An Anthropological Analysis of the Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder
Cultural rituals always bewilder those on the outside. We should just accept that we can never understand some things in this world. But there is one cultural ritual in the world that astonishes me with its uselessness,ergo, tantalizing my desire to understand it:
Every weekend, thousands of men and women converge on the ritualistic space, usually an opened field that has been converted into an elaborately sadistic labyrinth. The participants – known variously as “Warriors” or “Tough Mudders [sic]” – are subjected to a gauntlet of pain and indignity, under the pretense that they are testing their physical and mental faculties: who can run the fastest, the farthest, who can endure the most pain etc. But this pretense soon falls away to the disinterested observer, revealing a more sinister aspect.
Suspension of Grooming Rituals
First, the contests willfully cover themselves in mud, for purposes that remain obscure to me. Normally, grooming is a major part of this culture’s identity, and is a way to separate the various stratos of this society. But during the proto-warrior ritual, normal grooming conventions are suspended. Through the course of the ritual, participants become covered with mud, sweat and God knows what other types of filth. The contestants, in fact, revel in their poor hygiene, like swine bathing in slop.
Bifurcation From Other Rituals of Physical Endurance
Then, the contestants perform feats of physical strength and endurance, which isn’t entirely unremarkable. Throughout all socio-economic levels of this society, individuals participate in physical endurance activities, including pedestrian locomotion, in both short and long duration, locomotion through water, and locomotion via human powered bi-wheeled vehicles. At times, all three activities are combined into one tri-conglomerated activity.
The rituals known variously as “Warrior Dash” and “Tough Mudder [sic],” combine these established activities with a depraved assemblage of sadistic rituals. These include electrocution, jumping into garbage receptacles filled with ice water, running over burning coals, avoiding barbed wire, negotiating their persons over large walls and jumping through fire.
Why then do these so-called “Warriors” and “Tough Mudders [sic]” do this? Can’t they test their physical/mental faculties without subjecting themselves to the indignities of masochism? And why would they voluntarily invest their own money to do this? These are questions this paper attempts to answer.
Theory # 1: Cultural Guilt From the Decline of Civilian Army
The ritual’s war imagery is a subtext so blatant, that it’s more text than sub-. The courses of these races are borrowed wholesale from depictions of military training camps so popular in this culture. These depictions are widely distributed through movies and televisions, showing young recruits crawling through mud, hanging off monkey bars and crawling under barbed wire. The ritual organizers, consciously or un-, create a simulacrum of the military’s so-called “bootcamp.”
For a culture in which less than 1% of people serve in the military, it’s a way for young men (and some women) to experience the thrill and physical/mental rigor of military training. Instead of joining the military and subjecting themselves to four or more years of work, these people can enter these races and experience an echo of what military training must be like. Without the danger.
Theory # 2: Sexual Play
Perhaps the ritual is sexual in nature? This isn’t an absurd conclusion to draw, as the sadomasochistic overtones are difficult to ignore. For instance, some of these rituals involve the shocking of the participants with exposed wires, eliciting groans of pain/pleasure from the participants un-/lucky enough to touch them. What could possibly explain this, other than the fact that the participants are deriving some depraved sexual pleasure from this?
At the end of the ritual, participants drink a heady concoction of fermented grain, which intoxicates them. In this culture, intoxication often precedes, and in some cases precipitates, sexual intercourse. It’s implied in the advertising copy of these rituals that after the race, participants are encouraged to engage in sexual intercourse with their respective sexual partners, and in fact, sexual intercourse will become more pleasurable for both parties after the race, because the ritual participant will be more fit, more badass etc.
Theory # 3: Performative Displays of Masculinity
The masculine psychology in this culture is currently in a state of perceived embattlement. The proto-typical man is constantly decrying the decline of men. What happened to real men, this hypothetical man cries with palpable pathos. Tracing the male’s supposed fall from grace, men in this culture attempt to recover masculine traits by symbolically performing rituals that their masculine ancestors supposedly performed. Things like hunting, fishing, grilling meat, wearing absurd three piece suits and disrespecting women.
The “Warrior Dash” and “Tough Mudder [sic]” is another example of this trend. Men (and some women) are able to imagine that cavemen must have done similar tasks, like roll in mud and climb over walls. They can celebrate the parts of themselves that are buried deep in the evolutionarily benighted parts of their brains, before they return to their emasculating cubicles on Monday.
These theories are merely preliminary stabs at the exegesis of this ritual. More work is yet to be done if anthropologists are to come to a mature understanding of this bewildering ritual.