As a race director, I lay awake at night for weeks before an event worrying about my racers' safety; when hosting my first triathlon back in '07, I was overcome with the feeling that I was slowly drowning – while on shore – until every single one of my athletes got out of the water safely. I'm a (somewhat optimistic) realist, I know you cannot plan for everything, and have been front & center too many times when the unforseen happened. Every race director that I personally know cares deeply for the health and well being of their racers, and eloquently put in Forrest Gump, “Shit Happens” that's beyond control.
I love the sport of OCR, so this is not a fear-mongering article on “the dangers that lurk in mud runs” and surely not writing this to create FUD (fear, uncertainty & doubt). As the sport continues to grow exponentially, we all need to be well-versed in safety – racers, volunteers, spectators, and event staff – to keep our courses as safe as possible while still being fun & competitive.
In the following article there's a little bit of braggadocio between the athletes about who sustained the biggest injury, and as you'll read, most of the injuries are chalked up to “it was my fault, I should've known better,” OCR athletes are a unique breed, aren't we?
In an earlier article, Mud Run Guide started the conversation as it pertains to OCR sanctioning & the Olympics, and Margaret Schlachter from Dirt in Your Skirt followed up with a piece about the Future of OCR. Somewhere in between, an ancillary debate started on the safety of events on the whole following Avi Gupta's death at Tough Mudder and the apparent “softening” of that event since then.
You may be expecting sone sort of in-depth journalism where we get to the heart of the issue of injuries in OCR and cover insurance, sanctioning, and he bleak future of this sport when we all have to follow some code of conduct, and yadda yadda. This is NOT that article.
Inevitably, electric shocks, jumping through fire, high jumps, dark tunnel crawls were discussed which led to stories of zaps that caused faceplants, stumbles that resulted in burns on fire obstacles, stitches from exposed screws, broken bones, near-drownings, and near-misses that make your heart leap. A handful of Mud Run Guide fans virtually got together and shared some stories, here are a few (with most event names redacted).
According to this Outside Magazine Article, the sport of OCR has suffered 4 deaths out of 2.4 million participants in 2010-2012. Skiing accounted for 22 times more fatalities than mud runs. Only about 1% of the of the 2.4 million (and rising) athletes that participate in an OCR or Mud Run sustain some injury other than bruises & scrapes.
Ninja Stitches: Corinne Kohlen
My injury happened at my friend's Ninja Warrior training grounds where he had pretty much built a full scale Ninja course in his backyard and holds a few events per year. This was my first time at his house and I was trying an obstacle where I had to swing from a monkey bar and transition to a cargo net. The thing was, the way it was built the entire set up was in a very narrow area. Only about 5 feet across. He had support beams up on all sides of the structure holding everything together and the support beams were padded so if we hit them with our bodies (which was very likely in the narrow area) it would in theory be soft. The problem was that the pads were screwed into the support beams (not duck taped, sewn, glued etc), and whoever screwed them in didn't realize that foam compresses so the screw was sticking out even with the level of the padding. I didn't fall off the obstacle and actually completed it but when I was generating momentum for the swing my leg hit the padding. I did the obstacle without pain then got off and immediately felt dizzy. I looked down at my leg and almost passed out. The cut was really deep. My friend walked me to his house and bandaged it up as best he could but I knew I would need stitches. I ended up going to an urgent care and getting 5 stitches.
I had no intentions of asking him to pay since I take responsibility for whatever crazy activities I do and I want to support what he is doing for the sport so didn't want to ruin it for anybody else.
The bill was about $1000 but my insurance covered most of it. We signed waivers and everything, had online registration, everything about the event was totally legit, he just didn't have it insured. I had no intentions of asking him to pay since I take responsibility for whatever crazy activities I do and I want to support what he is doing for the sport so didn't want to ruin it for anybody else. I am thankful that I get insurance through my employer but as an “extreme athlete” I've even I paid for my own insurance because I think its important. I went back to his Ninja training center about three weeks later and he had fixed the padding. He had one of his friends remove all the screws and had sewn the pads around the support beams. I told him after that he should probably get insurance and he had been working on it but had been having trouble. I would hate for something worse to happen out there. I actually have the injury and video of my leg fat stuck to the screw on YouTube somewhere if you want. Brett's Note: No thanks on the video.
