SufferFest

An Unlikely Paring that Works

Peanut butter and chocolate. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito. Suffer and festivals? Yes, SufferFest.

SufferFest is a bi-annual gathering that brings together middle-aged men from across the country for a day of nearly unimaginable pain (suffer) and outdoor adventure & comradery (festival). The most recent excursion was to Bryce National Park in Utah. 45 miles and 10,000 vertical feet. All of it. In one day. I did it. I survived. It was great and it was awful. And, if they let me, I’ll do it again.

SufferFest is a creation of two close friends, Rick and Ben. As you might suspect, these are not normal people. In the late 90s, they competed together in the Eco-Challenge in Argentina, an adventure race that spanned multiple days of straight racing involving trekking, canoeing, mountaineering and more. Their stories of joy and pain are bountiful. One might think that now – being in their mid-40s – they moved on from this chapter in their lives. They did not and, instead, they have decided to make ridiculous adventures mildly accessible to others. They’re like a good virus that is a little bit pernicious.

The crazy thing is that it’s getting popular. What started out modestly a few years ago with a few guys hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has now grown into a thing. With each successive trip, the list of interested parties grows. Twenty four of us traveled to Bryce in the spring. Over thirty people are signed up for a trip next month to the Great Range in the Adirondacks.

The Case for Suffering

We’re learning more and more about human longevity. Research tells us that our longevity is largely based on our environment and lifestyle choices. Our genes only account for about 20% of our longevity. Thriving in the Age of Longevity is largely about making smart decisions. Apparently choosing to suffer is among them.

Our bodies are wired to be lazy. One study by researchers in Canada showed how we will subconsciously change our walking gait to save as little as 5% of our energy. However, research also tells us that pushing our bodies to the point of strain and pain (within reason) is good for us. It improves our performance and health in the near and long-term. Interval training can add significant improvements in maximum VO2, a measure of how well our bodies can use oxygen and the most widely accepted scientific indicator of fitness, even at middle age and beyond. Regular, intense workouts have shown to improve health of the heart as well as strengthen the immune system. Middle-aged committed exercisers – those working out at least three to four times a week – have been shown to have a physiological makeup more akin to less active people decades younger than their age cohort.

SufferFest debatably takes suffering to a level beyond what’s necessary. I’ve contested this point quite unsuccessfully with the founders. Personally, I would prefer a little more fest and a little less suffer. How about 30 miles, instead of 45? I think that would be sufficiently painful. They disagree. They see the psychological benefit of what sport psychologist Dolores Christensen describes as “embracing the suck” when the pain hits particularly high proportions and one is able to make it to the other side with a sense of euphoria and accomplishment.

And that’s part of the point. As we look to the future, we’re far more likely to take it easy and underestimate what’s possible and what’re capable of, particularly as we get older. We can all fall victim to ageism and the sense of inevitable decline.

Coming for the Adventure, Staying for the Community

People may initially come for the adventure or to try and prove they haven’t lost it but they stay for the comradery. The sense of community. It turns out this is not unusual and, in fact, It’s a growing trend. According to Casper ter Kuille, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School and Executive Director at On Being’s Impact Lab, more people are turning to exercise groups, such as SoulCycle and CrossFit, as their form of church. In her research, she found that people are longing for relationships that have meaning and the experience of belonging rather than just surface-level relationships and that “going through an experience that tests you to your limits, especially if you’re doing partner or team-based fitness routines, there’s an inevitable bonding that comes from experiencing hardship together.” Sounds like SufferFest.

I also learned that SufferFest is not a one day experience. It takes months of preparation and at least a few days of recovery. It’s in that time of training that people get together at least weekly in Baltimore, Vermont, Santa Barbara and other locales where there are a cluster of participants. Workouts, such as hill repeats and long trail runs, are posted online to demonstrate progress prior to the event.

Playful banter helps add to the anticipation. Email chains with dozens of responses from all around the country is not uncommon. Ben recently encouraged participants to comment on SufferFest in haiku. It’s a creative lot.

SufferFest Group Photo

Choose Your “SufferFest”

Surely, SufferFest is not for everyone. In fact, I’m not sure it’s for me. I hope for a little more fest and a little less suffer. But there are clearly meaningful benefits. Broader research supports the health and relational benefits and we all feel it. Ironically, though one might feel like you may die in the moment, odds are you’re likely on a path to live longer and better.

For those that are curious about SufferFest, I have some good news for you. Rick and Ben have created a website (www.sufferfest.net) for more information and are looking to create a toolkit to help other self-initiated adventure seekers launch their own sufferfests. Helping others suffer. What a legacy.