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A Death at Tough Mudder

THE WIND WAS BLOWING hard at noon on Saturday, April 20, when Avishek Sengupta and his five teammates gathered near the starting corral of the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder. Part of a throng of more than 13,000 obstacle racers who would hit the course in staggered waves that weekend, they sang the national anthem and listened to a speech about how their efforts would serve as a defiant response to the Boston Marathon bombing a week earlier. "This is how you fight back!" the starter shouted into his microphone. Sengupta and his friends and an adrenaline-charged crowd of strangers jumped and whooped. "Leave no Mudder behind!" the starter yelled, then counted down from ten and blew his whistle. In a haze of orange smoke, they were off.

The morning had begun just after eight in Columbia, Maryland, a leafy suburb halfway between Washington and Baltimore, at the parking garage of an Internet marketing firm called WebMechanix, where five of the six teammates worked. Sengupta, whose friends called him Avi, was one of the first to arrive. Soon he was joined by a coworker named De'Yonte Wilkinson and their boss, Arsham Mirshah, who had launched WebMechanix in his father's townhouse. The other three teammates, Josh Muskin, Sam Rahimi, and Kimberly Keen—the only one in the group who didn't work at WebMechanix—showed up about a half-hour late. They piled into two cars for the 90-minute drive to Martinsburg, West Virginia, where they would hop a shuttle to the Peacemaker National Training Center, a private firearms range in nearby Gerrardstown that Tough Mudder had transformed into a ten-mile track strewn with its trademark obstacles. Avi made himself comfortable in Wilkinson's gray 1997 Honda Civic. If he was nervous about participating in what Tough Mudder advertises as Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet, he didn't show it. Rahimi remembers that Avi was "chilling in the back of D's car with his shoes off, just good to go."

They all had hangups about certain obstacles—Mirshah had been taking cold showers to prepare for the ice bath at one called Arctic Enema, and nobody was excited about getting zapped at Electroshock Therapy, where contestants run through a field of dangling live wires—but they were all in good shape, including Avi, who had worked especially hard to be there.

For Avi, the oldest of the group at 28, doing a Tough Mudder was the culmination of 16 months of dogged self-improvement. He had always been stocky, but in his post-college years, long hours hunched over a keyboard combined with a fast-food diet had made him obese. Avi stood at five foot six, and he'd hit his maximum weight of roughly 215 pounds in 2011 while living in Philadelphia and working at Dreamscape, an Internet marketing firm founded by his lifelong friend Daniel Gemp. In January 2012, he decided to change his ways.

He started eating better and jogging. He ran a mile or so at first but added distance bit by bit until he could run for an hour without stopping. On weekends, he would go home to stay with his parents in Ellicott City, which is near Columbia, and climb at EarthTreks, a rock gym where he'd been an instructor since high school. Within two months he'd lost 25 pounds. In March 2012, he moved back to Maryland, took the job at WebMechanix, kept up his training, and occasionally gave in to old food temptations. He had a particular weakness for football-size Chipotle burritos.

Still, Avi kept shedding pounds, and by the day of the Tough Mudder he'd slimmed to a thick-necked 165. For years, Avi had worn a scruffy goatee and styled his thinning hair with gel. As part of his makeover, he started shaving his head and face. Gemp, who had known Avi since kindergarten, was astonished by the transformation. "He looked kind of badass," Gemp told me. "Like the badass version of Avi."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Avi Sengupta in 2012."}%}

IT WAS THE NEW AVI, dressed in red shorts with black stripes, a black T-shirt, and a pair of bright yellow sneakers—which his friends described as "hideous"—who traveled to West Virginia, predicting that he would beat everybody in his group. (In Tough Mudders, participants aren't timed, and there are no official winners, but people who head out together often race each other for bragging rights.) The teammates had missed their assigned start time by about two hours, but Tough Mudder officials allowed them to jump in with the noon group. Being late had an advantage: the temperature had climbed into the mid-fifties after a chilly morning in the low forties, and the sun was shining.

Keen tore her pants on the first obstacle, a low crawl underneath barbed wire called Kiss of Mud, but the rest of the team were unfazed. Muskin playfully slapped a dirty palm print on Avi's shiny scalp, and they all moved on together. A few minutes later, they were slogging through Mud Mile, a series of trenches filled with knee-high water. Mirshah scrambled onto a slippery berm and attempted to reach down to help pull Avi out of a trench, but Avi was fine and bounded past him without a glance. At the third obstacle, a 15-foot-tall haystack called Bale Bonds, it was Avi, the climber, who reached the top first and offered a hand to the others.

A half-hour in, the teammates ran into their second traffic jam of the day: a human bottleneck at a water obstacle called Walk the Plank. The group chatted as they shuffled along with about a hundred other participants toward a near vertical wall of two-by-sixes that rose to a platform 15 feet above a man-made pool of muddy water that was roughly 40 feet wide and 15 feet deep. When they reached the top, they would have to leap in and swim to the other side.

The mood was less relaxed on the platform, where the teammates became separated from one another amid a mass of nearly 30 other participants jostling toward the edge. "It was nerve-racking," Rahimi told me. "There was a lady with a bullhorn yelling something. Even when I got up there I couldn't tell what she was saying." Muskin heard someone counting people off at the top but said there was also someone at the bottom trying to do the same thing. "They were not working together," Mirshah recalls, adding that he didn't hear any directions at all. "I had no idea there was someone up there directing. I had no idea how many people were supposed to go at once."

Rahimi reached the edge first. Worried that the platform might tip over, he leaped for the relative safety of the water as soon as he heard someone yell "Go!" Someone else counted down, and Muskin jumped, alone. When it was Mirshah's turn, he peered over the edge and considered climbing down. Instead, he took a deep breath and jumped. Keen followed.

Wilkinson reached the top of the platform on Avi's heels. "I remember Avi asking me if I wanted to go before him, and I said, 'No, you go first,' since he got up on the platform before I did," Wilkinson said. "And I remember he kind of calmed down a little bit, and then he jumped in."

Nobody realized it at first, but Avi didn't resurface after his plunge. He was underwater and sinking to the bottom, passing out at some point, for reasons that are still unknown. When he was next seen on the surface, at least eight and a half minutes after he'd jumped, he would be unconscious and in the arms of a rescue diver.

Four months later, in August 2013, when I visited the teammates at the WebMechanix office in Columbia, it was still difficult for them to discuss that moment. They described the horror of seeing Avi's bloated abdomen and the deathly hue of his skin. "He looked like a crash-test dummy," Mirshah said, his voice trembling. "His head was off to the side with white foam coming out. I was bawling."

Mirshah paused to regain his composure.

"Every part of us wanted to believe that he was pulled out in time," he said, "but the logical side of us knew that he wasn't."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Avi's Webmechanix teammates, from left: De'Yonte Wilkinson, Josh Muskin, Sam Rahimi, and Arsham Mirshah."}%}

ON THE AFTERNOON of April 20, Avi's mother and father, Mita and Bijon Sengupta, were at a relative's home in Bozman, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, hosting a bridal shower for Avi's younger sister, Priyanka. They were just about to have lunch when Mita's cell phone rang. "You know sometimes when you hear something, and your heart starts pounding so hard that you can't even hear?" Mita asked me, sitting in the airy living room of the family home in Ellicott City. "All I heard was, 'Is your son Avishek Sengupta? There has been an accident.'"