Cattleprodded: William Cunningham
I was running down what was likely a cattle path (the race venue was a farm) by some huge chicken coops and fenced off areas where I could see some cows were grazing. It had been drizzling rain and was a little on the chilly side, so I was wearing some arm sleeves for protection and some warmth. I'm no elite runner by any means, so while running along I heard some faster racers coming, and shifted to my right so they could pass. As I did, my forearm brushed up against a metal wire (the fence) and I felt a shock go up my arm. Immediately my body realized something was wrong, and my legs just stopped running. As soon as my head cleared, I figured out I had been zapped by a live electrical fence! It wasn't a real bad shock, but it was because I wasn't even remotely expecting it. I proceeded to warn others in my general vicinity, then shook it off, laughed to myself and continued on.
Stuck in the Muck: Elías Monréal & Billy Findeiss
Brett's Note: This was a pretty common topic, jumping in a mud pit only to find the bottom isn't what you expected. Responses ranged from broken bones to knocked-out teeth, here are a couple.
Elías: Except for some minor cuts & bruises, have been relatively injury free at mud runs so far. Where I've hurt my back or knees far too many times; shallow mud pits. Initially, I'll think trench is waist deep and leap as far as I can to minimize mud wading time, and land in shallow trench. My lower back and knees always get the brunt of the impact! Nothing has been torn or broken, but I've surely been sore and limped out of the mud! How hard would it be to post “Shallow” or “Deep” before the start of the obstacle? Most of us have been surprised by the depth of many a mud pit, do you think it's more “fun” if you don't know when you leap or not? Sound off in the Comments.
Billy: The worst accident I've seen was at a mud run in the finish line mud pit. There just wasn't enough loose dirt at the venue to make a suitable mud pit so they made do with one that was less than 2 ft deep. While I was spectating after my heat, I watched some guy take a running leap in expecting it be deeper, and he ended up breaking is ankle so bad that his foot turned the opposite way. There was even a video of it. Brett's Note: Again, no thanks on the video.
Think Before You Leap: Brett Stewart
This falls (pun intended) squarely in the “I should have known better” category (see the end of the article for more). I had driven down to Tucson, AZ to run a race with some good friends and was even lucky enough to get a tour of the course the night before. The race director showed us some cool obstacles he had created for this event, and I actually abstained from jumping out of the cart and trying a few of 'em out – I really wanted to be surprised by most of them on race day and was happy we were zig-zagging all over the course so I didn't get an unfair advantage in the morning by knowing how to pace myself for the run. When we reached the finish line, the RD beamed with pride about the final few obstacles, and encouraged us to try what would be the ultimate challenge the following day. Every one of us obliged him, scampering up a steeply-pitched climbing wall with small handholds, crossing a landing and sliding down a 12′ fireman's pole before springting to the finish line. I grabbed the pole and descended carefully, using the grip of my arms and feet to slow my fall. Both feet landed on a hay bale, and we all walked back to our cars chatting about our goals for the following day. In the back of my head I figured if I needed to save a couple seconds, gravity would be an ally on the flag pole.
On race day, I had a blast running in the elite heat, completing all the obstacles I had conspicuously avoided the night before. To my surprise, the monkey bars were much larger bars than I expected, and there were plenty of other gotchas I didn't prepare for. After battling with a fellow age grouper for what I would later learn was the last podium spot, we reached the final obstacle – the one I'd practiced the night before and had a special plan in-mind to shave a second or two off my time. Side-by-side we crawled up the wall (which was much more difficult than the night before since we were both quite tired and sufficiently muddy) and we both reached the fireman's pole simultaneously. I peeked his way and jumped, hands barely touching the pole just for guidance to the hay bale below. There was a split second betwen my left foot being cushioned by the tuft of dried grasses below, followed by the crunch of my right foot meeting the concrete-hard sunbaked desert floor. In my haste, I had jumped too far (technically I wasn't supposed to jump at all) and overshot the cushioning that was clearly in place for those using the obstacle correctly. The finisher's chute was packed and electric with cheers as we raced to the finish, I even heard “Go Brett, Go!” as I grabbed the pole, followed by everyone in the crowd letting out a collective gasp when I crumpled to the ground. The guy I was racing even stopped to ask if I was OK, and I was pretty confident I'd just shattered my ankle.
