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."
The obstacle course races are meant to appeal to a broad swath of the population — April's Tough Mudder event in West Virginia drew 14,000 people — who want a fun, muddy day off the couch.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and team staffers were among those who braved the Tough Mudder course in April. The Ravens posted a video of the group on the team website; at one point, Harbaugh is shown crawling military-style through mud. He looks at the camera and says, "This is awesome! This is really fun!"
Tim Milan, a Baltimore resident who ran in that event, said it was "a blast" until the last obstacle, "Electroshock Therapy," where participants dash through live electrical wires. He said he touched one of the wires and was thrown into the mud. "That was the only part that I didn't really appreciate."
Still, Milan, 38, noted that participants had to sign a liability waiver and generally knew what they faced. Organizers "do a great job of trying to scare you out of doing it to begin with," he said.
For Jeff Fink, 31, a 2011 Warrior Dash was a jumpstart to getting back in shape. He was a big man — 6-foot-5, 250 pounds — who had a lot of friends and traveled the country to watch baseball games.
He collapsed during the event, held on a weekend when high humidity pushed the heat index in Kansas City to above 100 degrees, according to news reports. His core temperature when he was brought to a hospital was 108.3 F, father Randy Fink says, and he died from multiple organ failure after spending 10 days in the hospital.
Another man, Jeremiah Morris, 28, also died from apparent heatstroke in a hospital a day after that event; his family could not be reached for comment.
Randy Fink traveled last year from his Iowa farm to Warrior Dash's obstacle course, accompanied by a race organizer and a cousin who had run with his son, to see if new safety precautions had been added. The cousin pointed out places where there were more emergency technicians and more water at the stations. Still, Fink wishes race organizers would promise to cancel events when the heat index was in the danger category.
"I could see [organizers] were trying, so I kind of let it go a little bit," said Fink. "But it still kind of bothers me."
Alley, the spokeswoman for Warrior Dash's parent company, declined to answer questions about specific incidents at Warrior Dash races, but said participant safety is the company's top priority.
Fink feels race companies could do much more to improve safety at events, but notes that participants may overlook the danger posed by the obstacles.
"I get the feeling that a lot of the young people that run these races — and I was that way too — is that they feel they're invincible," he said.
The obstacles and aura of danger are part of the attraction of these races, said Scott Roberts, who teaches psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park and researches persuasion and social influence.
"They can appeal both to people that are into the fitness challenge and training, as well as your average Joe who wants to have fun. ... A lot of them are marketed in a way that seems like a fun physical challenge, but not one that you couldn't complete," he said, adding that the social aspect is also appealing.
But marketing messages that emphasize a challenging, fun-filled afternoon may belie the courses' difficulty, he cautioned. "Some of them, I think, are pretty obviously grueling. But others may make you seem like you're playing in the mud, and people may not realize how strenuous they may be."
Still, he added, "for at least some people, they're attracted to the badge of courage."
Waivers and lawsuits
Water obstacles have led to problems at several events.
Robert A. Fecteau II says he was paralyzed after diving head-first into a muddy pool at the 2010 Richmond Filthy 5K Mud Run in Virginia. He sued organizers, claiming that the pool was shallower than it appeared and that there were no warnings about its depth — even though participants were encouraged to "dive."
Race organizers have contested the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in July. Stanley P. Wellman, an attorney for organizers, said Fecteau was not registered for the race and used someone else's bib. Fecteau navigated two other mud pits safely, and no one affiliated with the race encouraged participants to dive into the pits, Wellman added.
Likewise, in Michigan, James Sa sued Red Frog in federal court, saying he was paralyzed after diving in the mud at a Warrior Dash in 2011. He alleges in court documents that an emcee encouraged participants to dive in.
Red Frog has denied Sa's allegations in court documents and pointed out that all participants sign a waiver saying they won't go head-first into the mud.
Whether liability waivers signed by participants are enforceable depends on many factors, said Paul Figley, a professor who teaches tort law and legal rhetoric at American University's Washington College of Law.
Waivers have become more comprehensive, and now "will cover almost anything," said Figley. But, he cautioned, "you can't go too far. Your waiver can't say, 'No matter what we do'" you can't sue.
Essentially, organizers can still be held liable if they do something reckless, he said; the definitions of recklessness and negligence vary by state.