Minutes later the family was racing to Inova Fairfax Hospital, in northern Virginia, where Avi had been airlifted from Martinsburg. They were greeted at the hospital's entrance by a social worker, and they knew what that meant. "The only time they send the social workers is when they want to prepare you for the bad news," Mita said, tears welling in her eyes.

Avi had always been a great kid. Mita and Bijon couldn't remember a single time he'd bad-mouthed anyone. As Mita recalled, "Even when I would say something about someone, he would say, 'You don't know, Mom, maybe he had some reason.'" Avi's coworkers at WebMechanix concurred, saying they never once heard Avi use profanity. He was the guy whose hearty laughter filled the office, who stopped by everyone's desk to say hello before starting his day.

Mirshah's only complaint—a good-natured one—was that he could never get Avi to kick back with a cold draft during beer Fridays at the office, where there was always a kegerator filled with Shock Top. Avi never drank or smoked. Uninterested in college partying, he had moved home from the Towson University dorms after his first semester in 2003 and spent a lot of his free time playing Cranium and Trivial Pursuit with his parents and Priyanka, who is now 23. Approaching 30, Avi was in no hurry to move out. "He loved his family," Mita told me with a smile. "He liked hanging around us."

In the year before Avi's death, the Sengupta family grew even closer as they prepared for Priyanka's wedding. Late-night eating had always been a family ritual: Mita would bake a frozen pizza or warm some leftover Indian food, and everybody would stand around the kitchen island, snacking and discussing the day. But when Avi moved home from Philly in late 2011, he'd begun dieting and exercising, and he wasn't up for snack sessions anymore. Using the prospect of Priyanka's wedding photos as a motivator, Avi convinced Mita and Bijon to go on a diet, too.

Mita first remembers hearing about Tough Mudder at the dinner table in February 2013, when she reminded Avi to mark Priyanka's bridal shower on his calendar. He told her he couldn't come, because he was running the course with his coworkers that day. Mita was disappointed, but she was happy to see his enthusiasm, so she let it go. Bijon, who was normally very protective, decided not to discourage Avi either. "He was getting into better shape, and that was a positive thing," Bijon said. "He was really looking good."

DURING THE FIRST 24 hours at Inova, the waiting room grew so crowded with Avi's family and friends that the security guard had to ask people to leave—there wasn't enough room for other patients' relatives. In the ICU, Avi had a pulse, but there was no brain activity. "I just saw him, and it wasn't him," Bijon said, his voice barely above a whisper. On the afternoon of Sunday, April 21, Bijon told the doctors to take Avi off life support. "We left the room, and it took a few hours," Bijon said. "His heart was very strong."

Suddenly, Mita and Bijon had to make plans for both a wedding and a funeral. Looking back, they're grateful for the distraction of endless errands. They were also buoyed by the turnout at Avi's memorial service on April 24, when dozens of young people they'd never met came to tell them how Avi had touched their lives.

Whatever relief they felt was overshadowed by the dawning sense that something had gone terribly wrong in West Virginia. In the immediate aftermath, Mita and Bijon were in a state of shock, and they had no time to give any thought to Tough Mudder's official statement on the matter: Avi's death had been a tragic accident, a fluke that couldn't have been prevented, despite the presence of more than 75 safety personnel on the course. That view was bolstered for the public in late May, when the Berkeley County sheriff's office released its incident report, calling the death an accidental drowning. The report made it seem unlikely that Avi had been jumped on by a fellow Mudder, stating that there was no evidence he was "struck or suffered some other contact to his body prior, during or after entering the pool area."

But the report also quoted witnesses who said the response time by Tough Mudder's safety officials was inexplicably slow. One of them, a spectator named Michael Cardile, had called Inova on the day of the incident and asked the ICU nurse to give his number to the Senguptas. When the family called a few days after Avi's death, Cardile told him that he'd seen Mirshah pleading with lifeguards for several minutes before they ordered the rescue diver in. "He was really, really mad," Bijon said of Cardile. "That made us think that something definitely went wrong."

By the time the sheriff's report became public, Mita and Bijon had also spoken in depth with Avi's teammates. The accounts prompted them to hire lawyers to prepare a multimillion-dollar gross-negligence suit against Tough Mudder and a company called Amphibious Medics, which helped manage safety procedures at water obstacles like Walk the Plank. At press time, nothing had been filed in court, in part because the Sengupta family and Tough Mudder were in talks about a possible out-of-court settlement.

Soon after Avi's memorial, Mirshah mustered the courage to pay his respects at the Senguptas' home. He told Avi's parents that he and the others were ashamed that they hadn't done more to help on the course that day. Bijon and Mita reassured Mirshah and later invited the rest of the team to the house. There, the teammates told them disturbing details about the lack of urgency displayed by a rescue diver who was assigned to the Walk the Plank pool, and how a safety official on the shore had argued with Mirshah, challenging his assertion that Avi hadn't resurfaced. Last August, at the WebMechanix office, the teammates recounted the same details for me.

Wilkinson was the first to sense that something was wrong, noticing soon after Avi went in that he hadn't come up. Within 30 seconds, he said, he began trying to get Mirshah's attention, gesturing at the water and shouting, "Where's Avi?" Mirshah had seen Avi jump but was distracted by the sight of a lifeguard dragging someone else to shore. For a second he thought it might be Avi, but it wasn't. Moments later, when he looked back up at the platform, Wilkinson was in a full-blown panic.

"I hear De'Yonte yelling, pointing down to the water," Mirshah recalled. "And I don't know what he said, so I walked a little bit closer up to the edge of the pool to hear him, and I thought he was saying, 'How deep is it?' And I'm like, 'It's deep, man. Just get in. It's cool, it's deep.' Then I listen closer, and he's yelling 'Avi! Avi!' And as soon as I hear it, his name, 'Avi,' I'm like, Oh shit. I look around. No Avi. And then it hits me—he's saying Avi's still down there."

Mirshah ran to the first lifeguard he could find. "I'm like, 'Hey, my man! We got someone down there! My friend's still down there!' And his first response to me was, 'Are you sure?' " The lifeguard peppered Mirshah with questions: Did you see him go in? Did you see him come out? People were yelling Avi's name, but Mirshah said that when it finally dawned on the lifeguard that Avi might be submerged, he wandered off "aimlessly," as if he were looking for someone else.

All the while, the lone rescue diver was sitting on the edge of the pool without his fins, tank, or mask on. When the lifeguards ordered the diver into the water, more than two minutes after Avi jumped, "there was virtually zero rush," Muskin said. The diver, Travis Pittman, who was subcontracted for the event by Amphibious Medics, could not be reached for comment. But he later admitted to the Berkeley County sheriff's department that he was not geared up at the time of the incident and that he initially went into the water with only his mask. "Mr. Pittman said this is not normal protocol for safe diving," Sergeant Ted Snyder, the investigating officer, wrote, "but in the interest of time, he elected to enter the water to conduct a quick search."

Frustrated, Rahimi dove into the pool himself. "Among the panic and the cold, I realized I couldn't go very far without having some serious trouble," he told me. And so Rahimi turned back and watched helplessly with the others, wet and shivering, as the minutes dragged on.

