Mud pits, electric wires, climbing walls and a long-distance run — for most participants, outdoor obstacle races offer a chance to overcome physical challenges and bond with friends, often in a rowdy atmosphere.
But even as these adrenaline-fueled races have exploded in popularity in a recent years, creating an industry with tens of millions of dollars in revenue, some racers have paid a high price.
The April drowning of an Ellicott City man at a Tough Mudder series race in West Virginia was at least the fourth death involving participants at such events since 2011. And across the nation, participants have been paralyzed, suffered hypothermia and electric shocks, or come away with other serious injuries.
In 2011, for example, two men died after a Warrior Dash event in the Kansas City area; it was canceled after many participants were treated for heat-related illnesses, according to a report in the Kansas City Star. Last year, a Dallas man drowned while swimming across a river in the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth; a lawsuit is pending in that incident.
Other lawsuits have been filed by racers as well. Court documents allege that in recent years a Virginia man was paralyzed after diving into a muddy pool at a race in Richmond, a Michigan man was paralyzed after diving into a mud pit at a Warrior Dash near Detroit and a trio of women smashed their ankles sliding down a tarp into a ravine at a race in Washington state.
While deaths and life-threatening injuries are rare among the hundreds of thousands of participants, other problems have occurred more frequently. In a Tough Mudder race in Wisconsin last July, many participants ended up at a hospital, with broken bones, dislocations and heat-related illnesses, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And at the West Virginia race where Avishek Sengupta of Ellicott City drowned — on an obstacle called Walk the Plank, a 15-foot drop into cold, muddy water — 19 other people were treated at a hospital for injuries ranging from heart attacks to electric shock to hypothermia.
Mario Vittone, a former rescue swimmer with the U.S. Coast Guard and an expert on drowning, says the death of Sengupta, 28, is a warning to the burgeoning industry — and participants. "I get where it's fun. But I think there's this illusion, that it's controlled and thousands of people do it, so it must be safe," he said.
Noting that some obstacles are inspired by military training regimens, he added, "These aren't as hard as in the real military, but the risk is the same. [Organizers are] forgetting how little room for error there is."
There has been no push for government to regulate the events, but some experts say the deaths and injuries highlight problems in the fast-growing industry. The main issue is the lack of a governing body and accepted best practices for designing, building and operating the courses, said Todd Seidler, a University of New Mexico sports administration professor who teaches and researches risk management.
"Basically, each group putting one of these together is developing their own obstacles and maybe copying from other similar races. Also, many of them seem to be out-doing each other," Seidler said.
Organizers of the most popular obstacle course series — Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race — defend the events and say safety is a priority.
Civil lawsuits against Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and organizers of similar local events have been contested by the organizers.
Kendra Alley, a spokeswoman for Warrior Dash's parent company, Red Frog Events, said in a statement: "We've taken several steps to ensure that everyone on the Battleground stays safe while having fun. The race Director works with local officials for several months to determine the necessary on-site safety precautions and procedures."
Alley declined to comment on specific cases, including the Kansas City-area deaths, saying the company never discloses medical information about participants.
Tough Mudder spokeswoman Ashley Pinakiewicz said the company's safety precautions were reviewed after Sengupta's death — which authorities have ruled an accidental drowning — and were determined to be satisfactory. "We're constantly looking at all of our procedures," she said.
She declined to comment on how often participants were hospitalized after Tough Mudder events, but said bumps and bruises were common, as with any outdoor event. "There's an inherent risk in any of our events and everything is geared toward minimizing risk, as possible," she said, adding, "The entire company is deeply saddened by the accident."
Appeal of danger
Getting zapped with electricity and jumping over fire might not sound appealing to everyone, but more than 1 million people are expected to enter obstacle course events in the U.S. this year. With some entry fees topping $100, that will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for race organizers.
The races come in many forms, with distances from a few miles to a dozen miles or more. Warrior Dash, a 3.1-mile run, promises participants will "bound over fire, trudge through mud and scale over 12 obstacles." Tough Mudder bills itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet."
Danger is a key element of the marketing pitch. Youmaydie.com is the Internet address for the Spartan Death Race, the most grueling competition in the Spartan Race series. Here's how it is described on the company's website: "Please only consider this adventure style race if you have lived a full life to date. We highly suggest you come to a Death Race Camp before attempting this race. Death sounds cool until you're dead."