Buying Pain: Why do people pay to get hurt?

Tough Mudder is an adventure challenge involving a series of approximately 25 military-style obstacles that participants have to overcome in half a day: running through torrents of mud, plunging into freezing water and even crawling through 10,000 volts of electric wires. Injuries have included spinal damage, strokes, heart attacks, and even death

However, people seem to love the promise of pain. Rather than being discouraged by the company’s warnings of potential injury, the promise of hurt or even the hefty entrance fee (around $150 these days), over 1.3 million men and women have to date entered the challenge. Tough Mudder made about 100 millions dollars of revenues last year (compared to $2 million in 2010) and the obstacle racing industry is about a half billion dollars business as of 2015 with double digit growth.

How do we make sense of such a success? With Rebecca Scott and Bernard Cova we conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork to try and explain this phenomenon. Our findings highlight three main dimensions, beyond the tribal link that Bernard Cova already talks about.

First, Tough Mudder is a response to the disappearing of the body. Paul Virilio calls our society a sitting civilization. Our bodies have become ways to sit in front of a computer. The people we interviewed expressed a physical and existential malaise about the way they have come to use (or rather not use) their body.

Second, Tough Mudder is, in this context, a ritual of regeneration of the body. If the body is disappearing, if we are using our bodies les and less, then Tough Mudder can be seen as a well-orchestrated ritual of bodily regeneration, where people come to reconnect with their bodies, partly through pain.

Third, Though Mudder symbolizes and expresses what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls our desire to live a fulfilled life. He writes that:

“a life that is rich with experiences and developed capacities…. This idea no longer supposes a “higher life” waiting for us after death, but rather consists in realizing as many options as possible from the vast possibilities the world has to offer. To taste life in all its heights and depths and in its full complexity becomes a central aspiration of modern man”

Consistent with this, Tough Mudder allows participants to craft the narrative of a fulfilled life through their body. As evidence of this, twitter is teeming with pictures of Mudders taking and posting pictures of their wounds.
Overall, what this research tells us, is that market actors have become instrumental in selling us our bodies back, bodies that have become less central to economic life, yet remain central to our existence and our sense of being human.

References:

Rosa, Hartmut (2010), Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality, Vol. 3, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Rosa, Hartmut(2013), Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

Virilio, Paul (1976), Essai Sur L’insécurité Du Territoire, Paris: Stock.

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