EVERY STRENUOUS outdoor pursuit carries risk. In a typical year, roughly 40 people die at lift-served ski areas, and there are a handful of deaths and hundreds of injuries among people who do marathons and triathlons. Whether obstacle challenges are more or less dangerous than other sports is difficult to say, because there's no governing body for these events and nobody keeps precise statistics. But an informal survey conducted by Outside indicates that, per participant, obstacle racing is actually less likely to end in death than marathons, triathlons, recreational skiing, or bicycling. 

Obstacle challenges are operated by private companies large and small—among them Tough Mudder competitors like Spartan Race and the creators of smaller, local events like the Freak 5K—who stage them for profit and require participants to sign standard liability waivers. What we know about casualty rates is gleaned mainly from news reports that appear when something goes wrong at a race. After Avi's death last spring, Ryan Krogh, an editor at Outside, surveyed the industry and found a few other deaths (including two from heatstroke at a 2011 Warrior Dash outside Kansas City) and a host of serious injuries, including several cases of paralysis resulting from falls or dives. Other common mishaps include hypothermia, lacerations, electric shocks, burns, and broken bones. 

At the Tough Mudder where Avi died, the Martinsburg City Hospital's emergency room was swamped with event participants that weekend. They treated two heart attacks, orthopedic and head injuries, and multiple cases of hypothermia. Jennifer Andersen, a 40-year-old mother of two, was admitted for complications resulting from a near drowning. Andersen passed out from exertion on an obstacle called Pirate's Booty. She fell about 15 feet, colliding with another participant on the way down and landing face-first in a pond. She was rescued by fellow participants.

The response by Tough Mudder in the wake of Avi's death has been consistent: We are heartbroken by this occurrence, but we're also proud of our safety record. "As organizers, we take our responsibility to provide a safe event to our participants very seriously," company CEO Will Dean said in a press release issued the day after Avi died. "Tough Mudder is devastated by this tragic accident." The release went on to say that the West Virginia Tough Mudder "was staffed with more than 75 ALS, EMT, Paramedics, water rescue technicians and emergency personnel" and that Avi was "the first fatality in the three-year history of the company, after over 50 events with more than 750,000 participants." Just two months earlier, in February, Dean told Inc. magazine, "Statistically, it's amazing. You take that number of people, and if they were sitting at home that day, statistically, we should have had a few heart attacks. I have to tell the team, it's coming. We have to accept that it's going to happen at some point and work to ensure it never does."

With litigation a possibility, Dean isn't commenting further, and Tough Mudder declined my requests to see internal documents relating to safety procedures. Company officials did invite me to Tough Mudder's Brooklyn, New York, headquarters last summer to discuss safety issues, and I was told repeatedly that Tough Mudder is and always has been committed to participant safety. "We did everything we could," chief operating officer Don Baxter said about Avi's death, adding that "it's impossible to remove risk entirely from these events."

Mario Vittone, a retired U.S. Coast Guard rescue-swimmer instructor and aquatic-risk-management consultant based in Virginia Beach, sees it differently. Vittone has been hired as an expert witness by the Sengupta family's lawyers. He argues that Tough Mudder could have done much more to mitigate the risks in West Virginia, and that what Dean calls the company's "amazing" safety record may have been the very thing that blinded it to inadequacies.

"Mistaking the lack of failure for success is a really common human error," Vittone explained. "It's like texting and driving. If the teenager texts, he's just learned that he can do it and not get in a wreck," and so he's likely to do it again.

Tough Mudder declined to address this and other criticisms made by Vittone. Baxter told me that Tough Mudder's safety record is important to its branding but that safety isn't just about marketing for the company, which will net approximately $100 million for 2013. "Part of what makes Tough Mudder different from much smaller mud runs is that we have the resources to be able to invest in making things like these obstacles better, and in making sure we've got as good a quality of medical care as possible," he said. "We just have a duty of care to everyone who comes through."

Ben Johnson, Tough Mudder's communications director, emphasized that the company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on safety training for employees and is projected to incur "significantly more than $4 million" in external event-safety costs in 2013.

From Vittone's perspective, though, it doesn't matter how much money Tough Mudder spends if it fails to apply military-grade risk management to what the company markets as a military-style obstacle course "designed by British Special Forces."

"The training done by elite military combat professionals involves a lot more than setting up an obstacle course and sending the troops in," Vittone wrote on April 23 in a widely circulated blog post. "They go through months of buildup and monitoring, the training is extremely well supervised, and their emergency response plans are well thought out, practiced, and proven. By comparison, an event like Tough Mudder is a free-for-all."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Bijon and Mita Sengupta in Avi's old room."}%}

BEFORE THE INCIDENT in West Virginia, Vittone had never given much thought to Tough Mudder. Intrigued by news stories about Avi's death, he began searching for participant videos on YouTube. As he studied the deployment of safety personnel and the crowd-control measures used for Walk the Plank at various Tough Mudder events, his immediate reaction was harsh. "This isn't planned out," he told me. "This is hoping. This is throwing people in the water, throwing out a couple of lifeguards or some guys in kayaks, and hoping for the best." When a video of the entire West Virginia incident at Walk the Plank appeared online last June, shot by a participant named Brett Brocki, Vittone's convictions hardened. "There didn't appear to be any standard operating procedures," he said. "Even within the few minutes that the video shows, there's a difference in the way people enter the water from the first second of the video to the last minute of the video."

Something as simple as managing the way Tough Mudder participants enter and exit a muddy pool may seem trivial, but Vittone says that military-style SOPs, or standard operating procedures, are a vital element in risk management, because they help control variables, ensuring that the only risks posed by a hazardous activity are the ones that can't be eliminated.

In the case of Walk the Plank, where participants plunge into cold water over their heads, it would be impossible to eliminate the inherent risk of drowning. But Vittone says that properly designed SOPs could stop many other calamities: collisions between participants in midair or in the water, lifeguards getting distracted by disorganized crowds, or a participant drowning without being seen. In Vittone's opinion, all of those additional human-error risks were in play on the day Avi drowned, and those factors combined to make an effective rescue impossible.

When I asked Vittone how he would reform Walk the Plank, he said it was simple: he'd shut down the obstacle entirely. "Deep, murky, cold water above your head is an unacceptable risk, and it can't be effectively managed," he said, "particularly when there's no value added except for fun." When I pressed him for a more compromising position, he said, "I would at least expect them to follow the same safety protocols that are followed at water parks with clear water and ten-year-olds—one person in the pool, one person out."

If it were up to him, Vittone said, he would require eight divers at Walk the Plank—two separate teams composed of a diver, a backup, a dive tender, and a dive master, rotating frequently to prevent fatigue and inattention. When Avi drowned, Travis Pittman was the only diver on hand.

Vittone conceded that Tough Mudder could probably reduce risk at Walk the Plank to an acceptable level, but doing so would create long waits. "The list of things I would put in place are doable, but then you can't run 20,000 people through it in a weekend, not without building five of them," he explained. "So it's one of those things: to do that safely, you can't do it fast, and therefore I would suggest against it."

FOR NOW, TOUGH MUDDER has no plans to remove Walk the Plank from its obstacle lineup. Baxter told me the company applies "a rigorous data-driven approach to making sure that risk is minimized," and the data shows that relatively few injuries occur at Walk the Plank. People get hurt more often at obstacles like Balls to the Wall, which requires participants to climb over a 12-foot vertical wall, leading to many twisted ankles and the occasional broken leg. To reduce risk, Tough Mudder added wall cleats and spread mulch at the base to soften landings.

