Op-Ed: Racer beware, are popular weekend obstacle course mud races safe? Special

Posted May 21, 2013 by Elizabeth Parker
This past weekend I was off to photograph a friend at the MudMorial Race in Concord, NC. It sounded like a fun way to celebrate five years of fitness after her heart surgery, but how safe are these races?
The 11:00 am heat run through their first obstacle at the first MudMorial Dash in Concord  NC.
The 11:00 am heat run through their first obstacle at the first MudMorial Dash in Concord, NC.
These obstacle races have been growing steadily in popularity over the past few years, with many encouraging all fitness levels to come out and get wet and dirty. Shows like the Biggest Loser have helped popularize them, along with the fitness craze, as people get bored with basic fitness routines and want to find ways to have fun.
Are there any safety standards to be observed for the hosts? Is any training or credentials required to host one of these races? With no safety statistics collected, no regulations for organizers, and no need to record incidents by hosts there is no way to judge an event's safety. I have only found one organization, USA Obstacle Racing, who is attempting to monitor the races, with its mission statement "To promote, support and represent all aspects of the obstacle racing industry.", and its vision statement point number 1 is to, "Expand the quality, standards, and safety of all events that are produced within the obstacle racing industry."
So far my research can find no official regulations for the races to follow and their safety requirements seem to be all over the map. Some use fall prevention systems at high obstacles, others do not.
Below you will see Sam Abbit of Savage Races claims to Healthy Tipping Point to take safety very serious and put on safe races.
The inaugural MudMorial race I photographed this weekend, facebook page here, promoted by A&L Marketing with A+LMarketing Facebook page here, the obstacles were monitored by volunteers and if you approached in a crowd these obstacles were climbed by masses, with higher obstacles having no noticeable fall prevention systems in place.
The first climbing obstacle at the inaugural MudMorial Dash in Concord  NC.
The first climbing obstacle at the inaugural MudMorial Dash in Concord, NC.
The officials appeared to be all volunteers in this race.
An August 2012 report by Huffington Post mentions,
"Two men collapsed in the heat and died while running a Warrior Dash in Kansas City, Mo., last year. And three people developed E. coli infections after running a Tough Mudder event in Scotland last month, according to the Scottish health agency. Investigators are working to confirm a link, according to Tough Mudder spokeswoman Jane Di Leo."
Many comments after articles mention the safety, injuries and infections people received after attending the races and the lack of organization as contestants set off and run the courses. The lack of standards and all the new organizations trying to capitalise on the popularity with no regulations to follow leave looking out for your safety entirely up to you. Putting faith in the race to have properly trained officials, inspect their obstacles or know how to inspect their obstacles for safety could be a mistake.
From Obstacle Racing Magazine, Matt writes,
"With all of these new races to choose from, it has become a game of chance for athletes, as they gamble on the probability of a race that lives up to its claims versus the potential of a poor or even unsafe experience."
Matt goes on to point out that the chances are increasing that a new race organizer cancels events after realizing what it takes to actually get one going or worse, puts it hastily and quickly together as stated here.
"Even more concerning are the new races that seem to be hastily thrown together with little to no concern for safety"
The organizers of Savage Races reports in an interview with Caitlin written in April 2012 at the Healthy Tipping Point, that they take safety very seriously, as I quote here from the article.
"Safety is something we take very seriously at Savage Race. Much time and effort goes into ensuring that our events are as safe as they can be given the inherent risks involved with our style of extreme event. Our obstacles designs are always approved by licensed engineers, then built by certified general contractors. We include fall prevention systems on many of our tall obstacles. We hire teams of lifeguards to monitor water crossing over 4 feet in depth. Finally, we station volunteers and experienced medical professionals throughout our course so that they may quickly react to an emergency."
If you are wondering just how unsafe can it be, well people are dying at these weekend fun races often advertised for people of all fitness levels. ABC station, KVUE in Texas reported on the April 12, 2012 death of Tony Weathers. Tony Weathers passed away in April 2012 at the Original Mud Run when he failed to return home after the event and a search ensued.
Some of these popular races advertise on their sites that races are tough and you should have a trainer prior to going, others are promoted as fun, come dressed up and state all fitness levels welcome. This is the case of the MudMorial Dash this weekend where their web site states on the registration link "Regardless of your fitness level, you will be challenged, entertained, and leave wet!?" The racers here were not timed. This race was for the fun and children age 10 to 15 were welcomed to compete if accompanied by a paying adult.
As mentioned in Obstacle Racing Magazine these races are drawing more sponsors, fans and more money. At up to $72.00 to participate, the first inaugural Mudmorial Dash with its 200 plus racers, raised significant amounts to put on this race. Even with the lower early bird rates of approximately $50.00, calculations show this raised over $10,000.00 gross.
The obstacle racing popularity is drawing larger sponsors also. Mudmorial was to have several Season 11 and 12 contestants from the popular show the Biggest Loser at the race according to their web site. I didn't see these Biggest Loser contestants, but I did not arrive until 10:30 AM as I was there to do photos of my friend's race and she was running at 11:00 AM.
Even spectators pay at some of the bigger events such as the popular Tough Mudder race series. To enter a Tough Mudder race will cost anywhere from $85.00 to $180.00 depending on the day you go (Sunday's are less), and how early you register. Spectators are charged $40.00 each to come out and take photos of you and cheer you on. Tough Mudder does encourage participants to take up a training program and get fit on its training page. They do not advertise for all fitness levels and it does sound grueling with a long 12 to 13 mile course.
The 20 foot obstacle wall at the first MudMorial Dash  Concord  NC.
The 20 foot obstacle wall at the first MudMorial Dash, Concord, NC.
The race I photographed this weekend was its inaugural event and not as organized as I would have hoped. There was volunteers on the course but the obstacles did not appear to be engineer tested, climbing walls were not secured, had large uncovered bolts sticking out of them which could catch clothing, foam mats and sand were not used for landings and no fall prevention systems were in place. I believe the organizers really tried but lacked some necessary experience; hopefully they learn from this inaugural race.
The race could have used more officials in areas like the creek. Depths of the water did not reach 4 feet but did get quite deep and could pose a danger if someone stumbled, especially if they were in a crowd. The officials did not actually watch participants in the creek. My photo shows the depth as a participant wades through the water. An official pointed us down the slope where we were to enter the creek and then after following the creek some time an official appeared and asked the participant to come up the slope on one side but after going up it another official came over and said,
"No not there, this side" and he guided us back into the creek and out the other side.
A participant wading through the creek obstacle at the first MudMorial dash  Concord  NC.
A participant wading through the creek obstacle at the first MudMorial dash, Concord, NC.
When my friend first asked me to join her for the race I couldn't commit but then was freed up and able to go do the photos for her. The race sounded like a great way to encourage one to stay fit and have fun, but now I'll think twice before entering one and check on the safety focus of the hosting company. How long they have been hosting races? I will look for photos from participants at the hosted races and the obstacles encountered.
My friend ended up falling from the final obstacle and cracking her T12 vertebrae in her back when she landed along with bruising her wrist. When I asked if she would go back and do another she said, "Well at this point I don't want to, I definitely won't do that one again." Not so nice a planned fun weekend race will have her out of work for a bit and the celebration of her five year anniversary of heart surgery found her back in hospital for a night. Unfortunately her anniversary celebration turned in to much more of a damper then she bargained for.