Over the past several years, obstacle course racing has turned from niche market to billion-dollar industry. Led by marquee brands like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, these weekend events have attracted people of all walks of life. In Rise Of The Sufferfests, Scott Keneally takes an investigative approach to the phenomenon, endearingly documenting his own relationship with the various races, while navigating the sport’s muddy past, present, and future. The film is packed with interesting information, benefitting from talking-head interviews with the likes of Morgan Spurlock and Tim Ferriss. But the most intriguing conversations are with the founders of the main three races discussed, Will Dean of Tough Mudder, Joe De Sena of Spartan Race and Billy Wilson, aka Mr. Mouse of Tough Guy. Here are five things we learned from the doc.
1. Competitive Obstacle Course Racing comes from humble beginnings.
The documentary gives a lot of time to one of the first obstacle racing pioneers, Billy Wilson, who has long staged an annual race called the Tough Guy Competition on his 600-acre farm in Staffordshire, England. In the beginning, the course relied solely on the naturally rugged terrain, but before long Wilson, a legendary eccentric nicknamed “Madman of The Midlands,” started to increase the pain payout. This was in addition to the formidable challenge provided by the weather, with temperatures reaching below freezing, with many participants contracting hypothermia. He stirred up some controversy in 1999 when he created a section where racers dashed through electric wires, causing many to fall with the shocks. “Nobody trusted that we weren’t going to kill them,” says Wilson in the film. Despite his claim on the industry, Keneally observes that Wilson’s old world ways, like sending paper fliers out — rather than building up Facebook pages — may have prevented him from hitting the level of success that other competitions have enjoyed.
2. Obstacle Course Racing made it big by marketing to narcissists.
How did obstacle course race hit critical mass? The narcissism of your Facebook feed, naturally. Competitions like Tough Mudder hired professional photographers to capture the participants in action, and then handed out the photos for free, to make all their friends jealous. “It was the most genius thing ever,” observes Morgan Spurlock during his interview. “We’re just going to give you the pictures. Put them out. It was the greatest self promotion ever.” Tough Mudder founder Will Dean puts it this way: “Material things don’t always appreciate in value, but people understand that memories, and not just experiences, do,” he says. “I believe that Tough Mudder is about giving people those experiences that will last forever.” All while showing your Facebook friends that you’re more hardcore than they are.
3. The rivalry between Tough Mudder and Spartan Race has mellowed.
Those who have watched the obstacle course racing culture from afar may not know the difference between Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, but their respective founders couldn’t be more different. “Every day I wake up just out of spite for the guy,” Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena was once quoted when discussing Tough Mudder founder Will Dean. That statement was born out of the differing philosophies of their respective companies, with De Sena wanting to keep obstacle courses competitive — bringing races the Olympic games through a ranking system, and Dean more interested in building an all-inclusive community. Through his interviews, though, Keneally reveals that since the date of those fiery statements the hatchet has been figuratively buried. “Is there an auto industry? Yes. Does that mean that Porsche competes with the Chrysler minivan? Not really,” says Dean. “I think that’s how we are. Tough Mudder is doing something very different. I don’t think any one company can be all things to all men.”
4. The risks are real.
Keneally enlists ER doctor Marna Greenberg to give her opinion on the risks of these races: It is less than positive. She recalls a woman who was suffering from kidney failure, who was handed a beer instead of given medical care at a Tough Mudder. Dean defends the safety of his and, in turn, other operations. “Is it supposed to be scary? Yes, but scary and dangerous aren’t the same thing,” he says. In any case, there is a reason that you have to sign a waiver when you enter Tough Mudder, and why Wilson has a similar, yet more threatening, document called the “Tough Guy Death Warrant.” Not even the top contenders at these competitions are immune to the affects on the body. James Appleton, who took top prize at Tough Guy in 2009, did so crossing the finish line with Stage 3 Hypothermia. During a similar battle with the shakes after a more recent Tough Guy that Keneally captures on camera, Appleton is questioned why he subjects himself to the race. “I honestly don’t know anymore,” he ponders.
5. So are the benefits.
Despite the hardships that are seen on the course, many of the experts observe that there is a definite psychological need for the physical challenges in obstacle course racing. “One of the funny things about everyday life in affluent countries is that it is very unclear whether we got anything done on any given day,” says author Michael Norton in his interview. “Because we spend our days sending emails and typing.” Keneally doesn’t only question academics, though, chasing down Laird Hamilton for his two cents. “If someone who lives a very sedentary life is able to put themselves into something they believe they are incapable of and survive, I think that is a great thing,” Hamilton says. “Everybody wants to go to sleep at night feeling like, ‘Wow, I did that. I made it. I can’t believe I did that.’”
To see Rise of the Sufferfests, visit riseofthesufferfests.com.