The survival statistics of people lost in extreme environments are very interesting, and not at all what you would expect. In fact, one of the demographics that has the best survival rate is children under six years of age.
Accomplished adventurers, ex-military, or even wilderness guides do not fare nearly as well as we would think. Their experience, or rather over-confidence and ego, may work against them to the point that it costs their lives.
When we are lost, often the first thing that works to our detriment is a failure to recognize that we are in fact lost. We try to rectify the position we are now in with that which we previously knew to be true—but the two no longer match. Our emotions get in the way of reason and panic sets in, often leading us deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
Extreme adventurers commonly take their skills for granted, and fail to fully appreciate the danger they are facing. Their assertiveness and pride exposes them more frequently to dangerous situations with a false sense of security in their own abilities to get them out of trouble.
A sense of humor is a critical survival tool.
Experience alone does not protect one from the sudden forces of gravity, exposure or dehydration; but having the reason to avoid these situations altogether does. A strong will, an ability to control emotion, a humble appreciation and awareness for risk, adaptability and reasoning skills increase survival rate dramatically.
Unlike many adults, a 6-year-old will rest when they get tired, seeks warmth, drinks when they are thirsty, and generally will not travel far, which makes rescue considerably more likely. They do not have a well-developed ego to contend with that often leads us adults steadfastly in the wrong direction. They recognize that lost is lost and remain focused on their immediate needs, which are the most important in a survival situation.
The 6-year-old immediately seeks to reduce their stress levels. Cold, dehydration, mental strain, and fatigue all wear down a person's batteries in a very short period of time—to a point that they may never be recharged again.
There is no physiological definition of fatigue. Scientists have been unable to find it in the muscles or nerves and they still debate the causes and effects. There is one thing that is certain however; with fatigue comes a loss of spirit. Everyone has a breaking point at which the physical pain and mental exhaustion becomes overwhelming and they simply give up. Once a person reaches this point it is very difficult to change their mindset and they often remain resigned to their fate, even when faced with rescue.
How can these lessons be applied to your own endurance training and racing?
There are some parallels to consider right off the bat. Just like surviving in the wilderness, training and racing is all about energy and stress management. Athletes generally do a poor job of this, especially if they are using too much emotion and not enough reason. Just as each survival situation is unique, each athlete faces the unique demands of their individual lifestyle such as work stress, sleep quality, nutritional constraints and capacity for recovery.