Rise Of The Sufferfests, And Are You Paying For Pain?
If you are reading this blog, then probably.
According to the film’s fundraising site, “Rise of the Sufferfests is a feature documentary that explores the history of obstacle racing, the psychology behind it and most importantly, what it says about the world we’re living in. I’ve assembled a team of excessively bright minds to help shed light on the phenomenon: behavioral scientists, biologists, bestselling authors, psychologists, sociologists and such. And of course, I’ll introduce you to some of the athletes and industry insiders that help tell the story of this new generation of mud-loving masochists.”
Although I have heard about the upcoming documentary before, Scott and I first met at the afterparty in Vermont. What follows is a recent chat that we’ve had about obstacle racing, Burning Man, and all things painful.
interview with Scott Keneally
With the documentary in the works, you have increasingly been the interviewee rather than the interviewer. How does that feel? Which side do you prefer?
I don’t mind getting interviewed about the documentary, as it means that the word is getting out. In fact, more of that would be great. Although I do prefer interviewing others. I’m sick of my own stories – I’d rather tell other people’s.
Your wife suggested you’d do anything, even shave your head to ensure this film is made.
Did you get a haircut yet?
Why is it important that this film is made?
I think the fact that so many people are suddenly entering this space and suffering through these obstacles says something about our culture. We are disconnected from our fellow men. It’s a symptom of world gone awry. We need these experiences to feel alive. We outsourced everything from farming to chopping wood, to most manufacturing to other countries. Most of us sit in a cubicle on our asses all day long. We send off emails, but do not have a sense of actually accomplishing anything. Once you complete an obstacle race, you have your Spartan medal or orange headband. It feels like a real achievement. Because it is.
Some said that the sport of obstacle racing is contrived. We erect man-made obstacles, and then run around, getting over them. What do YOU think?
But what sport isn’t contrived? Maybe apart from just running. Think about football! You need a helmet, pads, all the things to make this game sustainable and safe. If anything, obstacle racing is one of the least contrived sports out there. This is what we were designed to do – crawl, scramble, climb, run and jump. They are manmade obstacles, sure, but at the very essence of it, this is what we were made for.
In psychology, we sometimes say that research is me-search. Is that the case for you? Do you like to suffer?
I don’t particularly like to suffer. I love having suffered. It’s like writing. Writing is suffering. But I love having written. It’s about the the experience you have at the finish. For example, I recently DNFed a Malibu Sprint. Now I can run a half marathon, but… I did not train adequately. I didn’t have breakfast. And I ran with elites. I’ve never done a rope climb before, and after getting to be three inches from the bell, I fell into the water. Burpees killed me. I was super freaking miserable. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Loathing my life. But now I have a story to tell. .
Your writing is very experiential. You’ve injected Botox into yourself, and attempted the Master Cleanse – all for a good story. Is that what obstacle racing for you? Is it just a way you do research for this particular project?
Well, one of my favorite writers is A.J. Jacobs[Solo’s sidenote: A.J. Jacobs is a journalist best known for writing about his lifestyle experiments]. I’m actually really happy we are going to have him in the film.
This started as a one off. I wanted to write a story about myself getting off the couch and completing Tough Mudder. While researching the company, I uncovered a bitter lawsuit between Tough Guy and Tough Mudder, and spent a year doing the story for Outside. It was a great experience, but it was a business story. And I have now experienced the humanity of this community. I want to tell their story and share their experiences.
You’ve mentioned that Too Much Information is not in your toolkit. Is there anything you wouldn’t talk about?
God, no. Although there are storylines I want to steer clear of – mostly regarding ethics and politics of the sport. While I may have deep concerns about the integrity of some individuals and companies within the industry, that’s not the movie I want to make. I want to celebrate this culture. This community.
Who is Mr. Mouse?
Mr. Mouse is the mastermind behind the obstacle racing industry. A visionary, who feels there is higher purpose. He wasn’t able to monetize it effectively, but money was never his top priority.
You quoted Mr. Mouse saying, “I’m a provider. A provider of fear. “ What are you a provider of?
I want to be a provider of a broad compelling story that describes the obstacle racing community and creates role models along the way.
Have you met any role models along the way?
Absolutely. James Appleton, for one. The thread count on his moral fiber is through the roof. Amelia Boone is someone young girls should know about and aspire to become. These people are focused. Honorable. Living life with integrity. These are the people the world is missing, thanks to the Kardashians and the like.
If you had to design an obstacle, what would it be?
Well, Electroshock Therapy has come under a bunch of heat lately, as its safety has been called into question. But I really appreciate this obstacle. It’s mostly psychological. Once you complete it, you have a real freaking story. I am drawn to psychological obstacles. Maybe, if there was a bunker blaring Metallica? Like in an interrogation setting overseas – busting out your eardrums. That would be a cool obstacle.
I’m thinking something like this:
Now what if you really like Metallica? I suggest that racers are questioned about their favorite music, so the obstacle can play something completely opposite. Wise Google suggests that the opposite of Metallica would be Justin Bieber or Madonna. Yes, I can see how an obstacle like that could be incredibly painful. In fact, that may, indeed, lead to my first DNF.
The most popular obstacle race distance is still 5-10 miles. Do you think events like Spartan Sprint and Tough Mudder and events like Spartan Death Race and the World’s Toughest Mudder attract different crowds?
Definitely. The Death Race and WTM definitely attract a different crowd than vast majority of Tough Mudders. A Spartan Sprint, for example, draws out those with more competitive drive – just look at the Spartan elites. Timing element is what’s different. People who are more competitive are drawn to the Spartan Race. Tough Mudder is often a gateway to Spartan Race or other judged and ranked events.
Both you and I were at the Burning Man this year. I’ve said before that Burning Man is like Halloween meets gay pride meets a rave. Do you see any parallels between what attracts people to Burning Man and what attracts people to obstacle racing?
Absolutely. Burning Man is a sufferfest in itself. You are hot, you are cold. There is playa dust everywhere. It is not a vacation. Rather, it is suffering through the elements in a different way. I think both Burning Man and obstacle racing point our need for the shared communal experience in today’s digital age. And both experiences are what you make of them. For many it’s an eye opening experience. It can also be a springboard to a new direction in their lives.
New Year’s Resolutions – yay or nay? You’re gonna give the Master Cleanse another shot?
In 2014, I plan to Spartan the fuck up. Recalibrate my relationship with my iPhone and go to airplane mode as much as possible. I am very cognizant of being present, and it’s hard to be present with yourself, when we fill up every moment with information. I strive to not be elsewhere. To be centered.
I am a book junkie. Can you share one book that has changed your life and one book that you recently read?
“Me Talk Pretty” by David Sidaris. It was probably the first time I realized that it is possible to make a living doing what I was already doing – writing about life.
The new Indiegogo campaign is ending in 7 days. What’s next?
Our stretch goal is to raise $25,000 to travel to Tough Guy UK and start filming. I would love to interview a bunch of people for this project – like Malcolm Gladwell, for example. I think our current approach is a more realistic approach than the one we have taken in the past – trying to raise the whole amount up front.
And last question – what do you want to be when you grow up?
This. What I’m doing now. But maybe with a bit more financial stability [chuckles].
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“The Rise of the Sufferfests” is the film that I want to see made. I hope you do too. With 7 days left to the end of the campaign, Scott is trying to reach his stretch goal of $25,000.