Fitness Flick Comes to Concord

Catch Rise of the Sufferfests before running in one
courtesy of scott keneally
Camera in hand, director Scott Keneally takes on Tough Mudder in his quest to answer the burning question: Why?

You've probably seen it on your Facebook feed. Intrepid athletes — some mega-fit, some looking much like the girl or guy next door — trekking through mud, under barbed wire, and over climbing walls in competitions with names like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. Maybe you've seen the more extreme versions on TV in shows like "America Ninja Warrior." Maybe you've even put on your war paint and tried one yourself. Known as obstacle course racing (OCR), this style of endurance event is one of the biggest trends in fitness today, prompting one even bigger question: Why? 

Journalist turned filmmaker Scott Keneally sought to answer that question in his new documentary, "Rise of the Sufferfests." The film (whose producer, Brendan Harty, hails from the Granite State) is the latest byproduct of a journey that started as a humor story. Keneally tried Tough Mudder for the first time to write a laugh-heavy essay about it, but he soon fell in love with the sport. Now a self-professed "fanboy" of OCR, Keneally is both the sport's lead researcher and a regular participant. An expose for Outside magazine followed his initial essay, and, before long, the documentary was born.

The film explores what the meteoric rise of these events — OCR is projected to have 5 million practitioners in 2016 — can tell us about society.

"There's clearly something missing in our lives," Keneally says. "We've created a world where we don't use our hands."

Could brutal races run through tear gas and military-grade obstacles be a response to this sedentary culture? Are they an antidote to the isolation fostered by technology? The documentary, through footage of OCR events and interviews with experts including Morgan Spurlock and Hanna Rosin, addresses all of these possibilities and more. Though the film may be of particular interest to those who've run races like Tough Mudder, Keneally insists it's not a niche piece.

"I'm trying to speak directly to the vast majority of people who look at us and think we're crazy," Keneally says. Most people who come to the film thinking they'd never try an OCR event, he claims, leave the theater thinking that they will.

And, this month, you have the opportunity to become one of those converts. Tough Mudder chose the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the venue for their northeast region race this year, and the "Rise of the Sufferfests" crew has scheduled a local screening to accompany the event. The production team has paired most of its screenings with OCR events, with showing scheduled to accompany both the Spartan World Championship and the World's Toughest Mudder this fall. But, with the local ties of crew members like Harty and the proximity to Keneally's alma mater, Boston College, the New Hampshire screening is particularly special to the team.

The screening is scheduled for August 12 at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. Whether you'd never dream of trying a Tough Mudder or you're signed up for the Loudon iteration the very next day, this one-night-only film event is one you shouldn't miss. You'll get a unique glimpse into the 21st-century psyche — and you might even develop a new dream of swimming through a muddy ice bath.