Tag Archives: Whistler

Do We Have An Adventure Gene?

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Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

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Why do some athletes reach for the extreme while others enjoy safer, less thrilling pursuits? Is it nature, nurture or a combination of both? Ask most world-class extreme athletes and they’ll tell you some version of the same story. They’d always loved getting close to the edge, pushing themselves to their limits even as young children, driving their parents sick with worry. Once introduced to their chosen sport, they followed it passionately, stopping at nothing to pursue their dreams.

Do they possess an “adventure gene” driving them forward or is there something else going on? University of British Columbia PhD Cynthia Thomson set out to discover just what made these athletes tick. Her recent study of 500 skiers found surprising results. Turns out action sports athletes, like skiers, take up dopamine—one of the brain chemicals associated with reward—in a very different way. Dopamine, along with it’s sister reward drugs seratonin and norepinephrine, keep us humans on the path to seek rewards by doling out the good feelings associated with these chemicals. Ski a double black diamond run, get a hit of dopamine. Give a speech in front of a large crowd, get some seratonin. The brain wants us to push ourselves to be our best. Incidentally, this is the very same high drug users are seeking, but in an ironic twist, the more one uses drugs, the less thrill the body receives each time. Natural highs, on the other hand, act differently.

Thomson found that natural highs, however, are not the same for everyone. Those that seek more thrills, might actually be getting a smaller high every time, thereby skiing the extremes in order to get the same reward others would get on the bunny slopes. Thomson found that the dopamine receptor DRD4 has a variant in the -521 C/T polymorphism. Those with this variant tend to be sensation seekers. Some are even calling this gene variant the “adventure gene.” Thomson claims, however, that thrill seeking is a polygenic activity, or one that brings several genes into play. Furthermore, one’s upbringing can have a major impact on their choice of sport. I was raised in a skiing family (thank God); but had my parent’s been bowlers, I may have followed their path.

Kircher-show-descriptionThis week on The Edge, I’m talking to Dr. Thomson about skiing, sensation seeking and the “adventure gene.” Don’t miss this show, Wednesday at 8 a.m. Pacific, when Dr. Thomson explains the implications of this ground-breaking research.

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Shit Skiers Say: I really wasn’t going to post this

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I wasn’t planning on posting this here. I like to think of this as a family blog, not that anyone under 18 probably ever reads it. It’s the ex-high school teacher in me I suppose. But yesterday, when I rode the chairlift with two skiers (actually one was a snowboarder, but same difference) it made me laugh into my fleece collar. It was Bro-this-and-Dude-that-and-HolyShit-Bro-and-OMGDude-Did-you-see-me-send-that-shit? I-mean-I-was-seriously-killing-it.

Then I remembered this video that so many of you forwarded to me and said, “I know you can’t post this on your site, but this shit is hilarious.”

Then I got to thinking. Why can’t I post this? This shit is hilarious, and my mom is not easily offended. In fact, she taught me the s-word so I know she’s not going to stop reading this blog just because I posted this video. Mom is great that way. And anyone else out there that can’t already go purchase a ticket to a rated R movie, you don’t have to watch it. Hopefully you’ve already moved on to another site by now, if not, well, I warned you. So here it is, Shit Skiers Say:

Put Yourself Out There

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This post first appeared here in August 2010, back when only my mom read my blog. Since there’s a few more of you now (thank heavens!) I thought I’d re-post it, especially in light of the fact that today I’m speaking to a large group about improv, my book and all sorts of other scary topics.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

I think she was onto something here.  I recently spent a weekend in Whistler Blackcomb Resort, where the opportunity to scare yourself lay around every corner.  Surrounded by so much outdoor enthusiasm, it led me to wonder about the draw, even during the summer, of ski resorts, which are planned communities of adventure, fun, and well, yes, scary things.

While one woman’s bone-tingling ride of death might be another woman’s walk-in-the-park, I think Eleanor Roosevelt would have approved of this kind of adventure.  So I ask you, dear reader, what scares you? What activity really puts you “out there”?

As John and I rode the Peak 2 Peak Gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb, riding 1400 feet above the valley floor, we pressed our noses to the Plexiglas windows, amazed at the huge support towers, the thickness of the haul rope and the sheer design of the thing.  As a ski area operator who has built countless chairlifts, both big and small, John can truly appreciate the specs on this one–with only four two hundred foot towers, the cabins ride across the longest expanse of any lift of its kind.

While we awed over the engineering feat, I noticed a woman clinging to the aluminum bar within the gondola car, her eyes squeezed shut and her forehead beaded in sweat.

She told her friend that she “was scared of heights”.

Before I could wonder why she’d chosen this particular lift, her friend asked her for me.

“Well, I dunno,” she answered. “Because it’s thrilling!”

That’s the thing about resorts such as Whistler. They offer that thrill. Some find it jumping off of ladder-width bridges onto a dirt track on their downhill bike, while others find their thrill flying down a zipline through the trees.  And then there’s the cadre of brave souls down the valley in Squamish, perhaps wired just a little bit more loosely, who walk a slack-line (essentially a not-so-tight rope) between peaks with only a thin strip of webbing between their feet and the valley floor several hundred feet below.  But some don’t even need to go that far.  They can find their thrill riding the world’s highest gondola, their eyes squeezed shut, the windows curving away towards the floor, their bodies and souls protected by Dopplemayr engineering.

Any way to look at it, I agree with Eleanor.  We need to be scared every once in a while.

Challenges are like electric shocks that keep us focused, creative, self-confident.  They’re nature’s little reminders to pay attention.  Fear pulls us out of our protective coating and lays us bare again.

And that’s when we do our best work.  That’s when we are most creative, most ourselves.  I’ve always found my trials in the outdoors.  Maybe that’s why I like ski resorts so much, where challenges lay around every corner.

But it doesn’t matter if you’re dressed like a gladiator, getting huge air over dirt jumps, or just riding a chairlift, designed and engineered by the world’s best.  Ask yourself today, what scares you.  Then go and put yourself out there!