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A competitor in a 2012 Tough Mudder in West Dover, Vermont.

A competitor jumps into a vat of ice water during a Tough Mudder event in West Dover, Vermont, on July 15, 2012. A young man drowned after competing in a Tough Mudder in West Virginia in April 2013.

Photograph by Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters

Luna Shyr

for National Geographic News

Published April 25, 2013

The first fatality in a Tough Mudder endurance event this past weekend raises a dire prospect that's typically far from the minds of participants or buried in the fine print of contracts.

Such extreme activities, with names like Rugged Maniac and Warrior Dash, have surged in popularity. Their novelty challenges include crawling under live wires, plunging into an icy dumpster, and dangling from monkey bars coated with butter and mud.

At best, such obstacle courses push mental and physical stamina and build teamwork; at worst, people get injured or even die.

After the Tough Mudder in Gerrardstown, West Virginia, this past weekend, 20 participants were treated at the local hospital, including two people with heart attacks and several people with hypothermia, head injuries, and orthopedic injuries. Avishek Sengupta, a 28-year-old from Maryland, drowned. His death has been ruled an accident after he jumped from a plank into a pool of muddy water during the race.

In April 2012, a 30-year-old man died in Texas after a similar event called The Original Mud Run. Two men died in a Warrior Dash in Missouri later that summer.

Tough Mudder is a nine- to 12-mile (14- to 19-kilometer) endurance challenge that bills itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet." An estimated 750,000 people have participated in Tough Mudder courses since 2010, running through mud and over obstacles. There are more than 50 Tough Mudder events planned for the rest of this year in the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Africa, and Europe. The company that puts on the events says that its courses are designed with safety experts, and that emergency personnel are present.

To reduce risk of competing in such events, sport psychologists and physicians emphasize preparation and awareness. We asked two experts—Justin Anderson of Premier Sport Psychology in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, and Dave Olson, a team physician for the Minnesota Vikings—to share their insights on extreme activities. (Quiz: Are You a Risk Taker?)

Justin Anderson, a sport psychologist, on extreme endurance events:

The term "extreme" has been applied to everything from Tough Mudder to Ironman to things like heli-skiing or BASE jumping. What makes a sport extreme?

It depends on whom you ask, but I think "extreme sports" include anything that's on the fringe of the mainstream and can be incredibly grueling or incredibly dangerous. All of those activities fit those categories.

Why do you think endurance events like Tough Mudder have become so popular?

Humans always want to continue to push the envelope. People tend to feel most content when they're growing and hitting or exceeding goals. Then there are additional gains like triggering dopamine in the brain—it acts as a natural high, and we can feel euphoric once we've completed one of these things.

There's also this identity factor of being someone who's tough and a go-getter. Finally there's the community; we get to interact with folks like ourselves who are high achievers, and that can be a really attractive thing.

What should anyone who participates in an extreme activity consider before they go out there?

It's important to be mindful of why we're getting into these activities and see if it's really worth it. When our dopamine levels get triggered, it becomes a natural high. What tends to happen is it takes more and more to get that psychological and biochemical effect, so we push and say we can go to this next level.

Also be careful not to be too caught up in the "rah rah" of the event. Once you jump into these things, it can be really seductive—that social persuasion of "let's go," even though your body and mind might be saying to slow down or take it back a notch.

Do people tend to overestimate their ability to do these endurance events? Underestimate the risks?

It depends on the person. Certainly a lot of people overestimate their ability. Ask yourself what you're doing to get your body prepared. Pay attention to your body and mind, especially when it's telling you to stop. That's the beauty of endurance sports like Ironman—the athletes are incredibly tough and they've learned in training how to focus on other things when they're running through cramps or their body wants to stop.

But the key is knowing which signals to pay attention to and which ones not to, and that comes from years of experience of knowing your body and its limits.

When you talk about the difference between pros and amateurs, we say pros practice far, far more than they play, and amateurs play far more than they practice. In the case of high-level athletes, they do a lot of training and understand what the extremes are. They know they have to build up to them. I recommend getting to know the process because these things are much more challenging than they appear, both mentally and physically.

(Related: Photos: Risk Takers)

Dave Olson, a team physician for the Minnesota Vikings, on preparedness:

What's the minimum training you would recommend for an event like Tough Mudder?

