It’s been a couple of years since I’ve run a race, but I can still remember the feel of the ultimate high: the rush of endorphins, adrenaline, and the feeling that you can conquer absolutely anything. It was only a 5k, but it far surpassed the rush of any half-marathon or beyond. It was an adventure course. A run through knee deep mud, barbed wire-laced pits, fire, and live wires. At the time I thought it was exhilarating. Everyone should sign up for one of these obstacle course races, I thought. Even those who hate running wouldn’t be able to escape the excitement and sense of accomplishment.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I can’t shake the image from mind: before you could approach the starting line, you had to sign a piece of paper. I’m guessing most people didn’t read much of it. I’m not sure I did. It said something about “risks of injury, or even death”. That the organizers “couldn’t be held responsible in such an event”. You know, legal mumbo jumbo so they wouldn’t have to pay you if you broke your arm hurtling yourself across a 9 foot wooden wall.
But now unfortunately I realize it wasn’t legal mumbo jumbo at all: it was the truth. Last Saturday, at the Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder, a high school friend of mine died while attempting the “walk the plank” obstacle. He drowned after a 15 foot jump into cold, muddy water. He was revived on site but had been submerged too long. He was taken off life support the following day.
This tragic Tough Mudder death begs the question: are these races safe? When you sign up for an organized event, you assume it’s safe to participate. But is it really? A bystander of the tragedy reports it took a diver “four to seven minutes” to reach the victim. That’s not fast enough. Other unofficial reports suggest it was even longer.
Event organizers state that obstacle courses are inspected before the race and emergency personnel are on staff. The Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder, held in West Virginia, had 14,000 participants and a staff of 75 safety officials.
While some runners that have finished courses like the Tough Mudder and other similar runs state they “always felt safe”, others beg to differ. Marje Sovinski of Annapolis, Maryland has been running for 18 years, including several mud runs and adventure races, including one that was shut down mid-race due to unsafe conditions. “I will do some crazy things,” she says, “but I draw the line at being electrocuted for ‘fun’.” She goes on to say of one race, “The obstacles were definitely the most dangerous of the races I have done. They had a water crossing that bystanders who had been in earlier waves warned me not to do. The website had said it would be 4′ deep, but I heard from many who did it that the water was deep enough they couldn’t touch bottom.”
Others say the problem lies with the participants and not the course itself. They say people are signing up for these races based on their popularity and the surrounding excitement without being physical able and prepared. But who’s responsibility is this? Should there be entrance requirements? A test to pass?
“I remember at Warrior Dash that people were lined up along the barbed wire line at the finish trying to get people to dive headfirst into the mud under the barbed wire. Stupid, because that mud is only 6 inches deep and you could really hurt yourself, but there were people doing it because they were high on adrenaline and the crowd was coaxing them,” states Sovinski. Marathoner and ultra runner Robin Quinton says, “I think what’s happening is that people are jumping into these races thinking they’ll be a walk in the park without really considering what’s involved.” Sovinski adds, “[some races] do give the option to bypass an obstacle if you don’t want to do it. Problem is, you get in that adrenaline environment and everyone else is doing it and you get pushed/talked/egged into doing something you may not have been comfortable doing or may not be strong enough to do.”
Even so, physical ability was not the cause in this case. The victim was a seasoned rock-climber, physically ready to take on the challenge of the adventure course. Were there other precautions that could have been taken, or was this an unavoidable accident?
This is the first death at a Tough Mudder event, but not the first injury. The Baltimore Sun reports the emergency room of the hospital nearest the event was so full that people were being directed to another hospital. People were treated for heart attacks, hypothermia, and head injuries. While this is the first fatal accident in the Tough Mudder series, it is not the first fatality in other similar races. Two deaths occurred last year during the Warrior Dash event in Missouri, another during The Original Mud Run in Texas, and yet another during an Extreme Rampage run in Kentucky. Several participants have also been paralyzed during such events.
This still leaves us with the question: are adventure races safe?