Scott argues that, in a way, Tough Mudders and other painful forms of exercise allow people to “rediscover” their physical bodies, as revealed in participant comments like, “I hurt in places I didn’t even know existed.” The study authors write:
Phenomenological rediscovery of the body offsets the physical malaise and corporeal absence they experience in their everyday life. Experience organizations like Tough Mudder are selling a ritualized shattering of the self that is especially attractive to the worn-out “cognitariat,” knowledge workers who are not only working jobs of limited physicality but also feel the burden of constant self-actualization.
Trying to get through a grueling obstacle course, in other words, can be a welcome respite from trying to write a sensitive email. Before Tough Mudders came along, psychologists observed this phenomenon of extreme escapism with binge drinking, binge eating, clubbing, and other weekend-warrior adventures. “People sometimes find it burdensome and aversive to be aware of themselves,” as psychologists Roy Baumeister and Todd Heatherton wrote in a study on binge eating, “so they seek to escape.” But because it’s difficult to simply stop dwelling on your work-related problems, it helps if there’s a greased quarter-pipe to distract you.
There are other ways to interpret the authors’ findings. Jana Costas, a professor at the European University Viadrina in Germany, said the participants might have simply craved extreme exercise because their work hours are also extreme. “Rather than simply regarding this turn as an escape from work, I believe it is the continuation of a certain ethos found in contemporary workplaces and capitalism at large, namely the need to prove and show one’s resilience, strength, drive, as well as ability to move out of the comfort zone, [and] challenge oneself,” she said in an email.
The irony, as Scott and her co-authors point out, is that even as white-collar workers pay for painful escapes like these, Americans with blue-collar backgrounds are dying from an epidemic of chronic pain. “In working-class contexts pain is often concealed for fear of exposing one’s weaknesses,” the authors write. “In contrast, our research features consumers who are willing to pay significant money for the pain that others simply cannot avoid.”
Scott’s work doesn’t explicitly come out against Tough Mudders and the like, but it does suggest that perhaps white-collar workers ought to rethink their tendency to bounce between extreme inactivity and the most extreme activities of all. Her work suggests sitting all day in a stultifying office can make people feel so dehumanized that, like the characters in Fight Club, they have to run a dangerous race just to feel alive again.
“We are part of a society that pushes comfort, comfort, comfort,” Scott said. “Everything in [a] pharmacy is meant to stop pain, whether it’s shoe insoles or itch creams. We’re saying that actually, that’s not necessarily a good thing. We have everything set up to make us so comfortable, and that almost numbs the body.”