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.”Back to top