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.

Coming unstuck on a free solo

This is my last free solo story. Engraved in my memory like it was yesterday, though I am not sure what year it happened. Was around 1975 I think, though possibly a bit later. In those days, I was hanging around with a bunch of rock climbers and following them up easier climbs. I didn’t think of myself as a rock climber though, because I was content to follow as a second, belaying the lead climber leading the pitches. I occasionally led a pitch if I felt comfortable, particularly if it was a chimney or a good solid crack where I felt pretty comfortable that I could glue myself to the rock. Much less so on slabs where it was all about balance and using friction on tiny ledges and bumps in the rock.

Climbers on Hermes, Booroomba, ACT.

This particular trip was to Booroomba Rocks, not far to the south of Canberra.This has spectacular climbs on granite, and the main cliff line is up to 140 metres high.The photo above shows two friends climbing Hermes (Grade 16, 50 m high), one is visible climbing the crack in the middle of the photo and the other is belaying from a ledge below him. The climb continues up the crack just in the shadow and then towards the right under a big overhang .Someone died around 1971 attempting to free solo Hermes, He fell from near the overhang.

We camped in the valley below the cliffs and walked up to do various climbs. It may have been the trip on which the photo below was taken in 1975.One of the climbers decided to spend a few hours scrambling around on a lower cliff line doing some unroped free climbing. I foolishly decided to go with him.

Myself (middle holding book) with friends at Booroomba, 1975

Initially, we were doing little more than scrambling up some steep gullies and small easy climbs. Then we came to a larger face that was probably about 20 metres high with a well defined crack running up it. My friend assured me that it was a very easy climb and within my capabilities, so I followed him up the crack. However, the crack ended a few metres below the top of cliff, and the final stretch was on close to vertical rock with small holds. My friend was just above me, and we were climbing together. I moved up onto the small holds, and realized that I had got out of my depth and  no longer had the strength in my fingers to continue up the last couple of metres, and no possibility to retreat either as my strength was going. So I told my friend and said to him that I was going to come off the wall in the next 30 seconds. He said to hold on, and he moved up a few inches and grabbed a small tree trunk at the top of the cliffline with both hands, and then said “Grab hold of my ankles”. At that moment, I lost my grip on the small holds I had and as I came off the cliff I grabbed his ankles with both hands and swung free below him. I was probaby close to 20 metres from the base of the climb and would have probably died if I fell.  I climbed up his body and over the cliff edge. If this had happened even a metre lower on the climb, where my friend would have had no strong holds to use, I would have fallen. Utter stupidity on my part to attempt to free solo a climb of that height without ever having done it before to know what it involved. One of a few occasions  around that period of my life where pure chance saved me from my own risk taking. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky.

A “free solo” ascent of Federation Peak

Seeing Free Solo ( reminded me of my “free solo” on Federation Peak years ago. Barely a rock climb, but the exposure was similar to that on El Cap. In Dec 1980- Jan1981, I did a three week traverse of the Eastern and Western Arthur Range in southern Tasmania with my then wife. One of our objectives was to climb Federation Peak (1,224 metres or 4,016 ft), whose spectacular summit rises like a spike in the middle of the Eastern Arthur Range (see photo below).

Looking towards Federation Peak from the Four Peaks.

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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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Mont Pelvoux

Les Ecrins

I was cleaning up my photo files, and came across these photos from a trip in September 2012 to Les Ecrins, the southernmost part of the French alps, about 100 km south of Grenoble. There are a number of peaks over 4000m but our objective was to climb Mont Pelvoux, just below 4000m at 3946 m (12,946 ft). Bad weather in the Swiss Alps had led us to flee southwards looking for better weather. There was heavy rain all the way to Briancon, so we stayed down in the valley for the first night rather than climb to Refuge de Pelvoux in the rain. But that meant a big day the next day with a 2700 m climb to Pelvoux. We left at 3.30 am, amd climbed the 1200 m to Refuge de Pelvoux in about 3 hours, arriving just as the sun was rising. Continue reading

A trip to the Monte Rosa – Matterhorn region of the Swiss Alps

Below are some photos from a trip to the Monte Rosa – Matterhorn region of the Alps in late September 2011. Our plan was to climb the main Dufourspitze peak of Monte Rosa. At 4,634 metres (15,203 ft),Dufourspitze is the highest peak completely inside Switzerland. Our start was delayed three days by bad weather, with heavy snowfalls and we no longer had enough time for this trip. So instead we set out to climb Pollux, which involved around 5 km travel on a glacier at close to 4,000 m.

Yannick breaking the trail in about 50 cm fresh snow.

Yannick breaking the trail in about 50 cm fresh snow.

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Ascent of Mont Blanc, September 2010

On a clear day, I can see Mont Blanc on the skyline from my office window, and many is the day in winter where I watch the sun rise almost directly over the summit. Mont Blanc looms over the skyline in many places around Geneva and the “frontalier” France to the west. So I had long had an ambition to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in (Western) Europe at 4808m, and succeeded on my first attempt in September 2010.

On the summit of Mont Blanc (4808 m), Sunday morning at 11.30 am. And somewhat surprised I made it!

On the summit of Mont Blanc (4808 m), Sunday morning at 11.30 am. And somewhat surprised I made it!

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