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As Clear As Mud

CrossFit, Tough Mudders, and the rise of social-physical challenges

If I told you that next weekend, a group of friends are getting together to participate in a fun event that merges our common physical and social goals, would you be willing to pay the affordable entrance fee to join us? Your decision to participate will indicate just how normalized you are. If you say yes, it will prove that you are interested in celebrating your physical health while providing us with a social context in which to achieve all of our inherent human goals together. Like most healthful activities, the event will wag a carrot in front of your face with the promise of turning you into a better person by achieving a seemingly arbitrary goal. Afterward, we can go to a local chain restaurant and have a cold beer, because we worked off so many calories.

The rise of CrossFit, Tough Mudders, Color Runs, and other fringe regional social-physical events has brought us to an interesting place in the evolution of exercise commerce. These events have risen to widespread popularity as the last stand for physical fitness and the fight against an impending obesity epidemic. Social-physical events tap into our social drive by creating community events that present exercise challenges that aren’t quite as insane as running 26.2 miles or ingesting gallon containers of whey protein and spending six hours per day at the gym lifting free weights. Instead, each of these social-physical events seem to be connected by branding buzzwords like “community,” “team,” and “more than just [previous outdated exercise trend].” They all claim to inherently develop complete physiological health better than any other form of exercise ever created.


We’ve all probably overheard someone say, “CrossFit kicked my ass last night.” For the longest time, I just assumed it was some sort of post-Zumba phenomenon taking place at 5:30 p.m. gym classes across the country. In fact, CrossFit is an attempt to collapse the monotony of cardiovascular machine culture and the simplistic vanity of weightlifting culture. Exercise can make some people feel alone without a gym buddy to share a routine, but CrossFit gives participants a diverse range of exercises that strains and trains the body in a noncompetitive team context. The underlying pitch of the social-physical exercise activities is that standard exercise doesn’t actually fulfill your physical human needs. Gliding on your elliptical or even jogging on a track reduces participants to hamsters on the proverbial wheel. Instead, we should be preparing for a Red Dawn–like existence after the nuclear fallout of World War III while also working on the same “team-building” skills that our employers attempt to facilitate.

Why are these events attempting to evolve past the lone wolf nature of exercise? I thought the iPods, earbud headphones, and televisions attached to cardio machines were supposed to make exercise easier, allowing us to remain connected to “the world.” Those “dedicated to health and fitness” typically pay a monthly fee for a gym membership, which essentially means that they are renting the use of weight machines, cardio machines, and miscellaneous amenities that “add value” to a consumer’s workout. A CrossFit franchise owner is attempting to break the business model of the nationally franchised everything-gym. They will tell you that you are wasting your money. CrossFit pop-up gyms seem to be taking advantage of a business model that requires a low investment in infrastructure or equipment insurance. Clients can pay per session for a more personalized experience rather than feel like they are wasting their money on largely unused, impersonal gym memberships.


Tough Mudder is the bro-est common denominator of social-physical events. It is a 12-mile obstacle course that was designed by British Special Forces aimed at challenging your “strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie.” It allows the participant to justify wearing Under Armour for the first time since the end of their high school sports career and compete in a physical challenge while negotiating the muddiest obstacles on earth. The informational page on the Tough Mudder website takes the time to dis marathons for not developing your upper-body strength and boasts about the humor in an obstacle called “Just the Tip.” At the conclusion of the event, you are rewarded with not only the “fulfillment” of completing something that has left you covered in mud, but also a cold beer.

Social-physical events prey on the notion of “camaraderie,” tapping into a pyramid-scheme effect for marketing purposes and allowing participants to bring an audience to witness their physical strength and endurance. It is as if a mass quantity of people doing P90X in their homes decided to band together, emerging from the darkness of their deep personal commitment to health and culture to get dirty in public. Our tendency to broadcast every trivial life event makes exercising by ourselves somewhat pointless. If a bro exercises alone in a muddy field, does anyone know how hard he tore it up?

Crossfit One of the less-explored themes of sportswriting is our nostalgic connection to youth sports and how it forges a collective misunderstanding of the relationship between sports and fitness. We glorify our experiences in competition and overestimate our skill and knowledge of the sports we played. Our memories on the field are pure and genuine, but for some reason we keep those memories alive by “caring” about sports as if our experience were anything more than a healthful physical and social activity for a developing young adult. Eventually we were weeded out and the purpose of exercise got a little bit murky. Recapturing lost feelings of camaraderie, physical purpose, and a competitive context can be achieved through participation in social-physical events.


Color Runs are the lowest common denominator of social-physical events. They remind me of a music festival crowd, only instead of lazily lounging in a field, the attendees run through a field while getting sprayed with colorful, nontoxic paints. The events seem to highlight inclusivity due to a relatively easy physical task, mainly providing an opportunity for a group photo in which you and all your friends are covered in paint. It has identified itself as the “Happiest 5K on the Planet” and flaunts its “healthiness, happiness and individuality.” It looks like the type of event that appeals to the pseudo-active young-adult market that is incentivized to attend an event if it facilitates a default Facebook photo opportunity.

The format for Color Runs and Tough Mudders encourages a temporary disconnection from 24/7 wireless connectivity. Unless you need to take selfies of yourself covered in paint or mud, just wait until after the event to use your smartphone. Social-physical activities encourage attendees to commit to the spirit of healthful living by losing themselves in a branded experience. Social-physical event attendees remind me of people who are excessively into pub crawls. The act of “going to a bar” is actually a depressing experience in which you are encouraged to drink until you are no longer yourself. However, the “pub crawl” encourages people to wear silly costumes while they pay for drinks, and make an expected charitable donation to a philanthropic cause. The socially conscious pub crawl attempts to mask the purpose of a bar as a place that will serve you until you are excessively drunk.

Color Runs and Tough Mudders are interesting business cases because the entrance fees include a donation to different charities. This attachment of a philanthropic goal to physical challenges isn’t anything new, and of course I wouldn’t demean an event that raises money for charity. But in a weird way it negates the idea of anyone’s genuine interest in health and exercise, making marathons, charity walks, and modern social-physical events all inherently flawed. The widespread promotion of physical health can be achieved only when it is packaged like a branded cult, a frat party, or a music festival with colored paint. Why have we been trained to think that we always have to be a part of something bigger than ourselves? I used to think the guy who brought his iPad to the gym to watch Netflix on the stationary bike was being resourceful. Turns out he was merely wasting his time and energy, and become something less than human.


In the popular film Anchorman, the lead character Ron Burgundy is forced to tell his news team that he can’t attend a Saturday-morning pancake breakfast. Instead, he is trying the new fad of “jogging” for the first time. As Burgundy understands it, “Apparently, you just run … for an extended period of time.” This dated reference remains a memorable line, resonating because it illustrates our desire to rebrand and recontextualize physical activity. The social-physical phenomenon is, like all phenomena, in line with society’s current definition of our natural human needs. We need color, mud, and CrossFit. For now.