Baxter couldn't think of any modifications they'd made to Walk the Plank based on injury data in the three years leading up to Avi's death. Sitting in Will Dean's office at the Tough Mudder HQ, he had a sheaf of papers spread out before him, including schematics of obstacles and metrics showing coursewide and obstacle-specific injury data. "Walk the Plank does not feature in any of these," he said. "I hazard to say it's not in our top ten in number of injuries."

While Tough Mudder has not admitted to any fault in Avi's death, the company has taken significant measures in the months since it occurred to improve safety management at Walk the Plank. In midsummer of 2013, it altered the description of the obstacle on its website to remove this sentence: "Don't spend too much time pondering your leap—squadies at the top of the platform will chew you out, or worse, push you into the freezing depths below." Ben Johnson told me that this comment was "clearly made in jest" and "not something we did on-site." But Amy Cohen, a teammate of Jennifer Andersen's, says that when she hesitated at the top of Walk the Plank, a Marine volunteer told her, "If you want, we can push you." A moment later, she says, someone shoved her hard from behind. She hit the water in a panic and had to be rescued. (As it happened, the change in the description on the site was only temporary—the old language was restored in September.)

More substantive and lasting changes have involved implementing a standard construction plan for Walk the Plank and a carefully managed deployment of safety personnel. Prior to Avi's death, standards appear to have been inconsistent. A quick search online turns up photographs of at least half a dozen iterations of Walk the Plank's construction design, with as many variations in the arrangement of safety workers. One of the first meaningful steps Tough Mudder took, according to Baxter, was to standardize the design and create a new set of SOPs. "It's part of us analyzing how we can improve on the back of West Virginia," he said.

In the current design, participants climb to the platform in single-file lanes separated by handrails. Up top, there are places for volunteers to stand, sectioned off by two-by-fours. Each volunteer is responsible for two lanes and actively directs jumpers on either side of his position. In the pool below, there's a one-to-one ratio of lanes to lifeguards. Before allowing each participant to jump, the volunteer on the platform communicates with the lifeguard below to make sure the previous jumper has resurfaced and cleared the lane.

Tough Mudder's improvements reflect suggestions made by MedPrep Consulting Group, a New York firm hired in May 2013 to do a full audit of the company's medical services. Stu Weiss, MedPrep's CEO, is an emergency physician who has served as medical director of the New York City Marathon and the New York City Triathlon. He said he was impressed by Tough Mudder's eagerness to improve. "Obstacle races are sort of like running was 15 years ago," Weiss told me over coffee one afternoon. "If you look at races ten years ago, all the big races, even the New York City Marathon—the medical delivery system was Band-Aids and Vaseline. Over the past ten years, it's really developed into something where now we deliver state-of-the art care." These days, major marathons and triathlons have mobile triage centers on-site, staffed with ER doctors and nurses. Weiss said he plans to bring that standard of care to Tough Mudder, and he hopes other obstacle-challenge companies will follow his lead.

WITH VITTONE'S comments in mind, I asked Weiss about the importance of SOPs. He said they're crucial, adding that he personally reviewed and improved existing SOPs for all Tough Mudder obstacles as part of the spring audit. Safety personnel and volunteers now receive "obstacle cards" detailing the actions they should take during an emergency. On the morning of the first day of each two-day event, volunteers and staff run through real-time drills to ensure they understand their roles.

At the Tough Mudders Weiss had attended as of last August—Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and Buffalo—he found that Walk the Plank had been set up exactly the same way each time. There had been a one-to-one ratio of lifeguards to lanes, and the volunteers on the platform were in constant communication with the lifeguards below to make sure the lanes were clear. Weiss said he emphasized order to volunteers and safety staff: "You do not let the next person go until you see a person jump, come up, and swim to shore." There was always at least one diver by the pool in full gear, ready to hit the water. A second diver had to be nearby, though not necessarily geared up. Johnson confirmed that Weiss's description matches the new written SOP for Walk the Plank.

Later, when I looked at participant videos from the events Weiss mentioned, there were a few discrepancies between the efficiency he described and what I saw. For example, one video from Pittsburgh shows four lifeguards watching nine lanes. In videos from all three events, there is no discernible communication between the platform volunteers and the lifeguards below.

But in Avi's case, the issue is the standards used on the day he ran the course. Video evidence and witness descriptions seem to support Vittone's assertion that there were no SOPs in place on April 20. Weiss told me that he had not discussed the West Virginia incident in detail with Tough Mudder and had not seen the video of Avi's jump and the subsequent rescue effort. So I pulled out my laptop, and we watched two of the three videos supplied to the sheriff's department.

In the first, a wave of jumpers plunges in, and Avi steps to the edge of the platform. By my count, there are 27 other people on the platform with him. A uniformed Marine with a loudspeaker to Avi's right, on the far edge of the platform, begins a countdown from three, then breaks off and looks down at someone on the ground. Avi looks in the Marine's direction and backs away from the edge—waiting, perhaps, for instructions. Then the Marine yells, "Line up! Three, two, one, go!" A man to Avi's left leaps, and then Avi steps off, left foot first. Arms above his head, he plummets into the water. Five others jump on the same count.

A sixth jumper, a brunette woman in a red tank top, goes off a split second after Avi, a half-step to his right. Rather than look down to ensure the pool is clear, the Marine with the loudspeaker works his way into the middle of the crowd atop the platform and counts down again, sending off another group of five.

At 59 seconds into the first video, Avi has been submerged for 14 seconds, and his teammate Wilkinson clearly knows something is wrong. He starts pointing down at the water. A whistle blows to halt jumpers while a lifeguard helps a struggling swimmer to shore. By now, Wilkinson is pointing frantically at the water, shouting, "Sham! Where's Avi?"

Three more people jump. Then another and another. Fifty-five seconds after Avi's jump, Mirshah's voice bursts in—"Hey! Hey, my man!" Five more people jump.

When Pittman, the rescue diver, finally gets into the water—two and a half minutes after Avi jumped in—he does not have his mask on or a regulator in his mouth. Pittman swims out until he's beneath the center of the platform, then passes his mask up to a lifeguard on shore, ostensibly to have it cleaned. Thirty seconds later, still with no mask, Pittman starts yelling at frustrated participants, including Rahimi, who'd begun diving into the water to search on their own. Twice he yells, "I don't need anybody else in the water!" followed by, "I'm a rescue diver, back off!" Four minutes after Avi jumped, the diver descends for the first time. Wilkinson can be seen pacing on the platform above the pool, hands on his hips, flanked by three Marines.

Weiss's reaction to all this as he watched? His jaw hung slack. "Wow," he said. "That's nothing like I've ever seen."

I started to describe some of the things Avi's teammates told me that weren't clear in the videos, but Weiss shook his head. "In my emergency training, you have a minute, or 30 seconds—some short amount of time to find that person," he said. "Better to have a false alarm than to have somebody lying at the bottom for a long time. So there is not a delay, there is no questioning. Somebody says 'My partner didn't come up,' they clear the event. In the divers go."

I started to ask Weiss how he would react if he were to attend a Tough Mudder and witness a situation similar to what he saw in the videos, but he stopped me short.

