07/17/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Life At The Fringes

What is it that compels some people to push every conceivable boundary?

To live and work in the fringes, when they could succeed easily in the middle? To sacrifice body, family, and much of what most of us think of as living, in order to experience it in a way they believe to be heightened? When is it healthy, and when is it not? And what happens when our culture seeks out these margins not out of curiosity, but for inspiration on how to live?

Two fringe worlds which are moving towards the mainstream are ultrarunning and biotechnology. On the surface, they seem very different professions. But they are both examples of American extreme worlds, where people with the same muscles, bones, and minds as you and me, push themselves beyond all limits, in the search for breakthroughs--physical, personal, cultural, and historic. And they are both moving rapidly toward the mainstream, where they will affect us all.

Ultramarathoners are essentially entrepreneurs of endurance. They race brutal 100-mile marathons, for days and nights without rest over courses intentionally plotted to be the most extreme imaginable. Through deserts, up thirteen 40,000 foot peaks in a row. They train by going for eight hour runs after putting the kids to bed, sometimes moving to communities where everyone is like them. They run 100 miles across a Death Valley highway, their sneakers melting into the blacktop, their kidneys failing, their shins fracturing. And they do this every day.

Biotechnology researchers work 100-hour weeks to find new ways to treat the diseases of our time. They can spend a decade developing just one drug, knowing that they have only a two percent chance of seeing their work go to market. They push the boundaries of medicine, working with ideas that were considered extreme only a few years ago. Like not trying to cure cancer, but teaching our bodies to live with it, the way we do diabetes. Tailor made drugs that work specifically for you, but which would be useless on your neighbor. They too are in a marathon-length race, against their competition, against new technologies which may eclipse what they have based years of work upon, against disease, which tends to outpace us all. The men and women pushing the boundaries in medicine are about as famous as those running their 99th mile. Yet their work will change our lives. It already is.

How do people like this function in daily life? How are their families, friends, and co-workers impacted by an obsessive life?

Pushing beyond all expected limits has always been a defining part of who we, as Americans, are. And fringe groups have brought us great progress. The Civil Rights movement was a fringe group. So were the Gay Rights movement, the New York Punks, and Haight-Ashbury. The astronauts were a fringe group. But recently we have mythologized and fetishized the stories of 27/7 entrepreneurs to the point where we mimic their behavior, pushing once everyday hobbies towards their farthest points. A decade ago, running a marathon was looked at as strange; now every office has a few marathoners in training, posting their daily miles. We always cooked, but until recently, very few of us purchased professional-grade cooking appliances and ingredients. We've always driven our children to sports, but only recently begun routinely putting them onto airplanes to play in another state. And then there is business. I won't even mention politics.

Bioresearchers and Ultramarathoners hold positive examples for us. Their lessons are to set goals and meet them every day, triumph over pain, that nothing is truly impossible. Because if these people, made the same way you and I are, can accomplish these feats, then it raises the question not just "Why do they do it?" But of, "When might I?"

Derek Sherman's debut novel Race Across the Sky will be published by Plume/Penguin on July 30 2013.