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.
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?
1 of 3
The Threshold of Pain
Physiologically, pain plays a very specific, and necessary, role in our lives. It tells us what’s safe and not safe, protecting us from noxious or dangerous stimuli that we may encounter. In the past, humans regularly rubbed up against uncomfortable conditions. We used to hunt, lift, and run as part of our daily lives. Suffering has also long been part of rites of passage ceremonies, which intentionally tests the physical (and mental) limits of an individual. It signified your transition to adulthood.
However, as we’ve moved to a knowledge economy and away from physical labor, there’s less friction in our everyday lives. We have air conditioning, instantaneous communication, and Uber, as well as Costco and Amazon to meet all of our material needs. We do less with our bodies and work more with our minds.
As a result, we’re left with few outlets to test and challenge our bodies. “Long ago, you’d go out and slay a buffalo or hallucinate in the mesa and that was the test of manhood,” Essinger says. “We don’t have many things that are extremely challenging and where there’s a real possibility of failure.”
“We’re naturally programmed to run across the plain, scanning for danger before we get our food. We’re not programmed to sit on our bums,” says Rebecca Scott, lecturer at the University of Cardiff School of Business. “Our natural sitting and resting position is a flat-footed squat like a yogi squat. But it’s a part of our culture that’s been forgotten.”
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images
2 of 3
The Pursuit of Pain
New research from the University of Cardiff led by Scott, Julien Cayla, assistant professor at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, and Bernard Cova from Kedge Business School at the University of Marseille in France, took a close look at Tough Mudder participants, primarily desk-bound men and women in their prime, to understand why they were attracted to this grueling event. They found that we’re actually drawn to pain.
When you ask people why they participate in endurance events or extreme events, most people will say they want to challenge themselves. Races like ultras and obstacle course racing provide a temporary and relatively safe venue for suffering, and pain is a key part processing exactly where those limits are. “Pain helps people discover that the body is still full of possibilities,” Scott says. “It helps them understand their boundaries. Oftentimes, those boundaries are more expansive than they give themselves credit for,” leaving them with a sense of euphoric possibility.
“It’s like being a superhero outside of the office,” says Angela Fifer, Ph.D., certified mental performance consultant and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
For Essinger, part of the draw of 100-mile races is the real possibility of failure. “It’s not like a local 5K where you get a medal either way. If you drop out or cross the finish line after the cut-off time, you don’t get a thing except for the pain,” he says. Plus, road racing has become predictable, he says. “In a trail ultra, the only thing you can count on is something going wrong that you didn’t plan for,” he says. “You can’t go crazy planning. You have to let go and relax and deal with it when it happens.”
Credit: Dan Istitene/Getty Images