I admit that I’ve never been much of a risk-taker.

I hate flying (Do you have any idea how much a jetliner weighs?), but thank goodness some people love flying. Without them, we wouldn’t have pilots or a very effective military.

The same goes for police officers, who protect the rest of us, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Firefighters too, some of whom enter burning buildings to rescue strangers. Coal miners, loggers and power pole climbers are others who can quickly find themselves in dangerous situations as part of doing their jobs. Don’t forget farmers, either. And it goes without saying the risks accepted by those in the armed forces.

But what about those who take risk-taking to the next level? I thought about that recently after reading several tragic stories about people pursuing their passions.

• Christopher John Kulish, 62, a Colorado lawyer, died May 27 of a “cardiac event” while descending Mount Everest. Kulish had just achieved his goal of climbing the highest mountain on all seven continents. His was the 11th death on Mount Everest this year, and hundreds of others have died there through the decades.

• Todd Mahoney, 38, a Madison firefighter; and Michael McCulloch, 61, of Cottage Grove, both died while participating in the “Ironman” 70.3-mile triathlon June 9 in Madison. Both were stricken during the swim portion of the event on Lake Monona.

• Professional bull rider Nick Volden, 25, of Mondovi was paralyzed after landing on his head at an event Nov. 2 at the La Crosse Center. According to a story in the June 6 Leader-Telegram, Volden’s feet hit the chute and drove him head first into the ground. A fundraiser for Volden was held Saturday at Midnight Riders Arena near Mondovi.

Most of us wouldn’t consider climbing Mount Everest, entering an “Ironman” triathlon or riding a bull. Such endeavors require a level of physical and mental toughness most of us simply don’t possess.

Beyond that, however, one might argue that it’s silly for anyone to do such things. Isn’t life too precious? Isn’t the risk not worth whatever rewards are to be gained?

We all make choices about the difference between existing and living. Many of us are content to be spectators and share the excitement of watching others risk their well-being without putting our own in danger. Consider the many thousands who watch the U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform their aerial precision, knowing that their first mistake probably will be their last.

But for a certain group, flying the jet, driving the race car, throwing and taking punches in the ring, climbing Mount Everest or being a professional bull rider is what gives them fulfillment. And while the people close to these risk-takers worry, they understand.

I remember many years ago watching NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. wave off reporters after he was replaced in his car shortly after starting a race due to an injury he suffered in a previous race. At the time, drivers got points for starting a race, so Earnhardt drove a couple laps before turning his No. 3 car over to a replacement driver.

In brief comments, the distraught Earnhardt said he was depressed because racing is what he does, and not being able to do it was extremely frustrating. Or, as he also once said, “Finishing races is important, but racing is more important.”

Earnhardt died at age 49 during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He was a millionaire. He didn’t need to race. But he did it because being on the track is what gave his life meaning. It’s who he was.

Legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once said he would “croak in a week” if he stopped coaching. He died of a heart attack at age 69 only 37 days after he retired. Some people simply are defined by their passion, and when that goes away, it’s hard to fill the void.

As for Mondovi’s Nick Volden, the Saturday fundraiser reportedly was to include a band, auction and, maybe surprising to some, bull riding, mutton busting and barrel racing.

“It’s his passion,” Lori Larson, Volden’s mother-in-law, said in the June 6 Leader-Telegram article. “It’s a sport, just like car racing or downhill skiing. It’s just what they do.”

What a boring world it would be if people didn’t pursue their passions or push themselves to be the best they can be in whatever it is that motivates them to get off the couch, lace up their shoes, and get in the race.

It’s hard to define our limits unless we challenge ourselves in pursuit of personal fulfillment. That said, carefully evaluate how far you should push yourself. Completing a triathlon or scaling the highest peaks in the world are the ultimate tests of fitness meant only for an elite group.

Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader- Telegram editor.