"That would not happen at an event that I'm running," he said.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Avi with his sister, Priyanka."}%}

TOUGH MUDDER won't discuss its strategy for the Senguptas' legal action—nor will anyone from Amphibious Medics—but if the suit goes forward, its lawyers will likely stress the fact that Avi signed what Tough Mudder calls a Death Waiver, exculpating the company of liability for certain acts of "ordinary negligence" and "inherent risks," such as "inadequate or negligent first aid and/or emergency measures" and "errors in judgment by personnel working the event."

But the Boston-area firm Gilbert and Renton, representing Avi's estate, will likely argue that such waivers do not relieve Tough Mudder of the legal "duty of care" that exists whenever a business knowingly creates predictable hazards for the public. In the case of Walk the Plank, the predictable hazard—drowning—is clear enough. Hence the presence of a rescue diver and lifeguards at the obstacle on the day Avi drowned.

To prove that Tough Mudder breached its duty of care, the Senguptas' lawyers will need to demonstrate that a reasonable person would have managed safety at the obstacle differently. They believe Travis Pittman's slow response and his decision to neglect "normal protocol for safe diving" will constitute a major element of a wrongful-death complaint, and the video evidence showing the bungled rescue effort could be difficult to challenge.

The Senguptas' complaint extends to the larger problem of ineffective crowd control. Using Mario Vittone's testimony, the Senguptas' lawyers will argue that failure to control the flow of participants moving through Walk the Plank resulted in a disorganized environment in which it would have been impossible to carry out a rescue within the two-minute period required by industry-standard lifesaving manuals.

The Senguptas' lawyers will also question why the company failed to employ SOPs based on the recommendations found in the United States Lifesaving Association Manual and the American Red Cross Lifeguarding Manual. Both emphasize the need for SOPs that encourage constant vigilance by lifeguards, particularly during times of high activity.

David Judd, an event photographer who was stationed at Walk the Plank on April 20—from the time the first participants came through, at about nine in the morning, until the obstacle was closed after Avi's drowning—told me he witnessed 20 to 30 rescues over the course of the day. He said that the scene in the moments before and after Avi jumped was "chaotic." There was a large influx at midday, but the layout of lifeguards and volunteers did not change.

Judd, who says that in October he was barred by Tough Mudder from shooting future events, told me, "I just couldn't believe the amount of people jumping in that were resurfacing after jumping in and had to be immediately rescued; they were basically drowning." By the standards of the U.S. Lifesaving Association Manual, such a high volume should have triggered a "special operation mode," requiring extra lifeguarding resources or the closure of the obstacle. By keeping the obstacle open, Tough Mudder put volunteers and safety personnel under extraordinary pressure and increased the likelihood that they would fail to respond adequately to a report of a missing person.

In the event of a missing-person report in deep water with reduced visibility, the U.S. Lifesaving Association Manual requires immediate surface dives by lifeguards "spaced in a line close enough to see, or touch, each other while on the bottom," and the Red Cross Lifeguarding Manual recommends that they be equipped with masks and fins. On April 20, Pittman conducted his search for Avi alone while at least five lifeguards stood on the shore, with no masks or fins in sight. The pool may have been too deep and too cold to allow for effective surface dives anyway, and this is another fact that Tough Mudder's lawyers will have to contend with.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the incident, the comments sections beneath news stories covering Avi's death were often sympathetic, but there was also speculation about his level of fitness, with some critics making the claim that he must have drowned because he didn't know how to swim or because he didn't belong on the course in the first place.

Some argue that the injuries are the result of Tough Mudder's aggressive marketing, which has fueled extraordinary growth—from 20,000 participants in 2010 to a projected 750,000 in 2013—and expanded the participant base beyond the narrow segment of hardcore CrossFitters and other assorted gluttons for punishment. The injuries, they say, are the inevitable outcome when you invite desk jockeys into an elite arena.

The Senguptas' lawyers are unlikely to blame participants for what they see as Tough Mudder's failure to operate the event safely. They will likely argue that, as Tough Mudder's participant base exploded, the company prioritized good crowd flow over safety procedures, and that the protocols at Walk the Plank stayed the same—inconsistent and ineffective—until a fatality occurred.

The details of what happened under the water in the moments after Avi jumped in are unknown. Dr. Alan Steinman, a former director of health and safety for the U.S. Coast Guard, who has been hired by Gilbert and Renton as an expert witness, told me that the autopsy report shows that Avi had a contusion on his groin, suggesting (in contrast to what the sheriff's report said) that someone could have landed on him.

Under the surface, where the sunlight was blocked by the murky water, Avi may have become disoriented, causing him to swim diagonally instead of upward. If he did, he would have placed himself directly in the landing zone of other participants. A blow to the groin would have added to any aquatic distress Avi was suffering and reduced his ability to hold his breath.

His breath-holding ability may also have been reduced by a cold-shock response, which can happen anytime someone's head is submerged in cold water. (Steinman estimates that the water temperature that day was around 50 degrees.) Cold shock causes a sudden release of adrenaline and an increase in heart rate, and can reduce an average breath-hold time of one minute to just 15 seconds.

What we do know, unequivocally, is that Avi drowned. When cold water hit the back of his throat, it caused his larynx to spasm. As his vocal chords tightened, Avi would have panicked and attempted to inhale, which would have caused chest pain and may have triggered fear of death. His sealed larynx temporarily prevented him from taking water into his lungs but did not prevent him from swallowing large quantities, causing his stomach to bloat. Avi's brain quickly used up its available oxygen, and he slipped out of consciousness, causing his larynx to release. Though he was unconscious, his heart was still beating. He inhaled water. After three minutes, his brain cells began dying rapidly. For two additional minutes, there was a chance that he could have been recovered and resuscitated with only minor brain injuries. When five minutes passed, and Avi's lungs were still filled with water, his brain began to die from lack of oxygen. When the diver finally dragged Avi out, he had suffered catastrophic brain damage.

MITA Sengupta saw her son for the last time on the Friday night prior to the Tough Mudder event, just before she stepped out to visit with friends. When she came downstairs, Avi was standing in the kitchen.
"Hey, you look pretty!" Avi said.

"Thank you," Mita replied.

When she returned around midnight, Avi was already asleep. Bijon woke up early the next morning to have breakfast with Avi before he left to meet up with his teammates, but Mita decided to stay in bed another hour. She had a grueling morning of bridal-shower preparations ahead of her and wanted the extra sleep. Standing at the kitchen island where they'd shared so many late-night meals, Bijon told his son to walk around any obstacles that he didn't feel confident about. Avi promised to be careful.

"He was a big hugger," Bijon said, with an attempt at a smile, "so we hugged."

Mita's face lit up as she recalled how Avi would sneak up and give her "surprise hugs" in the morning. Startled, Mita would feign annoyance, and Avi would say, "One day you're going to miss my hugs."

Mita's strongest memory of Avi in the days before his death is a happy one. Priyanka, Mita, and Bijon had just returned from a craft store with vases and floral materials to make centerpieces. Avi had been out to a movie with a friend, and when he came home he found his family inundated in flower petals. Without any explanation, he walked over to Mita, took her arms, and started dancing and singing "Stayin' Alive." Priyanka captured the moment on video with her phone—Avi singing, Mita cracking up.

"That was his present for me," Mita said. "Two days after that he was gone."

When Avi reached the Tough Mudder parking lot in West Virginia, he sent Bijon a text that said "Reached." That was his last communication to his family.

