The 10 greatest athletic feats of the 21st century – transcending perceived limits of mind and body

I have been following Eliud Kichoge’s bid to be the first human to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He succeeded on Saturday with a time of 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. This is an absolutely extraordinary achievement. It was not an official world record, because of the use of rotating pacemakers and because Kipchoge was handed his drinks from a bike, but it is still the fastest marathon ever run. After he finished, Kipchoge said that he had wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited.

This made me think about a number of extraordinary feats that I’ve seen achieved in recent years and I decided to make a list of my top 10 most extraordinary human achievements in the realm of extreme feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits of mind and body. Quite a few of these feats involve non-ordinary states of consciousness that need total engagement in the here-now, unity of mind and body, and transcendence of distracting thoughts and emotions. States known as “being in the zone” or “flow” to athletes, as “immovable mind” to the samurai and as samadhi to Zen practitioners.

I also decided arbitrarily to restrict my list to feats achieved in the last 20 years, or in other words, in the 21st century (counting the year 2000 as part of this century). This is an idiosyncratic list that reflects my interests and the level of amazement and awe that watching (or in one case reading an account of) the event inspired in me. You may well have a very different list, though I think at least the ones towards the top should be on most lists.

1. Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big wall climbs. On June 3, 2017, he made the first free solo ascent of El Capitan, completing the 2,900-foot Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes. Among other awards, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (2018).  I’ve reviewed Free Solo in an earlier post.  I agree with the New York Times that this is “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever”, and put it as number one in my list.

2. Eliud Kipchoge

On 12 October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human ever to run a marathon in under two hours. He finished in 1:59:40, holding a sub-4:34 pace for the 26.2 miles. It is an achievement to rival that of Sir Roger Bannister in 1954, the first human to run the mile in under 4 minutes.

3. Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck was a Swiss rock climber and mountaineer who specialized in solo speed ascents of Alpine and Himalayan mountains. On 17th November 2015, Ueli Stecj set a new and still unbroken record for the North Face of the Eiger, soloing it in 2 hours, 22 minutes 50.7 second. Tragically, he died on 30 April 2017 after falling during a training climb for an ascent of Everest on the West Ridge route.

4. Felix Baumgartner

On Oct. 14, 2012, the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner made history by jumping from a balloon at an altitude of 39,045 km, landing safely after a nine-minute descent. He not only set a new record for the highest parachute jump (39 km or 24 miles), but became the first human to break the sound barrier without engine power, reaching a speed of  1357 km/hr or Mach 1.25. He also set records for the highest free fall and the highest manned balloon flight.

5. Eddie Hall

Eddie Hall is an English former professional strongman, who set a world record for the deadlift in July 2016 by lifting 500 kg.   This lift of 500 kg (1,102 lb; 79 st)  under strongman rules bested the world record he had previously set at 465 kg (1,025 lb) earlier that same day. The 500 kg lift made Hall pass out with blood coming from his eyes, ears and nose due to burst blood vessels in his head. He went on to win the 2017 World’s Strongest Man competition.

6. Aron Ralston

In April 2003, Aron Ralston was canyoning alone through Bluejohn Canyon when an 800-pound boulder crushed his right arm against the wall of a canyon. He was stuck beneath its weight for five days and was completely unable to free his arm. In order to save his own life, he took the drastic decision to amputate his own arm using a dull two-inch knife. He realized that his tool was inadequate to cut through the bones in his arm, so he first had to torque his arm against the boulder to break the radius and ulna bones. After freeing himself, he climbed out of the canyon, abseiled one-handed down a 65-foot cliff and then hiked 6 miles before encountering a family who summoned help. His ordeal was made into an Oscar-nominated documentary “127 Hours” in 2010.

7. Wim Hof

Wim Hof, known as the Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete with an ability to withstand extreme cold for long periods. He has set numerous world records,  including for the farthest swim under ice in 2000, and the fastest half marathon barefoot on snow and ice in 2007. Hof has set the world record for longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice a total of 16 times, the most recent being in 2013 one hour, 53 minutes and 10 seconds. He is considered a master of Tummo meditation, a form of yoga, and is the first person to have scientific validity for the practice.

In 2007, Hof climbed to an altitude of 7,200 m (23,600 ft) on Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts, climbing boots and gloves. In 2009, Hof reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro within two days wearing only shorts. That same year he ran a full marathon in the Namib desert without water and another above the Arctic circle wearing nothing but shorts

8. Alain Robert

Alain Robert is a 57-year old French rock climber and urban climber, known as “the French Spider-Man”. Robert is famous for his free solo climbing, scaling skyscrapers using no climbing equipment except for a small bag of chalk and a pair of climbing shoes. Among many climbing exploits he climbed the then tallest building in the world, the 508-metreTaipei 101 building, on  25 December 2004. On 28 March 2011, he climbed the tallest building in the world, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, though he was required to use a belay rope for safety. He continues to regularly climb skyscrapers around the world. The latest is the 153-metre tall Skyper building in Frankfurt, where he was arrested upon finishing his descent.

9. David Blaine

David Blaine is an American illusionist, endurance artist and extreme performer. He is best known for his high-profile feats of endurance, and has set and broken several world records. These include standing for 35 hours on a 100 foot high pillar only 22 inches wide in 2002, and sitting in a clear Perspex box for 44 days in 2003 without eating, and drinking only water.  On September 8, 2008 he set a world record for static apnoea, holding his breath inside a tank of water for 17 minutes, 4.5 seconds.

10. Luke Aikins and Constable Velumurugan

I had some difficulty deciding who to list as number 10 on this list, there was not an obvious candidate in my mind. Usain Bolt did come to mind as the fastest man alive, and he is often listed as the number 1 greatest athlete of the 21st century in other people’s lists. I don’t disagree he should probably take this slot, or perhaps a higher one. But sprinting does not really rock my boat, so I kept looking. I did seriously consider Luke Aikins, who on July 30 2016 jumped without a parachute from a plane at 25,000 feet (7,620 m) and successfully landed in a 100 by 100 foot net set up on the ground.

 

But I have a soft spot for Constable Velumurugan of the Tamil Nadu State Police who, in December 2002, attempted a high dive from a height of 38 metre (125 feet). He lost control of his body halfway down and hit the water in what I believe is the world record for bellyflop. So I list them both as humans who performed extreme jumps with unusual landings they were fortunate to survive.

Free Solo – inspiring and disturbing

Last week I took my boys to see Free Solo. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000 foot cliff of El Capitan without any ropes or other protective equipment. One slip or missed hold and he would die. The documentary not only looks at Honnold the climber, his mindset and attitudes, his preparations and the actual climb itself, but also has two other main threads, the process of filming the feat and the moral dilemmas the filmmakers faced, and the very substantial stresses his loved ones have to deal with.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I had actually put the DVD in my shopping trolley at Amazon because it did not seem to be screening anywhere in Geneva, when a friend let me know there was a one night showing at Pathe Balexert. So I deleted my draft purchase and took the boys to see it. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping account of one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, but is also very thought-provoking. It won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and has a critics rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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