Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are becoming more and more popular in Asia, but – to the more sedentary among us at least – their appeal might not be immediately obvious.
Tough Mudder, for example, is a particularly gruelling challenge that involves a series of approximately 25 military-style obstacles to overcome in half a day: wading through torrents of mud, plunging seven feet into freezing water and even crawling through 10,000 volts of electrified wires. Injuries have included spinal damage, strokes, heart attacks and even death.
Yet, rather than being discouraged by the company’s warnings of potential injury, the promise of intense pain or even the hefty entrance fee (starting at around US$140), more than 2.5 million men and women worldwide had entered the challenge as of autumn 2016.
Industry experts predict that the obstacle course race industry, comprising other races like Warrior Dash, will reach US$1 billion.
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The Spartan Race made its way to Hong Kong last year, drawing thousands of competitors and will return in April. Tough Mudder will debut in Beijing and Shanghai this year.
It is an odd phenomenon, that people are willing to pay – and a lot too – for a great deal of pain and duress; and by post-challenge reviews on social media, participants seem to be enjoying the experience.
In an effort to explain this phenomenon, researchers took on three different roles – spectator, volunteer and a participant – to provide an understanding of the Tough Mudder experience. The research also took into account photos and videos captured using a GoPro camera during the event, pre- and post-event interviews and material posted on social media.
The findings were consistent with previous research that these experiences engage the senses, provide an escape from the everyday, and help humans to develop a tribal link. But beyond these areas of successful experiential marketing, three other dimensions suggest that participants use pain as a particular form of escape.
Firstly, these games are a reaction to the disappearing of the body from everyday life. The modern man is more likely to be found in front of his computer or on one of his devices. Our bodies are no longer used to labouring for a living or fighting to protect what is dear.
By contrast, the pain elicited by the obstacle courses brings the body into sharp focus, allowing individuals to rediscover their corporeality. How often have you heard the expression, “I am hurting in parts I didn’t even know I had”, but said with such pride? The unpleasantness of pain and cold forces participants to focus on parts of their bodies they rarely pay attention to. The body becomes the object of attention and everything else becomes background.
In a painful experience like Tough Mudder, the body is thus experienced as a new presence. If pain and blood and spasms validate our now-regained body, then the scars and keloids and wounds are the trophies that certify that we and our bodies are still alive.
Secondly, pain becomes meaningful and gains significance through an intricate process of ritualisation and dramatisation. The clear plot of Tough Mudder is evoked in the question addressed to potential participants: “Are you tough enough for Tough Mudder?” The course takes participants through a process of transformation to achieve rebirth.
The final dramatic Electro-Shock Therapy perhaps best illustrates this. Participants are jolted by 10,000 volts to provoke extreme pain before they emerge into a puddle of mud to the cheers of all around. They then receive the ritual artefact of the orange headband, similar to a rite of passage where the pain is not punitive but transforming.
Indeed, there are references to the idea of rebirth in the event’s promotional materials. Tough Mudder primarily targets white-collar professionals who live in a state of physical malaise and seek to find rejuvenation in the challenges. Its founder Will Dean even compares the event to a “kind of muddy baptism”.
Finally, there is what happens in the aftermath of the event. It is significant that afterwards, participants not only feel the pain of sore muscles but also expend significant resources in narrating their pain, using pictures of wounds and scars to share their experience with others. On social media and in their everyday life, participants proudly display the symbols of having finished the event, using the experience of overcoming pain as a particular “achievement”. The narrative is crafted as one where they have explored a new dimension of their humanity through their body and thus have lived a little more.
Importantly, besides being a story that participants tell others, it is also a story that they tell themselves. Even as participants return to work, the sense of achievement from having overcome their own physical limits serves as powerful evidence that they have lived a life filled with worthy experiences, and that their life is fuller and richer as a result.
What the obstacle challenge market has done is cleverly sell the idea of importance, need and fulfilment in connecting with our bodies. The idea is not sold as just an experience but as one leading to the resurrection of the body, a rebirth of the self, as well as the possibility to tell the story of a life spent exploring the limits of the body. The proof of that – participants aren’t just checking Tough Mudder off a bucket list. Once they have earned the coveted orange headband, they return to earn a headband of another colour that signals their veteran status, or they move on to other races.
Julien Cayla is assistant professor of marketing at Nanyang Business School, NTU, and a fellow at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight