What’s With Ultrarunners Doing Reality TV?

Jason ‘Ras’ Vaughan is the latest ultra athlete to do a turn on the small screen.

ultrarunning reality tv kicking and screaming

Ras Vaughn, landscaper and ultrarunner; all photos Jeff Neira / FOX. © FOX Broadcasting Co.

You might not expect that a guy with waist-length dreads, who lived off-grid for seven years and calls civilization “the illusory world” would be into reality TV.

But this evening, Jason “UltraPedestrian Ras” Vaughan, a Washington state-based ultrarunner and thru-hiker, will appear in the first episode of the new Fox show “Kicking & Screaming.”

ultrarunning reality tv kicking and screaming

Contestants Ras and Kristen in the Kicking & Screaming series premiere

He’s not alone. In 2015, ultrarunning geography professor Matt Galland powered himself across remote landscapes in Animal Planet’s “100 Miles From Nowhere.”

In 2016, Western States 100 course-record holder Timothy Olson bashed through the jungle on Discovery’s “American Tarzan.” And two-time Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion Rory Bosio went around the world competing in various endurance challenges for the Esquire show “Boundless.”

What draws an athlete like Vaughan—from a sport involving long, solitary miles in the mountains—to reality TV?

Reality and the “Eco-Challenge”

Ultrarunning—or at least its cousin, adventure racing—was intimately intertwined with the beginnings of reality TV.

ultrarunning reality tv kicking and screaming

Kristen and Ras in the Kicking & Screaming premier episode “Welcome to the Jungle”

In the 1990s, an enterprising producer named Mark Burnett created “Eco-Challenge,” a televised adventure-race series. In editing, Burnett focused on the human drama that unfolded among the athletes. It foreshadowed reality formats that came later.

Burnett himself went on to create Survivor and, with it, a new genre.

Marshall Ulrich, a legendary ultrarunner and eight-time Eco-Challenge participant, acknowledged that Eco-Challenge producers would “cherry pick some of the moments of struggle.” But that footage came from an actual race that lacked the “staged” feel—and intensive camera presence—of modern challenge-based reality shows.

“Kicking & Screaming”

“Kicking & Screaming,” the show Vaughan appears on, pairs survival experts—military types, a wilderness guide, and, inexplicably, a ninja—with backcountry novices, then tasks them with surviving in the Fiji jungle and completing various challenges.

A few years ago, Vaughan, now 45, watched an episode of “Naked and Afraid.” It intrigued him. In the show, two strangers are dropped off in the wilderness, literally naked except for a satchel that holds a single item. And they attempt to get by for three weeks.

“I saw the decisions they made and the way they dealt with running these huge calorie deficits,” Vaughan said. “I just kept thinking that I had a unique skill set to be able to take on that sort of challenge.”

Ras Vaughan: Outdoorsman And Ultrarunner

Indeed, Vaughan has done a double circumnavigation of Mount Rainier and gone R2R2R2R2R2R2R—that’s not a typo—across the Grand Canyon.

He also lived with his wife, Kathy, in a primitive cabin in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington for seven years. There, they raised, collected, or crafted most of life’s necessities.

His off-the-grid experience came in handy in Fiji. His first time in a jungle environment, its abundance pleasantly surprised Vaughn.

“There were vines growing everywhere,” he said. “I’m used to having to make cordage, which is a laborious process and time-consuming.”

He also found that looking after a novice was in his “wheelhouse,” as he could confidently shoulder extra weight or run a large calorie deficit.

In addition, he said he hoped to model a healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle for viewers. “Almost anything that encourages people to go outside and move around is positive,” he said. “Having the opportunity, even to a minor degree, to expose the general public to [that] ethos is something that’s important to do.”

Don’t Call It “Survival”

Matt Galland, the creator of “100 Miles From Nowhere”—in which he and two buddies ran, rafted, skied, and trekked through remote landscapes—also saw an opportunity for a perspective that “survival” shows can lack.

ultrarunning reality tv kicking and screaming

Contestants in Kicking & Screaming

“I always called it a ‘thrive-al’ show,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of seeing people try to ‘survive,’ because we don’t live in that environment.”

Running, he said, is more approachable. “I’m not gonna be Bear Grylls and live under a lean-to and show you how to suck sap out of a tree,” he explained. Instead, he will put on a nice pair of running shoes and hit the trail.

“I’m gonna have a snickers candy bar, down a coke, and I’m gonna go run 100 miles. I’m gonna show you how cool the world is,” he said.

A Philosophy of Reality

When asked about the appeal of shows like “Kicking & Screaming,” Vaughan waxed philosophical.

“I think that modern humans, even though we spend most of our day sitting—whether it’s on a couch or in an office chair or in a vehicle—on a very deep level still have our animal selves, our ancient bipedal hominid, that is perhaps submerged,” he said.

Is there irony in rediscovering the wild by watching a TV show from your couch? Sure. And Vaughan, for his part, made clear that he isn’t taking this TV thing too seriously.

“I’m pretty comfortable being the butt of a cosmic joke if that’s the role I’m gonna play in life,” he said.

Kicking & Screaming premiers March 9 at 9/8c

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