Endurance obstacle racing has become a global phenomenon over the last few years. Why? What is the appeal of a leisure activity that virtually comes with a guarantee of injury and a real risk of death, and what does its popularity say about us as individuals and about modern society in general?
What's your idea of a fun day out? What about a spot of “blood sweat and fear”? Swimming through a pool of ice? Crawling through tunnels so narrow you cannot use your legs and have to pull yourself along by your arms, only to emerge into a tangle of barbed wire? Sprinting through a tangle of live wires, some of which deliver shocks of up to 10,000 volts? Jumping over burning bales of hay? Crawling over a layer of ice with live electric wires overhead, subjecting yourself to electric shocks if you raise your head or try to crawl on your knees? Oh, and all of this involves mud. Huge quantities of mud.
Companies such as Tough Mudders and Warrior Dash have been marketing obstacle races including these sorts of challenges for about three years now, and their popularity has been astonishing. They pride themselves on the fact that around 30% of competitors don't make it through the entire race. You are encouraged to sign up for the toughest mental and physical challenges of your life that will change you forever. Oh, and in very small writing there's mention of the fact that it'll be fun. FUN?!
On the surface, it's hard to see why endurance obstacle racing has become so popular over these last three years. Modern industrialised societies are largely built on principles of comfort and luxury. We enjoy unparalleled amounts of leisure time, most of us spend both our working hours and our free time sitting down, and we are surrounded by an abundance of food. Why would we swap that for a leisure activity that is marketed on the principle of pain and discomfort?
And why, in these times of health and safety tyranny, when even primary school children have to don hard hats and conduct risk assessments before embarking on a trip to the local nature reserve, and when we wear surgical stockings on long-haul flights to counteract the risk of thrombosis, why would any of us take the very real risk of injury and even death involved in endurance obstacle racing?
A natural high
At an individual level, the appeal of these sorts of challenges lies in the biological high they provide. It's the same rush experienced by any other sort of thrill-seeking, where the release of certain neurotransmitters can make you feel intensely alive. If long distance running or rock climbing aren't quite doing it for you anymore, putting your life in actual danger might just be the edge that you're looking for...
An antidote to modern living
Most of us spend most of our time with our minds elsewhere. Think about it. How much time do you spend actually engaged in what you're doing? Modern technology doesn't help us in this regard – how are we to keep our minds on any one thing when we are subjected to constant distractions in the form of texts, emails and Facebook updates? It's become second nature for most of us to switch on the television when we're at home or plug our headphones in when we're out and about. It's very rare to really experience life in the present moment. Whatever the risks involved, your mind certainly isn't elsewhere when you're crawling through live electric wires or swimming through ice.
A rebellion against the health and safety culture
People get injured doing endurance obstacle racing. Some die. This year, a 28 year-old man died during a Tough Mudder race in Virginia. A month previously, another man collapsed and died whilst competing at an Extreme Rampage event in Kentucky. Two years earlier, two men died after running in a Warrior Dash event. But these real risks don't put people off signing up – bizarrely, they seem to create an incentive. The advertising for endurance obstacle racing is all based around asking people whether they are tough enough to take on these challenges. This is real risk. Perhaps real risk is something we're all craving in these ultra-safe times?
Constructing an identity in the era of social networking
With the prevalence of social media, we have become extremely adept at creating elaborate public identities for ourselves. We construct facades to sell ourselves to others in a way. Participating in an endurance obstacle race is a fantastic way of adopting a tough guy image. It allows you to put yourself across as being fearless, unconventional, and unafraid of risk – almost superhuman. It is estimated that only about 20% of competitors actually train for these events. These aren't, by and large, serious athletes who are willing to put time, energy and commitment into training. They are people who are seeking an experience. An experience that will allow them to post pictures on their Facebook page to show what hard-core, soldier-type athletes they are.
Obstacle endurance racing: A damning indictment of modern life?
The whole phenomenon of obstacle endurance racing provides a very interesting magnifying glass through which to view our individual and group psychology. It's a bit chilling, when you think about it. Our lives have become so dull and meaningless that actively putting them in danger is now considered a fun day out. But even then, we're putting ourselves through pain and danger for the sake of the pictures we can post on Facebook afterwards. It's a weird world.