Duke Daredevils Embrace Adrenaline-Pumping Challenges

Duke colleagues engage in thrill-seeking activities that push them mentally and physically

Meet the Duke Daredevils.
Hannah Horne sits in the cockpit of a 172 Cessna Skyhawk during a discovery flight over Durham and Person counties. Photo courtesy of Hannah Horne.

Whether getting up close with a shark or racing cars at 140 mph, staff and faculty who engage in thrill-seeking activities have found that the adrenaline adventures challenge them mentally and physically and help them build confidence.

When done safely, the activities can have a profound positive impact on the brain, including the ability to cultivate joy and build self-esteem, said Dr. Matthew Ehrlich, a Duke neurologist who races cars as a hobby. The acute response, while activating a “fight or flight” response, targets specific neurotransmitters, which increase focus and feelings of excitement or pleasure.

“Certainly, doing anything you enjoy is going to reduce stress hormones and have an overall positive impact on your psychiatric well-being and health,” Ehrlich said. “Anything that you find particularly enjoyable, there’s going to be a positive feedback loop of neurotransmitters and those pleasure centers of the brain are going to reinforce that behavior.”

Meet some daredevils at Duke.

Lorelei Evans

Circus Arts

Lorelei Evans stands on top of a German Wheel in Charlotte before tumbling towards her partner. Photo courtesy of Lorelei Evans.

When picking a new activity to stay in shape, Lorelei Evans realized it was just as important to find something exciting as it was physically engaging.

She settled on the circus arts when she moved to Durham to start a job at Duke in 2020. And in that pursuit, she’s found nothing is more fun than tumbling upside down in a German wheel, a physically demanding activity.

“I engage in thrilling activities almost every day after work,” said Evans, a database analyst in the Duke Graduate School. “It is the best way for me to de-stress after a long day of dealing with data.”

Evans traveled to Charlotte in May 2022 for training on how to sea saw back and forth on a German Wheel with a partner or climb into the wheel to spin 360 degrees upside down and back around in a few seconds on her own, while a spotter is close by.

While helping her improve her fitness, circus arts like the German Wheel have helped her focus on how she can get better each day and has boosted her confidence to try other activities, like improv and acting.

“I never thought I would be capable of doing these types of experiences,” Evans said. “Now that I started trying this out and I enjoyed it a lot and saw myself improve, that’s given me the courage to try other activities I never thought I could do before.”

Bridget Medlin

Cage Diving with Sharks

After watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and months of planning for a honeymoon in Hawaii, Bridget Medlin and her husband found themselves on a boat three miles off the north shore of the island of O’ahu.

Bridget Medlin observes sharks swimming around the boat from the safety of a cage at the edge of the surface. Photo courtesy of Bridget Medlin.

Suddenly, Medlin had a freak-out moment when shark fins started circling the boat, and it was time for her to jump into a cage in the water with them.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? I’ve made a mistake,’” said Medlin, a referral coordinator for Duke Primary Care.

But she did it anyway. She spent nearly 40 minutes in a cage on the surface of the ocean, peering into the water with a snorkel to observe the marine life around her.

At one point, 12-foot-long Galapagos sharks and a marlin came so close she could have touched them.

“Something like that with adrenaline or nerves, once you’re in it, it’s never as scary as you thought it was going to be,” Medlin said. “The nerves leading up to it were way worse than when I was actually in the moment.” 

Gair McCullough

Gair McCullough stands inside the Goblin's Lair Cave before descending into the darkness. Photo courtesy of Gair McCullough.

Cave Exploration

Occupational Therapy Doctorate admissions officer Gair McCullough often loves to curl up with a good book, but in March, McCullough found herself on a nine-day trip with her recently retired husband, exploring Utah.

The trip included exploring the icy trail to Angels Landing, getting lost on a primitive trail in Arches National Park and rescuing a family of 4-wheelers stuck off-road in a spring snowstorm.

But the highlight was exploring Goblin Valley State Park, where she descended into the Goblin’s Lair Cave, a 2.3-mile dark cave system.   

Focusing on her breathing, she took one step at a time, as she recalled the snake scene in “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“I don’t consider myself old, but maybe beyond the typical adventuring age, but oh my goodness, it’s so much fun,” said McCullough, who is in her 60s. “There are things you can access at many ages and somehow the reward is maybe even a little bit sweeter than when you’re young, and you know you can do anything.”

Christa Rutledge

Sky diving

Christa Rutledge hasn’t forgotten the sensation of tumbling 120 miles per hour toward the ground while strapped into a parachute with a guide.

In April 2002, Rutledge’s husband took her skydiving at Carolina Sky Sports in Louisburg to cross off a bucket list activity. Standing at 4-foot-8, she was the only person who’d signed up that day to jump.

Christa Rutledge will never forget the feeling of diving out of a plane with a guide in April 2002. Photo courtesy of Christa Rutledge.

“You would think it goes by really fast, but it didn’t,” said Rutledge, a service access team leader at Duke Health North Durham, who started working at Duke in 2008. “You’re content when you’re up there. Yes, you’re falling for a little bit, but then once your parachute opens and you’re drifting in the air, it’s so peaceful.”

Remembering her bravery then has helped her to know that no matter what comes her way, she can handle it.

When her husband broke his neck and became paralyzed in an accident in 2011, she connected the road ahead to her skydiving experience. While continuing to work full-time at Duke, Rutledge dedicated herself to caring for her husband every day until he needed more advanced 24-hour nursing care.  

During COVID-19, Rutledge had to wait 13 months for in-person visits with her husband at a nursing care facility that had been locked down to keep residents safe. Her only connection to her partner was Facetime until they could be reunited in April 2021.

“People look at my life and they’re like, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” Rutledge said. “And I’m like, you just do it. There’s a little quote at the end of my email right now that says something like ‘happiness is a skill, not a circumstance; practice it, don’t wait for it to happen.’ You are in charge of your destiny and how you live it out.”

Dr. Matthew Ehrlich

Race car driving

Dr. Matthew Ehrlich, an assistant professor of Neurology and the Neurology Medical Director at Duke Regional Hospital, started racing cars in college.

After purchasing his first performance vehicle, a Subaru WRX, he tried out autocross run by the Sports Car Club of America. He entered a timed competition navigating through a parking lot course and fell in love with it.

Dr. Matthew Ehrlich speeds around the track in his custom-built BMW race car. Photo courtesy of Matthew Ehrlich.

After college, Ehrlich trained and moved up to track driving with a Lotus Elise. Eventually, he purchased a custom-built BMW race car and moved on to timed trials around a track. Now, about once per month between March and November, Ehrlich travels to Virginia International Raceway or another regional track on weekends to compete against other drivers.

Fueled by intensity at 140 miles per hour and critical moments of braking and steering around corners, the activity helps Ehrlich clear his mind unlike anything else.

“It’s so hard to put into words,” Ehrlich said. “I think a lot of it is you can’t think about anything else. Every little, tiny input you give to the car has consequences… it takes 100 percent concentration, and you can’t worry about everything else.”

In 2021, he broke his personal best fastest lap and in March 2023, after a break, he restarted competing again.

While Ehrlich enjoys the activity to relax outside of work, there are moments when he can combine racing with his work at Duke. From June 30 to July 1, he’ll raise money in “Racing For ALS,” which will, in part, go toward the research of Duke Neurologist Dr. Rick Bedlack and the Duke ALS Clinic.

“The idea is, as long as you’ve got enough experience, you can come out and just drive laps for fun and have a good time,” Ehrlich said. “Everybody that’s participating raises money to donate to the cause and then we go have a fun weekend driving in circles.”

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