Bodywork

Q:

Could Tough Mudder’s Electric Shocks Kill Me?

Tough Mudder says their Electroshock Therapy obstacle delivers a 10,000-volt electric shock. Can a human survive that, or is it a sham?

Tough Mudder

Shock therapy at Tough Mudder in Paige, Texas.     Photo: glennharper/Flickr

A:Electroshock Therapy: Sprint through a field of live wires—some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electric shock. Watch out for a hay bale or two or you will face-plant into some electrifying mud.

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Tough Mudder: Electroshock Therapy Obstacle

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On first hearing, it seems improbable that the wires in Tough Mudder’s Electroshock Therapy obstacle are juiced with 10,000 volts of electricity, particularly considering that a standard American 120-volt outlet can electrocute you. (Brief lesson in human-electricity contact lingo: "electrocuted" means you’re dead, while "shocked" means you’re still alive.)

That said, it is entirely possible that some Electroshock Therapy wires are backed by 10,000 volts of electricity, as advertised.

Dr. Michael S. Morse, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego, explains that while 10,000 volts can be life threatening in certain circumstances, it’s possible for something to have 10,000 volts behind it and be relatively harmless. “It might shoot off a large amount of current for a tiny amount of time, but generally speaking, it poses little to no risk,” he says.

That’s because many factors besides voltage are at play in electric shocks. The most important of those variables is how much energy is driving the electric current, measured in amps (which is directly related to voltage), the frequency of that current, how long the shock lasts, and where it enters and exits the body.

“Household static shocks, for example, are very high frequency and have a very short duration,” Morse says. According to LiveScience.com, it's possible to generate up to 25,000 volts by dragging your feet across a carpet, though Morse pegs the voltage of a typical carpet shock between a few hundred to a few thousand volts. Either way, household static shocks are almost always harmless. “Most of the shocks that electrocute people are at a much lower frequency, a much longer duration, and have more energy creating a much more significant driving force,” Morse says.

Morse describes how humans experience shock in amps. Humans can feel one-one thousandth of an amp, or one milliamp, of electricity, he says. To put that in perspective, it takes about 800 milliamps to light a 100-watt light bulb. Ten milliamps can cause a person pain, and at 14 to 15 milliamps, you will lose muscle control, an experience called the “cannot let go” phenomenon. Fifty milliamps is generally where you run the risk of dying from an abnormal heart rhythm.

Nevertheless, as stated above, how those amps are delivered plays a major role in whether or not you’re toast. A TASER’s current can exceed 14 amps, and the devices can produce more than 14,000 volts across a human body. But their pulse only lasts for a few millionths of a second, and the average current they give off over time is less than four milliamps. (Researchers at Wake Forest University recently concluded that TASERs are generally non-lethal.)

“As a rule of thumb,” Morse says, “amperage, in relation to human contact, is about one-one thousandth of the voltage.” That would place Electroshock Therapy’s amperage at about 10 amps, putting a shock from that obstacle on par with getting tased. To make it worse, Mudders are usually wet when running through the wires, and wet skin drops the body’s resistance to electric shock.

In the end, whether or not you can withstand a 10,000-volt Tough Mudder shock is a personal matter. As Morse points out, “Humans are very variable, and some people are vastly more sensitive to electricity.” That’s why Tough Mudder makes it clear at the start of each event that if you have any heart problems, pacemakers, internal metal, or just don’t want to subject yourself to the shocks, you should skip all electrified obstacles.

Morse says that he’d never heard of Tough Mudder before Outside contacted him for this article, and knows nothing about how the company produces its electricity. Considering Morse is one of the nation’s leading courtroom experts on electrocution, frequently testifying in cases involving electricity and humans, that’s probably a good sign.

Bottom line: Ten thousand volts it is! If you're mentally and physically able to withstand repeated tasing, more power to you.

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