At the race director's insistance, they called my mom and she drove right over, picked me up and made me some hot chocolate.
When I shook the cobwebs out of my head along with the idea of mommy making my boo-boo all better, I realized I had 40 yards to go to the finish, and there was still some shot at top 5… no dice. After hobbling to the line, I was 11 seconds too late to get on the podium. Better luck next time (in Chicago) Brett. I wrapped it up, sucked it up, and ran the kid's race with my wife, daughter and some body-painted superhero named Steve. Good move to spend some quality time with the love of my live & the future Amelia Boone, bad idea for my ankle. The following morning it was the size of a Mini Cooper. The 4-door version. I'm pretty confident it's a snapped tibia, at best it's a stress fracture – there goes my OCR season! A quick trip to the ER and some XRays confirmed exactly what I already knew – that my parents saved $100k on medical school, cuz I'm no doctor. Not only wasn't my leg broken, the sprain was merely a radial centrifical bilateral median lateral obfuscation (I made all that up). It hurt like hell, but I was gonna live to race again, especially if I wrapped it up. Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Evolution Phoenix, and the 1-month anniversary of my crash was ABF Mud Run. I'm nowhere near healed as of yet, but I'm really happy to be racing & qualified for the OCR World Championships!
In one of my first Mud Runs, I rolled onto the same ankle twice in one race! The first one was at mile 2 on a tire obstacle. I stepped on the tire with muddy shoes and my footing slipped and rolled onto the ankle. I rolled it again at mile 5 while running down a large asphalt mound and as a result from the roll, landed superman style onto the gravel trail. OUCH. I didn't let that stop me and completed the race and every single obstacle. I feel this injury was a result of my own negligence by wearing older shoes that did not support trail/all terrain grounds (lacking tread). My Tip for newbies: wear trail or OCR-specific shoes when running over rugged terrain and obstacles! I've never rolled on my ankles since I started wearing trail shoes (Thankfully!) – Lyra UH
Them's the Breaks: Scott Grosenick & Jill Diamond
Scott: I fell off of glory blades last year at TM and broke both wrists. It was completely my fault for thinking that I could slide down the back of the wall but I kicked my leg over too hard and fell onto my butt. I used my hands to help soften the blow but that didn't exactly happen. I recovered pretty quickly considering after 6 weeks in casts my left wrist needed to have surgery. Been working my ass off since. This year alone I've already done a Spartan Sprint and Super. Vegas Tough Mudder is this weekend, which I'm looking forward to for some revenge, and I have the Salt Lake Spartan Beast in June. In total up to now I've done a variety of about 12-14 OCRs since I healed up. It's turned into a bit of an addiction for me and my girlfriend. “At a popular local OCR, the guy in front of me had his arm broken when he jumped over the empty pit and didn't quite make it. No, that didn't cause the break – as he was climbing out, someone else jumped and also didn't quite make it, landing squarely on the guy's arm, breaking it quite spectacularly. It was awful to watch. The second jumper should have waited until the pit was clear but instead he over-estimated his ability and caused a major injury.” – Jill Diamond
‘Ol Pal Rusty – Dave Lesser
I slipped coming out of a water obstacle and my hand landed squarely on a rusty nail pointy side up. Once I climbed out and realized I'd been impaled, I alerted the staff, to my mazement they wouldn't pull it out of my hand on the course (it was pretty well embedded). It actually took what seemed like forever for anyone to even take a look at it. (I think there was a medic taking care of someone else, but seems like there should have been someone else around.) I had to DNF, go to a hospital to get it removed & get a tetanus shot. The worst part was they never informed my emergency contact (wife) what happened or where I was. I had to borow a medic's phone to call her & leave her a message on her cell – but I didn't know where they were taking me at that point.) When she found out what hospital I was at, she had to wait for a shuttle to the off-site parking to get her to our car to drive to the hospital – still not knowing if my injury was serious or not! Needless to say, it was rough on her as well. I'll agree it was a freak accident, but I was not impressed with how the staff handled it.
Zaps: Reflections on Electric Shocks
What's your take on getting zapped at a race? We got plenty of feedback from “Aw, hell no!” to “Suck it up!” Below are a few examples, share your feelings in the comments!
