Even if you’ve never participated in an obstacle-course event like a Tough Mudder, you’ve surely seen friends post smiling photos of their post-race selves, bruised and muddy and somehow still beaming at the camera. You “like” the photo when it surfaces on your Facebook newsfeed on Monday morning, and then you think, This weirdo paid good money for that, as you surreptitiously check your social media at your desk, between meetings. Why?
A paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research argues that these two unlike settings — the office and the obstacle course — are intertwined, and that obstacle course events like Tough Mudders wouldn’t be as popular as they have become without the tedium of daily cubicle life. “Knowledge workers,” that euphemistic term for “people who sit dumbly at a desk all day,” are exceedingly bored, the researchers argue, and spend their days feeling detached from their bodies. You know the feeling. Your mind is the real workhorse; your body is something you notice only when it requires care and feeding, thus interrupting your solid ten hours of sitting a day.
And it’s exactly that mind-body disconnect, with the persistent underlying ennui, that may at least in part be driving people to pursue the pain of extreme events like the Tough Mudder, a 10- to 12-mile long “military-style obstacle course.” For the uninitiated, it is worth considering for a moment what some of those obstacles are like, because they are, in a word, insane. There is Red Hot Blood Bath, in which runners “must eat a hot pepper and then jump into a pool of water dyed red.” There is the Arctic Enema, wherein so-called Mudders submerge themselves in a dumpster filled with freezing cold water. And then there is the infamous Electroshock Therapy, one of the final obstacles, which requires participants to “run, crawl and jump through 10,000-volt electric waters.” If it hurts, well, at least they feel … something.
The paper is based on a series of 26 in-depth interviews — each of which lasted between one and two hours — with Tough Mudder participants; the lead study author, Rebecca Scott of the U.K.’s Cardiff Business School, took it one step further, and participated as a spectator, a volunteer, and even as a Mudder herself. In those interviews, people repeatedly contrasted the time they devoted to the obstacle-course event with the time they spent sitting around; this was even true for people in professions that would seem as if they are not so sedentary. For example, a 27-year-old personal trainer named Dom told the researchers in his interview:
I spend a lot of time at home just sitting on my ass if I’m not up at the gym. There is something inside telling me to get up, get out more, meet new people as well.
With my job, it’s very sedentary, so it’s nice to feel I’m being challenged with a physical outdoors nature-based activity. It’s a bit different to working in an office.
I would probably spend 10 percent of my time in meetings, 50 percent of my time sitting in front of the computer screen … 10 percent planning activities in my office with the educators.
Something like a Tough Mudder, in contrast, forces people awake; it’s hard for your mind to wander when you are in total physical agony. In that way, it shocks people into being in the moment. “Pain forces participants to be in the here and now of the experience,” Scott and her colleagues write. “There is an element of compulsion associated with pain in the way freezing legs demand immediate attention.” As one woman named Serena said:
I hurt in places I didn’t even know existed. It really does feel like I went through a human sized pin ball machine. It hurt lifting my coffee to my mouth. I’m glad all I ended up with was sore muscles and scrapes.
The first obstacle, Death March, is a steep incline in the hot midday sun. I want to cry – one mile in and my body feels exhausted and limp in the heat. Each inhale is hot and dry. As I climb the track, the view of the course expands. Below me, to my panic, I see no shaded areas. I feel panicked. The heat is disorienting. Tears start to build up in my eyes I want to sob and I feel angry that Tough Mudder would run a course in the scorching desert without shade. I am running in an oven and it suffocates the energy and muster from my lungs. My breath is prickly in the heat and labored. My hands have expanded in the heat and the skin around my fingers feels tight. My pulse radiates from my swollen hands. I’m freaking out now.
You jump into the vat of ice water, try not to hyperventilate as your body goes into shock, dive under the wall mid-way through the dumpster, make your way to the other end and attempt to climb out, while your limbs are CLEARLY not listening to what your brain is commanding them to do.
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