When Scott Keneally was reporting a story for Outside magazine about obstacle course racing (OCR) back in 2012, he had no idea he was just beginning his own journey into the world of OCR. The piece was about a legal battle between Will Dean, the founder of Tough Mudder, and Billy Wilson, aka Mr. Mouse, an eccentric Englishman who created a mud run called Tough Guy in the muddy plains of Wolverhampton, England. Wilson was the kind of character that any good journalist would be drawn to—a former British Army officer with a handlebar mustache who dressed in antique military garb—and after finishing his piece, Keneally decided to make a documentary film with the colorful bloke at the center.
The idea was to use Wilson as a starting point to examine the growing popularity of mud runs like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, all of which were attracting droves of Type A personalities looking to hurl themselves over walls, slosh through mud, and battle nature in other quirky ways in exchange for Facebook bragging rights on Monday morning.
But things didn’t quite go according to plan. Making Rise of the Sufferfests proved to be an endurance test in and of itself–one that Keneally barely survived. He ran out of funding for the film (which is available on iTunes, Amazon, and on Keneally’s website) soon after he started shooting. And as he was trying to build up his image within the OCR community as a way to help promote his project, he humiliated himself at a big race by not finishing. There was another bombshell: He found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, upping the pressure to complete the film. To Keneally, it was suddenly like he was in the middle of his own mud run. Only in this one, there was no way to turn back or pull a DNF—the (very pejorative) mud-run term for Did Not Finish.
Keneally recently spoke to Fast Company about how he ultimately pulled the documentary—and himself—together, in part by realizing that all of the challenges he was experiencing made for good narrative drama.
Fast Company: Although you were an experienced journalist, you’d never made a film before. How did you get it off the ground?
Scott Keneally: I got a little seed money from three people. It amounted to $30,000–$10,000 from each. That was enough to start production, pre-preproduction, and get me over to England to shoot Mr. Mouse and do some interviews with him. I had been spending a lot of time trying to build my Facebook community with the idea that if we could reach 10,000 fans, I could launch a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Which leads us to obstacle No. 1. Running out of funding at the very beginning. Very early on, within six months, I ran out of money. I probably put $5,000 into Facebook marketing, and I was paying a crew. [The money] didn’t get that far. I started a Kickstarter campaign, and it was a humiliating failure. The goal was to raise $297,000. We raised $34,500.
It was a 40-day campaign, and I knew within a few days of starting it that it was going to be a disaster. So I had 40 days to just squirm and prepare myself mentally to launch another one. Right as the Kickstarter ended, I started an Indiegogo campaign. That was a 60-day campaign, making it [in total] the 100 worst days of my life. That one had a modest goal, like $10,000. In retrospect, had I asked for $50,000 on the Kickstarter, perhaps I would have raised $100,000 or more. But no one likes to bet on a loser when no one else is jumping on board, and everyone is just sitting on the sidelines.
FC: Did that discouragement affect you?
SK: On the same day that the Kickstarter failed, I’d gone to Malibu to do a three-mile Spartan Race. At the time, I was what you’d call Spartan Famous. Everyone in the community knew who I was. Forty days prior, I thought I’d go to this event like a hero. I strategically ended the campaign that weekend. It was like, I’ll go to Malibu, it’ll be great, I’ll have the money. I’ll be a hero.
Instead, I go to Malibu totally humiliated. I always wear Sufferfest or Sufferclub team, so I’m pretty noticeable. On top if it all, I ended up having a pretty bad day out there. I quit. I did not finish the three-mile race. Which is relatively easy, not to mention that quitting is a huge no-no in the Spartan community. I can’t tell you how many memes there are: ‘Never quit!’ ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going!’ There’s such a stigma around quitting. So it was extra embarrassing. Salt in the wounds was every time I’d go on to the Spartan wall and see more memes about, ‘Do Not Quit!’
FC: It sounds like things couldn’t get worse . . .
SK: Within three weeks of the Spartan Race and failed Kickstarter campaign, I found out that Amber [Keneally’s wife] was pregnant. I was shell-shocked and terrified. I mean, we’d been trying to have a kid, but I didn’t think it would happen. So there was kind of a trifecta of fear.
FC: So now we’re at the part where we hear music and you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and charge off to victory.
SK: The Indiegogo campaign raised about $30,000, and that was enough to keep the dream alive. I went to Tough Guy [Wilson’s race in England] with a really good crew of about seven people, and we got a lot of key footage. But it still left me with the problem of not having enough money to finish the thing. So after I got back from Tough Guy, I spent about six months looking into branded content. My idea was to find a brand or company to sponsor this thing: The way Morgan Spurlock did with his film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
I was hoping I could find a Reebok or an Under Armour to underwrite the production. I came closest with Fitbit. I got on a conference call with their marketing team. Then they asked me where the film would be distributed, and I didn’t really have a good answer to that. I never heard back from them again. I spent many months feeling like the dream was slipping away.
I tried any brand that would make sense for the space and didn’t have any luck. But ESPN had a production company that specializes in sports content. I sent the same deck, it was like a 30-page Power Point, that I’d sent to Reebok to this company, Echo Entertainment. The owner flew to town within a week and was really excited. He jumped on it. We partnered up pretty quick. He was the one who helped bring it to the finish line.
FC: The film is full of interviews with recognizable talking heads and thought leaders. How did you line them all up?
SK: Just persistence. Getting Jean M. Twenge, who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic, took the better part of a year and 12 unanswered emails. I left messages with her department at the University of California, San Diego. Finally, I sent her a work-in-progress trailer, and she liked what she saw, and finally I heard from her. Hanna Rosin was hard to get hold of because she’d had a bad experience with the last doc crew at her house. Tim Ferriss was difficult to reach. But that was how, for me, you sustain the team—with these little wins that happen along the way. For me, to have Tim Ferriss call me back was a buzz that lasted a month. So there were these little victories, these little bumps of encouragement, which sustain you over the course of making a movie.
FC: The finished film chronicles a lot of the challenges you were up against while making the movie. At what point did you realize that you’d be a subject in the film?
SK: Someone once told me that documentaries reveal themselves in the edit, and that was very much the case with this film. I didn’t go into this thinking my journey through mud or moviemaking would be a relevant or interesting part of the story. And to be honest, had the Kickstarter campaign worked out as I’d hoped, it wouldn’t have been. The production cycle would have been a year instead of three, and there wouldn’t have been any real struggle or time for growth.
But once we sat down with the footage, I was convinced the story would benefit from that personal touch. And when I say ‘I was convinced,’ I mean that quite literally. My production team had to convince me. As much as I love being the center of attention, I was really resistant to the idea of weaving myself into the movie. I didn’t want the film to be dismissed as a vanity project or an exercise in narcissism. But once they got me on board, I was all in. I copped to being a humblebragging narcissist in the film and put myself in the poster—twice. And while there are some hilariously scathing Amazon reviews out there, the vast majority of feedback we’ve received so far suggests we made the right call. Heck, we even made Hannah Hart cry.
FC: In the film we also see you commit to obstacle racing in a more serious way.
SK: Amber being pregnant made me think, I’m going to be a dad now. I really need to embrace this world I’ve been circling around, and dive into it and train, so that I’m not just showing up for races. Becoming more physically capable did make me feel more confident that I could be a good dad.