The Pain Games

An obstacle-racing obsessed filmmaker aims to find out why suffering has become America's favorite new sports pastime.

    Photo: Scott Keneally

This Tuesday, Northern California-based writer Scott Keneally launched a Kickstarter project to secure funding for a feature-length documentary about the exploding world of obstacle racing. Titled Rise of the Sufferfests, the film is Keneally's bid to understand why millions of Americans are suddenly so eager to enter events entailing all kinds of agonizing experiences, including electric shock, ice-water plunges, and mud crawls beneath barbed wire. It's a question many journalists have posed over the last few years as participation in U.S. obstacle races has spiked from some 40,000 racers to more than two million.

Keneally, a print journalist who also works on music videos and documentaries, has made a name for himself in the obstacle-racing world. In September 2011, he signed up for a Tough Mudder event near Lake Tahoe with the idea of writing about his experience. But while researching the story, he discovered that Tough Mudder, the leading obstacle-racing brand, had taken many ideas for its course features from Tough Guy, a decades-old English event. Keneally's subsequent investigation into the billion-dollar industry resulted in a November 2012 cover story for Outside.

After working with a 60 Minutes on a related story, Keneally continued to investigate the factors behind the sport's remarkable rise. Those insights are the focus of his pending documentary. I recently reached Keneally to hear more about his compelling film.

So, why are millions of people getting into obstacle racing all of a sudden?
There are multiple competing theories, everything from loneliness to our over-connected digital lives. Initially, I thought the phenomenon was indicative of exploding narcissism in the Facebook era—people wanting to share images of themselves doing heroic and crazy things. But the more I've looked into it, the more I've realized there are factors in the world at large that are driving us towards these kind of experiences. 

What kind of factors?
For one, we don't work with our hands anymore. We send 70 emails in a day at the office, but we don't feel like we've accomplished very much. Many of us don't have a real connection to our physical selves. Some people have written to me wondering if we're attracted to obstacle races because society is no longer expected to be "war-ready." After 9-11, we weren't told to enlist, we were told to go shopping. Honestly, though, I don't really know why we're so drawn to these events. I can't tell you why I am. It's strange. The whole purpose of modern civilization is to remove ourselves from pain, but we're choosing to suffer. By sitting down with psychologists and behavioral scientists, I can start to figure this out.    

Are any academics or scientists actively investigating this question right now?
As far as I know, there's no clinical study underway. But Michael Norton, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School, co-wrote a book called Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, which included a section in which he looked into the value participants were getting out of Tough Mudder events. Part of what he concluded is that the intense anticipation—Oh, man, this is gonna suck!—can actually be quite pleasurable. Same goes with the stories that you tell after the event, even if you have a miserable time. Having extreme tales to share with friends—there's a lot of value in that.

Your Outside feature uncovered some controversial details about the origin of Tough Mudder, as well as the nasty marketing battles between obstacle racing brands. Are the people behind these races willing to cooperate with you?
Yes—for the most part. The obstacle-racing community has been very supportive. I've gotten tons of emails from racers telling me why they love obstacle racing, and organizers offering footage. Surprising enough, Tough Mudder has even come around. They're being good sports. I think they realize that this isn't a hit piece so much as much as a celebration of a culture that they've played a huge role in creating.

Do you think race organizers and participants will be happy with a film that tries to explain the psychology of a sport that seems crazy?
Definitely. I suspect the phenomenon is symptomatic a world gone awry. And these events offer one possible antidote. If anything, I think this film will extend obstacle racing's reach.

What's your dream scenario for your project?
That on December 8, we're fully funded. At that point I can finally stop campaigning and get back to what I really love: researching, writing, and storytelling. After that, I'm not sure. I haven't thought much about how to monetize the film, which is why I went to Kickstarter instead of making pitches to big investors. I'm really curious to see how things go for Spark: A Burning Man Story. They are taking that film directly to consumers. Maybe we take Rise of the Sufferfests on tour next year alongside obstacle races, sharing the story with the community. We could hold screenings the night before and after events. But I do believe this is a big film that a lot of people will respond to, even if they don't know anything about obstacle racing.

Does investigating obstacle races make you want to enter more of them—or never race again?
Ha! Well, I will say the film has been a convenient excuse to go to the events but not run because I can say I'm working. But I do want to challenge myself again. I've committed to a Spartan Sprint in December, then Tough Guy at the end of January. I don't miss the suffering as much as the afterglow—that feeling you get at the finish line. 

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