Tough Mudder's First Death In Context

The recent death of a Tough Mudder participant is giving obstacle-racing fans pause: Are organizers pushing competitors too far with their trademark challenges?

A competitor at the Walk the Plank obstacle at Pocono Manor's Tough Mudder     Photo: The 621st Contingency Response Wing

Playing Dirty

Obstacle courses are the biggest thing in adventure sports, and no one is profiting more than Tough Mudder creator Will Dean, who will stop at nothing to sell you his brand of suffering.

When 28-year-old Avishek Sengupta died while competing in Tough Mudder’s Mid-Atlantic 2013 event in Gerrardstown, West Virginia, this past weekend, the obvious questions was: How? How did a national series with 50 events under its belt and 75 paramedics, water rescue technicians, and other emergency personnel onsite fail to save one of its competitors from drowning in a manmade pond?

Part of the answer, as shocking as it may sound, is that while Sengupta may have been Tough Muddder’s first fatality in its three-year existence, his death is not as extraordinary as it may seem.

In August 2011, two participants died from heatstroke in another obstacle race, Warrior Dash, outside Kansas City, Missouri. Last April, a Texas man drowned in the Trinity River while competing in the Original Mud Run, in Fort Worth.

And deaths aren't limited to obstacle races: Other endurance events have had their own fatalities. Twenty-eight runners died during marathons between 2000 and 2009, according to a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Most of the deaths were caused by heart problems. In triathlon, 14 people died during the 3,000 events USA Triathlon sanctioned from 2006 to 2008. Thirteen of those deaths occurred during the swim.

Perhaps what’s more surprising than the deaths—particularly in the obstacle-racing craze—are the injuries. The same weekend that the two Warrior Dash participants died in 2011, a Michigan man named James Sa was paralyzed when he dove headfirst into the mud pit of a Warrior Dash race outside Detroit. Last October, in Washington, at least three people were severely injured in a race called the Extreme K Mud Run—one of them a police officer who shattered her ankle sliding down a hill.

The list goes on: Last year, a Georgia man was paralyzed during the Mud Freak event in South Carolina after he tripped in a cargo net and fell 15 feet to the ground; in 2010, an unregistered runner in Richmond’s Filthy 5K Mud Run was paralyzed after he jumped headfirst into a mud pit; in 2011, a Texas woman was paralyzed in the Volkslauf Mud Run, in Bakersfield, California, after she fell headfirst from a wall; in Wisconsin last year, 26 mud runners were hospitalized after a Tough Mudder event, including one with a fractured neck vertebra and another with a broken femur.

Injuries and deaths have always been a part of competition, but these paralyzing injuries seem to be an entirely new beast, one that has emerged in conjunction with the rise of obstacle races.

In their statement about the death of Avishek Sengupta, Tough Mudder said the obstacles are designed by experienced engineers and that they’re tested by safety experts. “As organizers, we take our responsibility to provide a safe event to our participants very seriously,” said Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean in the statement. “Tough Mudder is devastated by this tragic accident.”

Without a governing body overseeing the different race series, though, it’s difficult to assess how safe these events are and how many injuries they’re racking up. Still, it’s likely that Tough Mudder is on the higher end of the safety spectrum. In three years, 750,000 people have participated in their events and this is their first death, with very few serious injuries.

It’s the smaller or one-off events that are more likely to have safety issues with their obstacles. The Silverdale Chamber of Commerce sponsored the Extreme K Mud Run where three participants were injured last January. All competitors signed waivers, but in a lawsuit filed in December, the three participants say the obstacle in which they were injured, called “Gravity’s Revenge”—a waterslide down a slope into a creek bed—caused the injuries because it was “unreasonably dangerous in its design.” The lawsuit goes on to state that “due to the steep pitch and long run, participants’ descent was abruptly stopped when the participant impacted the rocks at the bottom.”

Similar lawsuits are pending against other race organizers, including Red Frog Events, which oversaw the Warrior Dash race in Michigan in which James Sa was paralyzed after he dove headfirst into a mud pit near the finish line. Sa contends that an emcee was goading participants to dive, despite rules in the waiver expressively forbidding it. “The encouragement to dive into the mud pit was so pervasive,” the complaint states, “that it was common knowledge amongst the race participants that not only were they allowed to dive into the mud pit but they were encouraged to do so.”  

On Saturday, Sengupta was racing the Tough Mudder event with co-workers and friends. By all accounts he was in good shape with no medical history. He apparently drowned while negotiating one of Tough Mudder’s signature obstacles, Walk the Plank, a 12-foot jump into a chilly mud pond. After making the leap, Sengupta never resurfaced.

Speaking to Martinsburg Journal, Daniel Gemp, who competed in the race and saw Sengupta at the hospital, said, “there was zero visibility and the diver was not in the water. It took four to seven minutes to get Avi out of the water. They did their best after that, but he was just in the water too long.”

Race personnel were on hand to watch each competitor enter the pond, but the muddy water likely hindered rescue personnel from spotting him sooner. Once they found him, they administered CPR, then transferred him to a local hospital. But on Sunday night doctors took him off of life support, saying that “brain swelling that developed due to a lack of oxygen from his being in the water for so long” was too severe to survive. An autopsy performed on Monday should determine the exact cause of death and whether he had any prior conditions, like heart problems, that may have contributed to his fatal accident.

Either way, Sengupta's death is unlikely to halt the unprecedented rise in popularity of obstacle racing. Last year, an estimated 1.5 million people participated in an obstacle race, a roughly 3,500-percent increase since 2009. 

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