Even if you’ve never participated in an obstacle-course event like a Tough Mudder, you’ve surely seen friends post smiling photos of their post-race selves, bruised and muddy and somehow still beaming at the camera. You “like” the photo when it surfaces on your Facebook newsfeed on Monday morning, and then you think, This weirdo paid good money for that, as you surreptitiously check your social media at your desk, between meetings. Why?
A paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research argues that these two unlike settings — the office and the obstacle course — are intertwined, and that obstacle course events like Tough Mudders wouldn’t be as popular as they have become without the tedium of daily cubicle life. “Knowledge workers,” that euphemistic term for “people who sit dumbly at a desk all day,” are exceedingly bored, the researchers argue, and spend their days feeling detached from their bodies. You know the feeling. Your mind is the real workhorse; your body is something you notice only when it requires care and feeding, thus interrupting your solid ten hours of sitting a day.
And it’s exactly that mind-body disconnect, with the persistent underlying ennui, that may at least in part be driving people to pursue the pain of extreme events like the Tough Mudder, a 10- to 12-mile long “military-style obstacle course.” For the uninitiated, it is worth considering for a moment what some of those obstacles are like, because they are, in a word, insane. There is Red Hot Blood Bath, in which runners “must eat a hot pepper and then jump into a pool of water dyed red.” There is the Arctic Enema, wherein so-called Mudders submerge themselves in a dumpster filled with freezing cold water. And then there is the infamous Electroshock Therapy, one of the final obstacles, which requires participants to “run, crawl and jump through 10,000-volt electric waters.” If it hurts, well, at least they feel … something.
The paper is based on a series of 26 in-depth interviews — each of which lasted between one and two hours — with Tough Mudder participants; the lead study author, Rebecca Scott of the U.K.’s Cardiff Business School, took it one step further, and participated as a spectator, a volunteer, and even as a Mudder herself. In those interviews, people repeatedly contrasted the time they devoted to the obstacle-course event with the time they spent sitting around; this was even true for people in professions that would seem as if they are not so sedentary. For example, a 27-year-old personal trainer named Dom told the researchers in his interview:
I spend a lot of time at home just sitting on my ass if I’m not up at the gym. There is something inside telling me to get up, get out more, meet new people as well.
A 25-year-old TV producer named Lisa echoed Dom’s drive to “get up” and “get out,” a motivator she sees as a direct contrast to her job:
With my job, it’s very sedentary, so it’s nice to feel I’m being challenged with a physical outdoors nature-based activity. It’s a bit different to working in an office.
Likewise, a nurse educator named Kara told the researchers that most of her day at work is spent sitting down.
I would probably spend 10 percent of my time in meetings, 50 percent of my time sitting in front of the computer screen … 10 percent planning activities in my office with the educators.
Everybody is bored. So, so bored.
Something like a Tough Mudder, in contrast, forces people awake; it’s hard for your mind to wander when you are in total physical agony. In that way, it shocks people into being in the moment. “Pain forces participants to be in the here and now of the experience,” Scott and her colleagues write. “There is an element of compulsion associated with pain in the way freezing legs demand immediate attention.” As one woman named Serena said:
I hurt in places I didn’t even know existed. It really does feel like I went through a human sized pin ball machine. It hurt lifting my coffee to my mouth. I’m glad all I ended up with was sore muscles and scrapes.
Maybe she’s exaggerating, but the phrasing she chose is still notable: She was feeling pain in “places she didn’t even know existed,” as if she were rediscovering her own body. Pain has a way of making Tough Mudder participants’ corporeal selves “reappear,” the researchers suggest, by compelling mind and body to become reacquainted. (Oh, there you are, body.) Scott, for instance, wrote this of her experience with the first obstacle, a run up a steep mountainside appropriately called the Death March:
The first obstacle, Death March, is a steep incline in the hot midday sun. I want to cry – one mile in and my body feels exhausted and limp in the heat. Each inhale is hot and dry. As I climb the track, the view of the course expands. Below me, to my panic, I see no shaded areas. I feel panicked. The heat is disorienting. Tears start to build up in my eyes I want to sob and I feel angry that Tough Mudder would run a course in the scorching desert without shade. I am running in an oven and it suffocates the energy and muster from my lungs. My breath is prickly in the heat and labored. My hands have expanded in the heat and the skin around my fingers feels tight. My pulse radiates from my swollen hands. I’m freaking out now.
And sometimes, the body takes over entirely, and tells the mind to shove off. The researchers note that many people described their body almost as if it were an alien presence, something that wasn’t exactly listening to their mental commands. One participant named Yushi described her experience with an obstacle called the Arctic Enema this way:
You jump into the vat of ice water, try not to hyperventilate as your body goes into shock, dive under the wall mid-way through the dumpster, make your way to the other end and attempt to climb out, while your limbs are CLEARLY not listening to what your brain is commanding them to do.
So perhaps this idea, of the “reappearance” of the body, can help explain why people do all manner of extreme sports: mountain climbing, river rafting, BASE jumping, ultramarathons, even regular old marathons. “Feeling the force of the river in rafting, the waves in surfing, or the ‘pain and discomfort in mountaineering’ can, at least partly, be explained as a reaction to the disappearing of our bodies into the comfort of our chairs,” Scott and her co-authors argue. It’s a paradoxical way of escaping yourself; the extreme focus on your body pulls yourself, for a time, out of your mind, stopping you from ruminating on yourself. In this way, the researchers draw connections to some less-outdoorsy ways of escaping your thoughts, referencing research on binge-drinking and clubbing as other ways people gravitate to in order to “annihilate the self.” People who use their minds all day, every day, are looking for ways to turn their thoughts off for one minute. At least the corporeal pain of a 10,000-volt electric shock is a temporary distraction from the pain-in-the-ass kind of pain of endless emails.