The pain of Avi's death made Priyanka's wedding bittersweet. Avi was going to escort his sister down the aisle. He was also a groomsman and had volunteered to plan the bachelor party for Priyanka's fiancé, Seth Marple. The worst came after the wedding, when all the supportive friends and family had returned home. Priyanka and Seth left for a honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean, and Bijon and Mita had to cancel the flights they'd booked to London for the post-ceremony vacation they'd planned with Avi.

"It hit us hard after the wedding," Bijon said, "when it was finally just the two of us."

"It's not being able to sleep. It's just crying at any little thing, feeling like you have an actual wound," Mita said.

We walked upstairs to see Avi's bedroom. Avi had been dead four months, but the way things were laid out gave the impression that he'd just been there. His box sets of "Magic: The Gathering" cards were stacked neatly by the door. His old stuffed animals—Tigger and Winnie the Pooh—were resting on the pillows of his twin bed. Against one wall, there was a wooden rack with a black Stratocaster and four acoustic guitars.

"Most of them have a string missing," Bijon said, allowing a chuckle. "You can strum it, but it will never play quite right." That's what their lives are like now, Bijon said.

A framed poster of Muhammad Ali throwing a right jab hung above the guitars, with the words, "I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark." On the opposite wall, by a window, there was a James Dean poster with another quote: "Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today."

Maybe these were the quotes that kept Avi moving in the early days, when he could barely run a mile without walking.

Elliott D. Woods wrote about skiing in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in December 2012.

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Does the New 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Get Survival Right?

Full disclosure: Last spring, I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy in one go (okay, I listened to the unabridged audio version) while passing the long hours slogging to Everest Base Camp. I was intrigued by the series in part because it was the popular book everyone seemed to be talking about. But I was also crushing on the female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, because she was kind of the ultimate outdoor babe, a cross between Lara Croft and Becky Thatcher, who earned bonus points for being a bow hunter.

In the new film, Catching Fire, the second of the books to be adapted to film, and which opens nationwide today, we find Katniss, (Jennifer Lawrence), living comfortably in the Victors’ Village alongside Peeta Mellark. The two—having won the previous year’s Hunger Games, a kind of dystopian Survivor in which contestants use primitive weapons to kill each other on live television—are expecting the well-fed life of peace and comfort that’s the prize of victory. Instead, the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is worried that the two pose an existential threat to the imperial Capital of Panem by giving hope to the 12 subjugated Districts that are responsible for producing the raw material for their conquerors’ opulent lifestyles. So back into the arena the victors must go for some more Lord of the Flies–style bloodletting.

As with the first movie, success in the arena relies on a mix of fighting and survival skill. Katniss’s prowess with a bow is legendary—so much so that archery ranges across the country are seeing a serious uptick in young female participation. (At the Archery Shoppe in Albuquerque, where I sometimes shoot, it seems like there are always a handful of 14-year-old girls on the line shoulder to shoulder with goateed guys in camo.) In Catching Fire, Katniss has upgraded from her homemade hardwood bow to an Olympic-style carbon-fiber recurve model. Unfortunately, no actual Olympian—even the South Korean women, who are unbeatable in competition—comes close to her skill. Katniss never picks up her arrows, and never runs out. She hits moving targets at all distances and shoots faster than a Wayne LaPierre wet dream. Her skill comes from shooting small game and turkeys back home in District 12, which looks a lot like mid-Atlantic coal country.

{%{"quote":"To make fresh water, Katniss and her allies rely on a spile. That’s the metal tree tap that should be familiar to any Vermonter."}%}

And she’s a survivor, though less so in Catching Fire than in the first Hunger Games movie, in which Katniss builds a mountain lair worthy of Eric Rudolph. Save for a training session in which Katniss expertly instructs two allies from District 3 on their hand-drill fire making technique—you’ve got to move your hands down the spindle as you turn to produce enough friction—the woodsmanship in installment seems a bit hokey. To make fresh water, Katniss and her allies rely on a spile. That’s the metal tree tap that should be familiar to any Vermonter; pound the little spigot into a tree and out comes the sap. Typically a spile works only when sap is flowing freely during the late fall and early spring when temps are below freezing at night and warmer during the day. The jungle trees in Catching Fire quickly produced a stream of water more like a garden hose.

But machine-gun archery and silly survival tactics have long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy. We won’t even get into the physics of force fields and hovercraft. Chances are you’re not in the theater because Bear Grylls’s show got cancelled. More likely, you’ll watch this one because you loved the books, even if you claim that it’s just your kids who are into them.

While the second installment of the trilogy is bigger and flashier than the first movie, which had the same hard-scrabble indie vibe that made Jennifer Lawrence a star in Winter’s Bone, director Francis Lawrence stayed utterly true to the book for two-and-a-half hours. As middle movies in a series go, Catching fire is more Breaking Dawn than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s still entertaining. There’s plenty of eye candy here, from the special effects to the actors, but for those of us who wax too critical whenever we see a big budget film blow details—like every Hollywood climbing movie that’s ever been made—it’s refreshing when directors like Francis Lawrence invest the effort to get it right.

Catching Fire may be less about overcoming the oppressive regime than about whether Katniss ends up with Peeta or her childhood sweetheart-cum-coal miner Gale. Fans of the books will love it. And they may even tolerate the fact that our benevolent Hollywood overlords are squeezing not one but two movies out of Mockingjay, the final book in the series.

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The Making of “The Armstrong Lie”

As Daniel Coyle, co-author of The Secret Race, has pointed out, Lance Armstrong’s story is not new. It’s an archetypal tragedy fueled by greed and hubris.

The Armstrong Lie, the new documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) isn’t entirely new either. The narrator (Gibney himself), originally enlisted to document Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, wound up making a film about the man’s dramatic rise and fall. Gibney came to understand that Armstrong's invitation into his inner circle was a calculated move. Who better to bolster the power of his story, to help weave a more elaborate cloak over the truth, than a director with a reputation for exposing abuses of power?

The film's two producers, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, already called Armstrong a friend. But just as the team finished its original comeback documentary, The Road Back, a string of admissions followed by a 202-page USADA report hit the news. The filmmakers shelved their first movie. They needed just one thing to happen in order to make a new film: Armstrong to play along.

You shelved your first movie, The Road Back, after Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and others made allegations against Lance. But then Armstrong contacted you. Talk about that moment.
FRANK MARSHALL: He asked Matt and I to come down to Austin during the Livestrong Fundraiser, Ride for the Roses, last October.

MATT TOLMACH: It was surreal. The USADA report had come out and people were bailing from the Lance train. Frank and I had long ago drunken the Kool Aid, so we were somewhere in the middle. I was a little skeptical; Frank was wanting very much to believe that there was no substance to this.

And we were in Austin. Lance said, “Come into my office, I want to talk about doping, and I want to come forward, and I want to maybe say something in the movie.” And he came clean.

We were gobsmacked. This came from the mouth of a guy who had been so vehemently denying it for so long. It was just an insane moment in life, to be in the same room with this guy as he comes clean. It was a lot to process. As filmmakers, we were incredibly excited because it meant a whole new life and angle for our movie. But as people who knew him for a long time? It was a stunning and shocking moment.

Did you ask many questions?
MARSHALL: I mostly listened because it was such a stunning revelation. We asked him if he would be prepared to talk to Alex again because there was no movie unless we had a new interview with him. He agreed, and then Matt and I got on a plane the next morning so we could meet with Alex. Then we met with Sony Classics. A new movie evolved.

