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Suffering for fun? Why do an OCR?

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Friday 1st September 2017
By Caroline Newton

Flicking through the flight entertainment offering on a recent long haul flight, I was delighted to spot a documentary with the intriguing title of “Rise of the Sufferfests”.  It was marketed as “the first feature documentary about the global obstacle course racing (OCR) phenomenon…exploring the history of the sport, psychology behind it, personalities that drive it, and most importantly, asks what it says about the world we’re living it”.  Wow – and I had thought OCRs were just an adult version of the obstacle course that had been a firm favourite on School Sports day.   This documentary promised so much more than a period drama with Kate Winslet.
Journalist Scott Keneally kicks off his investigation by going back to the ‘home of obstacle’ race, a cold wet field in Wolverhampton.  Yes – it is a British invention.  Who knew?  The Tough Guy was the brain child of an eccentric Brit (we breed the best) named Mr Mouse, an ex-soldier with a love for running and rescuing animals. In 1987, Mr Mouse launched the inaugural Tough Guy, which began as a cross country race with a few homemade obstacles and some hay bales. Dial forward a few years and the full ‘killing fields’ had been constructed, which included barbed wire, fire and a frozen lake – the race is held in January and hyperthermia appears to be a compulsory part of the experience. Cue clips of trembling blue people.
At this point of the film, I was starting to feel faintly alarmed.  A few weeks earlier, I had taken Run 247 editor Kirsty’ s offer up of a place on a Tough Mudder, to review the race from a “normal runner’s perspective”.   What had I let myself in for?
Having set the scene, Keneally goes on to talk to a host of people, from doctors of psychology to Race Directors, about the widespread appeal of these races.
First in the firing line is the rise of social media and the need to ‘brag’ about your weekend activities on Facebook.  I understand the argument.  Have I posted on Facebook about invigorating early morning runs and jumping into the Thames in January?  Absolutely.  I do have my reputation as a mild ‘nut job’ to uphold.  But do I feel the need to fall off monkey bars, get electrocuted and run over fire just to prove my bravado to my Facebook friends? Hell no. 
So how about the next theory – that modern life is too sanitised and too boring?  Having survived millennia being chased by lions and tigers and bears, we have got bored of sitting in our air conditioned offices and need to break free.  And I do get this one.  As an accountant for a global corporation, I quite often would happily run over burning coals than face another day of pointless meetings and endless emails.
Having watched this documentary, I now appreciate that there is so much more to OCR than just Tough Mudder and that there are some truly brutal races out there that will take you to the brink, if you need that level of challenge.  It is a truly compelling documentary and I have now downloaded it on and watched in a number of times.   I can heartily recommend it.
But for me, I think the documentary skims over a basic reason for the appeal of OCR.  People may actually be doing these races because they are fun.  Friends and acquaintances have described their experience using words such as “friendly”, “hilarious”, “great teamwork”.  I recently took my 10 year old son up to Rugby to run a ‘Mini Military’ mud run with his friend and they had a ball of a time. In fact, I’m not sure I saw a single child that didn’t have a massive grin on their very muddy faces by the end of the race.  In the interest of investigative journalism, I did ask them if it had been a brutal and life affirming experience.  Their response went along the lines of “well we ran a bit, climbed over things, got really muddy and it was awesome”. (See minimilitarymudrun.co.uk for more details)
So mainly I am looking forward to my first ever Tough Mudder as an opportunity to have a bit of fun in a whole lot of mud with my team mates.   Roll on 23rd Sep ….
Visit www.riseofthesufferfests.com for details on how you can buy the documentary (download, Amazon video, etc)

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