaking season or when I’m flying a lot, my reaction times become far faster than during ice-climbing season. In the spring or summer, I’ll catch dropped-objects before they hit the ground. In the winter, when I’m ice climbing obsessively, I see sequences very rapidly and can think calmly, but the pen will hit the floor if I drop it.

And then there are the differences between the sexes, always a contentious topic. In outdoor sports, men are disproportionately represented in the Hucking and Technician categories, the same categories in which they are over-represented on YouTube. But the women who were skiers and speed athletes at the Red Bull Athletes Summit all tested much higher than the Lungs for reaction speed. There’s a temptation to say, “Women are bad at hucking, and men are better at it.” That’s not true, as the male Lungs found out at the race camp. 

Lynn Hill (an Achiever if there ever was one) famously chicked (when a woman beats the men) the entire male climbing world when she free-climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan. But she did not huck off the top on a BASE rig. The great thing about outdoor sports is that we get to be who we truly are and there’s room for everyone outside. I just hope I get another shot at that racecar. 

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