Bay Area journalist tackles mud in documentary

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

When North Bay freelance journalist Scott Keneally pitched an experiential humor story about a self-proclaimed “wimpy” guy taking on the extreme obstacle course Tough Mudder to the North Bay Bohemian and Outside newspapers in 2012, he expected a challenge.

The Healdsburg resident didn’t predict he would fall in love with obstacle course races (OCR’s), nor that his research would lead him down a rabbit hole into a legal battle between two giants in the world of mud—the modern Tough Mudder in the U.S. and the original Tough Guy course in the U.K.

An expose on the controversy about whether Tough Mudder ripped off Tough Guy made an appearance on the front page of Outside magazine in Oct. 2012 and his experiential “Stud in the Mud” piece nabbed the front page of the Bohemian.

The seed was planted for Keneally’s first documentary, Rise of the Sufferfests, which came to life three years later. The film dropped on iTunes Thursday for $14.99.

Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile obstacle course that takes participants through grueling physical fitness challenges designed to put one’s “mental grit, camaraderie and all-around physical fitness” to the test, according to Tough Mudder. Competitors trudge through ice, mud and electricity, face obstacles at heart-dropping heights and various other navy-seal reminiscent challenges, with little reward. The tough Mudder website candidly states that there’s no finisher medal and promises only an “ice cold beer and a few good scrapes from a day spent outside and free from everyday bulls–t.”

Yet there have been two million Tough Mudder participants to date, with an average of 10,000 to 15,000 at each event, according to Tough Mudder. Dozens of events take place across the U.S. throughout the year.

Why do this many people put themselves through physical agonies like achilles tendonitis and hypothermia—both of which Keneally knows on a first-name basis—so enthusiastically for such little payoff? This was the question Keneally sought to answer in Rise of the Sufferfests.

The film explores the motivation behind the popularity of OCR’s like Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race through a montage of experts, from professional surfers and world record-holders, to sociologists and authors. Viewers watched as crowds of OCR fanatics covered in blood, sweat and mud surged eagerly toward ice-filled ponds and scrambled over rope walls.

Within the first five minutes, we meet Keneally himself, cringing at the final obstacle of his very first Tough Mudder. His personal narrative is weaved seamlessly throughout the film, giving viewers an inside glimpse into the mud community and Keneally’s own journey to establish himself in it.

“I like to think it will demystify mud for the masses,” Keneally said of the film. “For every one person that does it, we have five or 10 friends, family and co-workers who think we’re absolutely insane. But I think this film will drag many of those skeptics and cynics off the fence and into the mud.”

Keneally told The Pioneer that his attraction is mainly socially-driven. “As a writer, I spend so much time working alone at home. But I’m a people person by nature. So I love the community aspect,” he said. “I like the beer after and the bull-s******g with your friends at a bar and talking about the horrors of the race. As a storyteller, I find this world to be rich in material.

Before his own participation at his first Tough Mudder in 2011 at Squaw Valley, he thought OCR’s were crazy, ridiculous and terrifying.

It wasn’t until he darted through the signature obstacle, dubbed “Electroshock Therapy,” which consists of hundreds of hanging electric wires charged at 10,000 volts, in his first Tough Mudder that he began to see the appeal. “Overcoming something as terrifying as Electroshock Therapy made me feel like a king,” said Keneally. “I think right then and there I knew there was something really profound and meaningful in this experience, in stepping outside of my comfort zone and facing new fears. That changed me quite a bit.”

The self-proclaimed “man who sees magic in mud” found himself metamorphosing from a previously unathletic “boy who cried shin splints” on his high school football team to an obstacle course junkie, whose favorite challenge involves jumping off a platform to catch a T-bar and swinging 14 feet high above the water to ring a bell; an obstacle known as “Kings Swingers.”

However, the journey to bring the film to life wasn’t without its own set of hurdles. Discouraged, Keneally quit one of the obstacle courses halfway through in shame. The film’s funding fell through when they raised $35,000 through crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and fell a quarter million dollars shy of the goal of $300,000. The platform doesn’t award any money raised if it does not meet the goal, so they ended up with zero. A later Indiegogo campaign asked for just $10,000, but raised $27,040.

Along the way, he also found out he was going to be a father, which left him to question how he could support a child since all his money was put into the film.

“You have to be blindly optimistic to say that you’re gonna make a movie and tell everyone and then try and then do it…at first, it’s blind optimism but then you’re left with reality,” he said. “I [realized that] I still have to make this but it’s not gonna be the way I thought it was gonna be. And it’s a better story because of the failure. Because I didn’t raise the money I wanted, when I wanted.”

He partnered with Echo Entertainment production company, known for its world series poker and sports programming, and managed to give the project new life. Keneally was able to scrape together the money over the years, but he said the company helped him get to the finish line.

Keneally embraced fatherhood and became inspired to push himself to the limits with the intent of being a role model to his son Raleigh. He now competes in the World’s Toughest Mudder, an extreme, 24-hour obstacle course.

“I am stronger and more resilient than maybe I thought I was,” said Keneally. “Being able to keep pushing through obstacles and challenges and to see things through, whether it be fatherhood or a movie or 24 hr race—to take on challenges and succeed at them—gives you a new kind of platform to stand on top of.”