These events are tricky for sports medicine doctors. With sports teams we really get to see the athletes and review their histories. With mass events like Tough Mudder or a marathon, pretty much the only requirement is to sign up and think you're ready to do it.

Train smart for an event, ideally over a series of months to ramp up your activity, and get a medical checkup to make sure it's safe for you to do so. Tough Mudder events can be tricky because with, say, marathons, people go online and can read about how to train. But with events like Tough Mudder being new and different, a lot of times we see people going because friends say, "You should come do this." They may do some runs but often they don't end up doing the training they need to prepare. People have to be realistic and look at their medical background.

How do you best avoid injury on the day of the event?

Hydration is big, and equipment—making sure you're dressed properly and have good shoes that have been worn before so you don't get blisters, that kind of thing. If it's 100°F (38°C) out, have the proper shirt. And have an extra set of clothes for when you're done—something warm to put on in case you've been through an icy stretch. Dress smartly, look at the weather, and plan ahead.

To Justin's point about knowing which body signals to pay attention to and which to plow through, how do you know when you should stop?

It can be really tricky. I think it's hard for an athlete who hasn't been doing a lot of training—the first signal like chest pain might already be too late. You have to really listen to early signals like dizziness, cramping, and listen to them as warning signs. It's hard in those events because it's a group event—there's a lot of cheering and pushing through—but you really have to be smart about it, especially if you're not well trained.

11 comments
sylvia armitstead
sylvia armitstead

Reading through this article after spending the past few months clicking around on the Tough Mudder page puts a lot into perspective. This is something that I have decided I want to do, and will likely still compete this fall when it comes to my town in WA. 

However, I also know when my body says "nope, your done." The creed that you hear on the TM page talks about teamwork, I plan on doing this thing with a team. Go with your friends, watch each others backs. If food and blankets are low in supply then bring your own ((does the event allow this? Not sure I located any information about that on their site.)) You can pick up an emergency blanket for under 10.00 at REI and carry it with you. There are things that people can do to train and still be smart about this event. 

I would certainly hope that with recent events and the loss of Avi that the Tough Mudder staff would make sure they took a step back and really looked at their staffing and what is actually required to work one of these events. Having the proper personal in place to do their jobs is just as important as having the proper training and mindset to do one of these events. It takes both parties being ready and knowledgeable on what is required to make this work. 

Kevin Schuldt
Kevin Schuldt

@Joe Lombardo Joe I agree with you, we took part in the Wisconsin event in 2012. As you stated this event was extremely mismanaged from the start.

EMS was under staffed, local ER's were not advised properly of past injury accounts and were overrun with injuries, sanitation was poor (port-o potties with no TP and piles above the seats.) No rinse down water and lack of thermal blankets. Traffic was grid locked hindering access for EMS personnel. Cell towers were jammed and cell communication was limited and at times to nonexistent.

The picture that representatives from TM painted for the local town meeting was extremely misleading. For an organization of this size I expected more professionalism from the staff of TM. My view point of the event comes with credentials of 14 years fire/medic and I have taken part in many different events nationwide. Friends beware of what you’re getting into before you sign their release forms and EMS personnel in the areas of future events, staff up despite what TM tells you to expect. Better yet contact past event EMS/ ER’s and find out firsthand what to expect.

RIP Avi

KS

Joe Lombardo
Joe Lombardo

I participated in the Tough Mudder. While in many ways it was one of the most rewarding and exciting things I've ever done, I want to discourage people from trying it.   Not because it was too extreme,  but because I feel more safety measures should have been taken.

During the challenge, we witnessed the drowning of 28 year old Avi Sengupta. It is tragic and I believe it could have been avoided.

It happened on an obstacle that required you to jump from a 15 foot wall into cold, murky water and swim a short distance to get out. There were divers nearby to rescue people in trouble but only one was in the water. 

The problem was that the narrow platform was crowded and people were jumping in without guidance or order. This made it very difficult if not impossible to know if someone jumped and didn't come out. A lot of time was lost as the staff tried to figure out if he was in the water or somewhere else. At one point they asked us all to call his name to see if he had simply backed down from the obstacle. When he didn't turn up that way, the dive team took action, but in the dark water, it took a while to find him.