Did you set up any guiding principles?
At this point, what you have to understand is that the first film was primarily a comeback film. The Road Back contained within it the idea of the road into the past, a kind of reckoning with past accusations or allegations of doping. Slowly, those failed accusations and allegations became very real.

It became a different kind of investigation, not into whether it happened, but how it happened, and how the lie obscured the reality of what had happened. And so a different kind of move had to be made.

We had on film the anatomy of a lie. It was like that moment in Blow Up when David Hemmings suddenly realizes he has something in the lens of his camera that he didn’t understand. And so now we’re going back and doing a different kind of an investigation, moving back and forth in time. Although I was kind of reluctant to put myself in the movie, we all agreed to make my own story part of the story—to really convey the emotional depth of what it's like to believe and then to have a lie revealed.

Alex, what was the biggest challenge in terms of putting yourself in the story?
GIBNEY: Well, I think the biggest challenge was being honest. I had become a fan. I had to really reckon with my own role in the story, as having been, in effect, part of the cover up.

Why do you think Armstrong gave you full access to document the comeback in the first place?
GIBNEY: I think it was hubris. I think it was a sense that he had this act wired, that he had done it before, and he was going to do it again. Everybody could watch, and they could look under the bed, and wherever they wanted, and they could talk to whomever they wanted, but he had this down. It didn’t matter if they gave us access, because we wouldn’t be able to see anything.

In the film I ask him: “Weren’t you concerned that people were going to raise questions about doping when you came back in 2009?” And he said without missing a beat, “Of course.” Not, “Yes.” So, there was an expectation that he could give us lots of access and it wouldn’t make any difference.

TOLMACH: Lance did let Alex do this. There’s part of me thinks it was 99 percent hubris. At the same time, there’s something kind of nuts about doing that with someone like Alex who emerges with the truth. Maybe he knew subconsciously that couldn’t hold on to this thing anymore, I don’t know. I’m always amazed that he did let Alex in.

Were there moments when you felt that Armstrong was trying to control your story?
GIBNEY: He is a storyteller, at least when it comes to his own story and his own myth. It’s as if he wrote the script for himself in the morning and then lived it in the afternoon.

There was one day where he lost very badly to rival Alberto Contador. We were hanging out in his hotel room filming him. And he looked me in the eye and he said, “I’m sorry. I fucked up your documentary.” I think there was an aspect of bluster to it, but I think there was something very true about it. It was as if he had written the screenplay, but it hadn’t come out the way he wanted. He had a narrative for himself that he believed in, and a lot of others believed in.

That was the thing, he had created a story that was so big, and so fantastical, and he even called it a miracle at one point. On the 2005 podium, he said, “I’m sorry for those of you who don’t believe in miracles.” When you have a guy who’s scripting miracles, he’s going to try pretty hard to control that story.

TOLMACH: There’s an amazing moment in the movie that also speaks to how strange it all was. The moment I showed up at the Tour that year, he'd had a bad day. I went up to him and said, “Hey dude, how’s it going?” He gave me a hug, and he whispered to me, “What’s going to happen with the documentary if I don’t win?” He was so acutely aware that we were telling a story about him. And so he was trying to be the storyteller and the main character. 

GIBNEY: This guy had come to realize that the enormity of his story was so powerful, so financially and emotionally beneficial—both to him and to many others. I think he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to keep delivering that lie, over and over again. 

Where did his ability to craft a story come from?
I think that’s what’s the movie about. He was this angry, fatherless kid who came out on a tear, and then suffered an enormous blow [cancer] and came back to the sport in spectacular fashion. And there’s a whole sequence about the power of that revelation to him and everybody else. That’s where it all began. And I think the movie kind of examines why he was so ripe for playing the lead in this story about the creation of a myth.

GIBNEY: Just like he learned to do everything on the bike, he learned how to be a great storyteller because he understood that he was at the center of an extraordinarily powerful story. He learned on the job. I don’t think it was innate. I think as Matt says, it was nature, not nurture.

What’s the ultimate motivation driving that?
GIBNEY: I think it just evolved. I think at some point, he understood that the story was enormously profitable, and not just for him. It was profitable for the sponsors, and the sport. And frankly, it was also very powerful to millions of cancer survivors all over the world. We say in the film, it’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power. 

Did power motivate him more than money?
GIBNEY: I’m not sure. I think he sees the world in very binary terms. You either win—and if you win, you win all out. Or you lose. That’s it. Win or lose. End of story.

Why were there no interviews with his mom, or his ex-wife, or anyone from his family?
GIBNEY: I tried to keep it to the team, to keep it professional. It really became an investigation about his professional life, and not his personal life.

There's a moment in the film when Armstrong, Bruyneel, and Stapleton are talking about the possibility of Armstrong not being invited to compete in the 2009 Tour. What did you think about that moment after you learned that Lance had been doping?
GIBNEY: That’s just an unbelievable scene in retrospect, but at the time it was just part of the constant bravado and clamor about doping accusations. You know: How dare they? Which was a constant refrain. But they all knew he was doping. Johann doesn’t say, “He didn’t dope.” He says, “He wasn’t busted. He wasn’t busted.”

GIBNEY: And so it has a whole different subtext.

Can you summarize your relationship to Armstrong? How much did you correspond before the making of this movie?
MARSHALL: I met Lance before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 through his agent Bill Stapleton; we were both on the Olympic committee. Bill came to me when Lance wrote his book, after the Olympics, and said, “We think this could be a movie." 

TOLMACH: And we spent a lot of time with him. We went to every Tour. We rode with him. Lance and I would go out and just hammer the hills, and Frank would be in the car behind us taking pictures. We spent a lot of time with him developing a narrative, so we knew him very well.

Matt and Frank,  how important was it to have Gibney as the director? 
MARSHALL: We selected him to do the first version of this film because as a producer, I like to go with the best. He’s a fantastic documentarian, he’s won an Academy Award, he’s done great documentaries, and he's also a big sports fan. But when we met with him, he admitted he didn’t know anything about cycling, which was actually great because we wanted the film to reach a broader audience.

He was also really fascinated by Lance’s will. Really, he was interested in why Lance was making a comeback. I was interested in that too, and so it made sense to have him as our guy. 

TOLMACH: I think the most important thing to understand is that Frank and I were insiders in the world of Lance. Even in the previous version of the movie we really wanted to get under the skin of this guy and try to understand him. We needed someone who approached his subjects more forensically and analytically then we would. Alex is the best in the world in that.

Alex’s first cut of the movie was brilliant, and was quite biting in its own way. But once everything became clear a year ago, the journalist in him just lit up. He can find sources that no one else can find and weave a narrative that breaks through a very complicated story. It all ended up being really perfect casting.

Was there ever a moment when you butted heads with Alex?
TOLMACH: Absolutely. There was one evening when we were in the cutting room in Columbia Pictures and we were, in the most productive way, having a very heated debate about some of the stuff Alex was putting in about doping.

MARSHALL: It was about balance.

TOLMACH: At that point we tended to be the counterbalance to anything that had to do with doping. Long before all of this stuff came out, Alex was hot on the trail on all kinds of noise and allegations that were already out there. He had already interviewed Frankie Andreu and Michele Ferrari and people who nobody was talking to back then. 

