08/22/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

You Still Alive? Prove It

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. -- Albert Camus

A fine and good friend I have, name of Scott Keneally, who is making a film.

An excellent and upcoming documentary it is, called "Rise of the Sufferfests," all about the origins, the insane growth and multimillion-dollar success of those intense, shamelessly ridiculous obstacle course/endurance races now banging around all over the world and causing vicious outbreaks of FOMO among your bros, ex-boyfriends and lonely social media shut-ins who rarely see sunlight. Which is sort of the whole point, really.

You've heard of these fantastic races? Of course you have: Tough Guy (the original), Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, et al, to the tune of more than 2 million people bashing and stomping all over the planet in 2013 alone -- many millions more if you count all dozens of silly, themed 5K "fun runs" springing up like shiny LED candy for the hipster/raver/Twilight set: Color Run, Electric Run, Run for Your Lives (zombies!), 5K Foam Fest -- which, all told, is a lot of anxious humans willing to beat the hell out of their knees for usually nothing more than a T-shirt, cute selfies and endless Facebook bragging rights.

Bragging rights! The experience! "Look, I did this!" This is big. This is vital. This is, to many in the business, the key to the kingdom.

To be sure, this new breed of race is about the experience -- maybe even, in cases like Spartan Race, about the workout, the sweat and the intense competition. Some of these obstacle runs are 10, 15, even up to 28 miles long, with all manner of brutal entrapment along the way. You gotta train. You gotta eat right, prepare, load up. Not for pansies, bro.

But in the social media age, you might argue that it's more about the proof of the experience, the evidence that you actually did something with your weekend, your body, your life, instead of just sitting around Instagramming, Twittering and Facebooking your soul into abject numbness, and getting increasingly depressed while you do it. Put another way: Would Zombie Run even exist if Facebook wasn't invented first, to show off the pictures? Let us ponder.

It all seems like a desperate, needful recoil against the overarching tone of the modern world right now, the most dire sign of our times: The Great Numbing Out. The Age of Sloth. Obesity is still surging, Facebook is making you feel lousy about yourself and the Internet might/might not be making you very stupid, lazy and detached from anything meaningful, especially a community, a sense of place, something real and felt and true.

So we run. We sweat. We climb. We bang it up, out, into each other, and we take lots and lots of pictures of ourselves doing it. We seek extreme excitement, thrill, shock, flavor, drug, festival, even straight-up torture and third world-style pain in an increasingly anesthetized, sanitized, teched-out world, because that's what it takes now. To feel alive. To feel anything at all. What a weird species.

"Sufferfests" is right, by the way, for that is indeed what they are, and this is, apparently, what we've come to: a bizarre, inverted modern culture now willing to pay for the privilege of doing something the gods of capitalism, industry and technology have all worked tirelessly for the past 100 years to help us avoid -- hard, filthy, often grueling physical labor of a kind that may very well shatter your femur, induce a heart attack and totally ruin your pedicure, but which will hopefully show the dudes back at the cube farm that you're not just another pale, unhappily married middle-manager in rumpled Dockers and awful shoes, even though you totally are.

It's correct to be a little nonplussed, amused. Pay to suffer? Happily choose discomfort, electric shock, hypothermia, foul mud, getting smacked in the face by a giant, padded pole by a leering race employee at the finish line, just for the hell of it? Just for a great profile pic? What sort of masochism is this? What the hell are we trying to do?

We're trying to connect, silly. We're trying to feel something, anything, in the face of a million pitiless screens, a thousand reptilian politicians and dozen draconian pharmaceutical corporations, all of whom would shut us down, drown us in unchecked apathy and fatten us up for the slaughter. Don't think it's happening? You're not paying enough attention.


Here's the thing: We have reached saturation. We are now so pampered, so comfortable, so obscenely spoiled, our first-world lives are so crammed with hyper convenience and tech-enabled ease, every possible need met to every possible degree that bizarre and often disgusting, even malevolent mutations occur, just to get the attention of this wary and numbed-out generation.

This is my theory, anyway. And it's also the overarching question posed by Keneally's doc: Why? Why this kind of severe, self-inflicted punishment? Why now? What are we seeking, really?

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...