I've read that this is the first death at a Tough Mudder event and that over 750,000 people have taken the Tough Mudder challenge which might indicate that this was just a bad accident, but throughout the course, we saw other signs of mismanagement. All but one of the food stations were completely out of food, thermal blankets were scarce when you needed them most and in several places the staff and/or volunteers were hard to find or inattentive.

RIP Avi

James Nolan
James Nolan

Sylvia, let me know if you have any questions about the Black Diamond, WA event. My wife and I have done the Whistler and Black Diamond courses and we even had a team of 9 ranging from 22yr - 55yr old on it. It is a great time and it is tough. You have to know when to go around an obstacle but you also have the opportunities to push yourself just past that comfort zone to make the accomplishment even greater. Check out our adventure page at www.facebook.com/adventurejunkiesseattle and you can join us for the Tough Mudder or any of our other adventures.

zhang ao bo
zhang ao bo

@sylvia armitstead I do agree with your opinion that their staff should more professional while the competitor should do proper excercise and have a right mindset.

   And I hope you do well in the compete when it is held in WA!

Joe Lombardo
Joe Lombardo

@sylvia armitstead  Here are a couple of tips that might help.  But keep in mind many things are out of your control no matter how much you prepare... like people jumping on top of you.

Use a buddy system.   Pair up well before the event so it is clear to everyone whose back they are to watch and who will be watching for them.

Use matching headbands to help the team reconnect after obstacles.   Specify a meeting place, ie always meet on the right side of the obstacle so the team knows where to go.

Bring food and water to take on the trail.  Have a spectator follow you with more food and water in a backpack.   The spectator should go out of their way to make sure you are fed and hydrated. Believe it or not, you might forget to ask for food.

Prepare for both temperature extremes.  


Obstacle Course Ethics
Obstacle Course Ethics

@Kevin Schuldt The thing is the medical is the same for every TM event. We did a TM in CA and our friend was having an allergic reaction. We were told by the medic that all they have is bandaids and they couldn't help us. We had to leave the course and went to the Medical tent where we were told the same thing!!! TM needs to do better for the "Possibly" the most challenging event out there then having medical that can't take care of anyone

Daniel Gold
Daniel Gold

@Joe LombardoLike many of the comments here, I ran TM West Virginia this past Saturday.  First of all I want to send my condolences to the family and friends of Avi, it is tragic and there is certainly no reason this had to happen.

I want to reply to the comments left by Joe above.  I agree that the drowning certainly could have been avoided.  I also believe however that the safety of the participants is not only up to TM organizers and staff, but also up to the participants as well.

We have video when we passed through the "Walk the Plank" obstacle and we can count no less than six TM staff monitoring this obstacle, with two of those staff already in the water keeping track of the jumpers.  When we passed through, there were two staffers standing on the plank attempting to regulate/coordinate the jump so that each group waited until the next group cleared the water before they jumped.  The thing that jumped out at me was the irresponsibility of the participants.  In the groups leading up to my jump, many Mudders blindly jumped into the water below, ignoring the staff's instructions to wait.  The group directly before ushad two teammates attempt backflips off the  plank, collide in mid-air and land on top of each other in the water.  It was a scary moment for everyone watching.  While this is an extreme event, I found this to be highly necessary and definitely irresponsible.

While there are still little details in Avi's death, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there was some sort of similar circumstance surrounding this situation.  It's highly possible that an overzealous Mudder jumped too soon and landed on him after he jumped.  I would be very interested to hear the full account when it becomes available. 

Also, this was my group's second TM event and we were definitely impressed with how much more organized it has become in the past two years since our first event.  I'm not sure what time you were running Joe (we ran roughly 11:15a-2:45p), but every checkpoint we passed had PLENTY of water, bananas and energy bars.  Also, there were staff and medical personnel at every obstacle and scattered throughout the course.

RIP Avi

Joe Lombardo
Joe Lombardo

@Daniel Gold @Joe Lombardo Your perspective is different than mine, I was at the base of the wall when Avi jumped and could only see around the side.   I'm glad to hear that you saw more staff.

I have to disagree with your comment about food and water.  There was always water, but they definitely ran out of food... which means they did NOT have "plenty" of it.

I too suspect someone landed on Avi but maintain that it could have been avoided with more safety measures and better management.


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