Wendy Davis, 45, had run obstacle races before, including a Warrior Dash and another called a Hell Run. She worked as a police officer and was in pretty good shape, so she felt ready for last fall's Extreme K Mud Run in the state of Washington.
But after sliding down a wet, tarp-covered hillside — "Gravity's Revenge" — she hit a pile of rocks at the bottom and broke a number of bones in her foot, according to a lawsuit she has filed.
"I get up every day, I'm limping," said Davis, noting that she has a plate and 13 screws in her ankle. "From my first two experiences, I would never have expected to go into something like this and think I'd have a major injury like this."
Davis and two other women with similar injuries are suing race organizers. "The obstacle lacked any design features which slowed or regulated the rate of the descent," they wrote in the lawsuit. "Instead, due to the steep pitch and long run, participants' descent was abruptly stopped when the participant impacted the rocks at the bottom of the obstacle."
The Silverdale Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the race, is contesting the lawsuit. Officials declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
What the obstacle racing industry needs is a governing body to set safety standards, said Troy Farrar, president of the U.S. Adventure Racing Association, which sanctions team-based races that usually involve trail running, mountain biking and paddling.
The Texas-based association used to sanction obstacle course events, but stopped because it became difficult to get insurance, he said. "There were so many claims, people getting hurt, that our underwriters said we couldn't do them anymore."
Some of his biggest concerns are obstacles that involve water or significant height — that's where the most injuries occur, he said. He's also not a fan of running through fire.
Farrar said he's been in talks with some obstacle race organizers with the goal of setting up an organizing body with safety standards for such events. But he said the process could take several months.
In the meantime, he encourages people to try obstacle and mud runs, but to be aware of safety risks. "If you get to an obstacle you're not comfortable with, just go around it. They'll let you do that."
'I know the sorrow'
Last weekend, thousands of people descended on Budds Creek Motocross Park in St. Mary's County for a Warrior Dash 5K. As a band played covers of the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day, an emcee at the starting line asked who had trained for the race — and who had trained for the post-race beer drinking. All racers were given a token for a free beer along with a warrior helmet with horns.
Some racers sported outrageous costumes, such as a quartet dressed as the rock band KISS, a group of girls in plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirts and several people in tutus.
Adam Lowe, a 31-year-old high school gym teacher from Mechanicsville, wore a dress suit. He had lost 55 pounds and figured he'd never wear it again, he said, adding, "It was just kind of a way to get rid of it and have fun." His wife, Darleane,a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher, agreed to be his "date" and pulled a pale blue formal dress out of the closet.
The Lowes, who have run the Warrior Dash at Budds Creek three times, didn't worry too much about injuries, but Darleane said her mother was a bit concerned after reading the waiver. The appeal of the race was to have a good time while exercising. "I'm from the country, so getting dirty and running around is too much fun," Darleane said.
But even well-conditioned athletes can run into problems.
About a year earlier, 30-year-old Tony Weathers of Dallas drowned while swimming across the Trinity River in the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth.
His aunt, Zenill Traylor, who primarily raised Weathers, said the University of Texas at Dallas graduate lived for fitness. He could run a mile at a fast pace, bench-press up to 400 pounds and had been swimming since childhood, she said.
Weathers was the only who didn't make it out of the river; his body was found the next morning, according to Traylor and media reports.
"We're still confounded because we just can't see how someone with his ability drowned," said Traylor, who has filed a lawsuit against the Original Mud Run.
Her lawsuit alleges that organizers failed to provide safety devices for participants to cross the river, did not have enough lifeguards and did not stop the race when notified that Weathers was missing. The company, the lawsuit says, acted with "utter indifference for the consequences."
Paul Courtaway, president of the Original Mud Run, declined to comment, citing the litigation. A response to the lawsuit denies that organizers were "in any way negligent" and says any alleged problems were a result of "third parties" over whom the company had no control.
Traylor is concerned about the oversight for such events. "Anyone who can dig a mud hole is having a race and people are getting injured. There has to be some kind of regulation, there has to be oversight."
She said obstacle course organizers must improve safety and more fully explain the risks to participants.
"They're going to have to do better," she said. "I know the hurt, and I know the sorrow. It leaves a hole in your heart that can never be filled."