Men's Journal

Humans Actually Love to Suffer, Which May be Why Ultra-Endurance Events are Booming

 Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Several hours into the 2008 Bridger Ridge Run along the Bridger Range in Montana, Dave Essinger sat in the middle of the trail. He was dehydrated. His calf cramped, and his ankle swelled after having twisted it three hours earlier. The 20-mile race near Bozeman is billed as one of the most technical trail races in the United States and, at the time, Essinger’s running experience consisted of miles logged on the flat terrain of his native Ohio. He wondered to himself, “Is this fun?”

The experience in Montana wasn’t the associate professor at the University of Findlay’s only painful ultra-running experience. During one of his first 100-milers, his vision was so impaired that he relied on the voices of fellow runners to guide him through the night. Last year, he cut his knee so severely at the Stone Steps 50K in Cincinnati that you could see his patella. Yet, in both cases, he trudged on and crossed the finish line. He even explores the idea of pushing the body’s limits in how new novel, Running Out.

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There’s something about facing a difficult, and often painful, physical challenge and pushing through to the other side, says Essinger. “It’s part of the allure, finding out what your body will do and what it won’t do. And every couple of years you wonder, ‘Can I still do it?’” he says.

Essinger isn’t the only one drawn to athletic sufferfests that make marathons and triathlons look tame. In recent years, more people are flocking to ultra marathons, long-distance relay events, and obstacle course races. Between 2006 and 2016, ultra running races have increased from 369 to 1,473 events in the US and Canada, a 299 percent growth. Since 2010, more than 2.5 million people have participated in more than 150 Tough Mudder events. In 2017, XTERRA will have hosted more than 200 off-road triathlons and trail running races.

In a society where we spend billions to alleviate pain ($88 billion on back and neck pain alone!), why do we spend money and leisure time on events that leave us battered, bruised, and potentially injured?

It turns out humans are innately attracted to physical suffering. But could this explain the boom in ultra-endurance and extreme events?