MARSHALL: We thought, in some instances, the allegations were not relevant to the story we were telling—the incredible story that happened on the mountain in the battle between Contador and Lance. We wanted to err on the side of the exciting race, and also have sort of the smoke that was swirling around. Again, it was about balance.

What was the lesson in making this movie?
TOLMACH: I found the process to be so eye opening, and oddly, the idea that the truth is a ever-moving target is actually a gift when you’re making a documentary. You’re given a story that is ever changing. When you make a documentary, you’re very nimble, you’re not locked into a strip, you can roll with events as they happen. It certainly forced me to take a broader view of things, things that you believe in and things that you are not necessarily willing to question because it might be uncomfortable to go against the grain. I think Alex showed us the importance of always looking for the whole truth, and keeping our eyes wide open at all times and not getting lost in the narrative. It's been an amazing ride.

MARSHALL: I agree. Unfortunately, the desire to win at all costs has been woven into our culture. I look at things a little more carefully. I’m glad we hung in there to discover the real truth. I mean, Lance was a hero to me. I’m a bit more cynical now. I was probably naïve, probably too idealistic. But winning at all costs is not a good ethic to have; it causes a lot of damage.

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Alex Honnold Isn't Afraid of Skyscrapers

In October of 2012, Alex Honnold, 28, and filmmaker Peter Mortimer, 39, were talking about making a new kind of climbing film: one that featured Honnold scaling an immense skyscraper. "We thought, Wouldn't that be a rad next thing to do," recalls Mortimer, a founder of the production company Sender Films, "soloing a big building?" Then Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner leaped from the edge of space in a Red Bull spacesuit on live television, and the pair got a better idea. They started discreetly calling networks with a bold plan: Honnold wanted to free-solo—climb without ropes—the exterior of one of the world's great skyscrapers on live TV. The National Geographic Channel bit, and in July, the station announced that Honnold would scale what turned out to be the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, in Taiwan. The climb, originally scheduled for November, was delayed, so the team could shore up the details, and is now set to take place in 2014.

The plan is to follow a routine that Honnold and Mortimer honed in Yosemite National Park: Honnold will start from the ground with little more than his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Meanwhile, Mortimer, Sender cofounder Nick Rosen, and a team of top cameramen and riggers from the climbing world will track his progress while ascending ropes using mechanical jumars. All of which they hope will translate into a ratings bonanza. "You say it in a sentence on the elevator and someone gets it," says Mortimer.

Honnold is the biggest name among a group of adventure athletes engaging in high-risk live action-sports spectacles that seem pulled from the Evel Knievel playbook. First came Baumgartner's Stratos leap. Then, last June, highwire walker Nik Wallenda crossed a quarter-mile cable strung over the Little Colorado River while 13 million people tuned in on the Discovery Channel, setting a 13-year ratings high. In September, BASE jumper Miles Daisher announced that he'd try to complete Knievel's failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, "Sketchy" Andy Lewis—the slackliner who made his name performing in a toga during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—announced plans to walk a 360-foot line strung between two towers of Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay resort.

In many ways, these projects represent a return to an old form of entertainment. "This idea of doing spectacular stunts goes back to the age of the circus," says Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thompson. "And it's pretty consistent with the needs of contemporary digital media." In an era of diminished ratings and fractured attention spans, what could be more compelling than an athletic feat accentuated by the very real prospect of televised tragedy? "When you get someone who's really pushing the absolute limits of human capability, that taps into something very aspirational in our viewers," says Discovery executive producer Howard Schwartz, who was behind the Wallenda walk. "And, to be completely frank, there's will-he-or-won't-he-make-it appeal."

No one's better suited to this sort of high-profile undertaking than Honnold, a goofy, doe-eyed kid who burst onto the climbing scene in 2008 by free-soloing Yosemite's iconic Half Dome. He later cracked the mainstream when Citibank featured him in a commercial shot near Moab, Utah, and 60 Minutes ran a special on him using footage from Sender Films. "He's bigger than climbing," says Mortimer. "He's doing things that won't get done again for a generation, if ever. If you put all of our business into two boxes, and one was Alex Honnold and the other was everything else, Alex is the biggest box."

For his part, Honnold is typically self-effacing about the forthcoming climb—"It's a lucky coincidence that what I enjoy doing happens to be the most photogenic," he says. But he's well aware that Taipei could represent his international coming-out party. Honnold won't discuss specific figures, but he acknowledges that he'll be paid "vastly more than anything I've encountered in the climbing world" for the project.

Once Honnold and Mortimer sold the idea to National Geographic, they had to negotiate the tricky process of convincing a building owner to host the event. They landed first on the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, which Honnold examined closely last year. "Just the scout is a life-list experience, something to tell your grandkids about," he says. "You're rappelling off the edge of the biggest building in the world." Ultimately, though, he and Mortimer settled on the world's second-tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101. "The Burj was just too hardcore for me," says Honnold. "It's the El Capitan of buildings."

At first the Sender crew were extremely secretive about their Taiwanese target, not wanting to attract attention. To preserve the surprise, Honnold scouted the moves of his upcoming climb at dawn. "You have to actually touch everything, because you're not sure what the construction is like the whole way—whether there's an insurmountable eight-foot blank spot 1,500 feet up the building," he says.

Honnold maintains that the climb itself isn't that demanding, and that the most perilous eventuality would be a piece of architecture breaking off. As with Wallenda's Colorado River highwire walk, the broadcast will happen on a ten-second delay, which will give producers time to cut away should something go wrong. (Many of the best free soloists, including Dan Osman, Derek Hersey, and Michael Reardon, have died in climbing accidents.) And while the organizers have tried to get Honnold to employ safety devices ranging from parachutes to crash pads, the climber has managed to convince them that he has things under control.

"You don't go forward on a project like this if there's a 15 percent chance you're not going to make it," he says. "There's a 100 percent chance I'm going to make it." Or maybe he won't. You'll just have to watch.

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One Mean Motherfracker

Steingraber is hardly a newcomer to the environmental scene: people have been comparing the former biology professor to Rachel Carson since 1997, when she published Living Downstream. The book examines how illness is linked to pollution, and it grew out of Steingraber's experiences battling a form of bladder cancer that may have been caused by industrial runoff.

But over the past three years, Steingraber, 54, has emerged as one of the country's top experts on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And here's the really surprising thing: at a time when everyone from big green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council to President Obama is touting America's newfound natural-gas glut as a bridge to energy independence, Steingraber has prevailed in her efforts to keep the process out of her home state.

In 2011, she received a $100,000 Heinz Award for her human-rights approach to the environmental crisis. At the time, it appeared that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was moments away from lifting a moratorium on fracking, so Steingraber used her prize money to help start the nonprofit New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition that includes thousands of members, from farmers to mothers to actor Mark Ruffalo. In 2012, she starred in the antifracking film Dear Governor Cuomo, which raised pressure on the state government. In March, she was jailed for blocking the entrance to a gas compressor station. A month later she published Raising Elijah, about how environmental issues like gas development will affect future generations. Meanwhile, the push to frack New York remains stalled. Cuomo has yet to lift the moratorium, and companies like Chesapeake Energy have started pulling out of the state.

There may be bigger names in the fracking debate—Josh Fox and Ruffalo come to mind—but none of them are as uncompromising or informed. "The data is showing us that we're killing our planet and killing our children," she says. "And scientists have a moral position to make sure that the data makes a difference."

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