“I got zapped once by electric wave, and that was on the low crawl. It was interesting. It was enough that I did not want to experience it again. So when the ones at the end came around, I zig zag through it and was unscathed.” – Martha Pasquale
“First wave of electricity was easy, the last round knocked me over, and I'm 210 pounds.” – Scott Brackemyer
“The electric “challenges” vary by person I think. I've gone through them twice and neither was devastating, but given that I am a “larger” man, the I find some quite shocking…” – Loren O'Brien
“I have a pacemaker/defibrillator and can't do electrics shocks, so I skip 'em. All other are fine, I've never been seriously hurt aside from some scratches and bruises but I take credit and fault for all I so it is my CHOICE to compete.” – Tom Rains
“Here's my no-shock trick: let the person in front of you get far ahead of you for quickly crawl to exit. My first year I was needlessly shocked waiting for some idiot to move! Dangling wire electric shocks will sock you like charlie horse but here's the trick: run obstacle but use hands to wedge open curtains in field. Hopefully you'll be ahead of electric cycle to get through before they zap…hopefully.” – Elías Monréal
“I don't like the electric shocks. I had heart rate problems last year so honestly I skip them. (Which I feel a little guilty admitting to)” – Laura Kammerer
Paul Nichols shared: I got knocked unconscious by an oft-mentioned “electric obstacle ” and did a face plant. Still have a scar on my nose as a reminder. It was my second time doing the same race, the first time included the expected number of scratches, bumps, & bruises, but the second was more brutal. I had been cramping up severely for the entire race, it was also extremely hot and they did not have anything to eat for us along the route. Despite the cramps, I felt pretty good as I neared the final obstacle before the finish line. As I was runing through the dangling electrical wires, I kinda felt like I shorted out and was half aware of myself falling to the ground and face-planting. They turned off the obstacle and got me across the finish line, where I slumped to the ground, bleeding. From here, it got worse. Some staff came over and told me to get to the first aid station. I told them I didn't think I could stand, much less walk, and they pretty much told me that I didn't have a choice. Luckily, I had some teammates with me to help me get to the first aid station without employee or volunteer accompaniment. The first aid station wasn't staffed by an actual EMT, and they didn't know how to help me (was this really their first time seeing someone with a face laceration caused by blacking out from electric shocks?). Finally, they radioed for a medic and she stopped the bleeding and let me rest for a while. I eventually left–probably should have gone to the hospital for stitches, but I had no insurance, so now I have this scar on my nose forever.
Brett's Note: Faceplants aren't limited to OCR's! One of the nastiest falls I've ever seen happed in the first 100 yards of a marathon, a runner was playing with her iPod and her toe found a pot hole. Since her hands were busy selecting a song, she landed on the pavement face first. It was a horrible day for her and a rought sight for those of us who helped her over to the sidewalk. I'm constantly reminded of the way her 26.2 mile adventure was cut to less than .2 due to something we're all guilty of – not paying attention!
That's a Wrap
So, what have we learned?
Be aware, look before you leap, and it's your responsibility to be aware of your own safety and the well-being of those around you… right? Even though that last sentence sounds a lot like it came form my mom (and probably yours) you know it's right.
OCR can be a dangerous sport, that's part of the challenge of an obstacle course – completing the damn thing while keeping yourself in one piece. Your finish and safety are not guaranteed, you need to work for both of them. This holds true whether an obstacle is safe or not. In the latter case, it is part of the racer's code (there's no such thing, but really should be) that you alert other racers immediately, make sure a staff employee – NOT a volunteer, someone who gets a paycheck from the race company – knows about the problem, or take the proactive measure of removing the offending obstacle if possible. Brett's Note: At one particular event, a group of racers and I flipped a broken wall on its side out off the course. We alerted the next volunteer who called the race director and it was fized within minutes. We may have saved someone's life, and it only took about 30 seconds, that's a prety good return on that time investment – don't you think?
Bumps & bruises are surely part of OCR's and Mud Runs, but let's work together to limit the damage to that. Sure, there will always be some nasty falls, and broken bones that are beyond our control, and the fewer, the better.
Chris Cow asks: Does a nasty Staph infection the week after count? My fault for bad technique on Tyrolean traverse that ripped the skin off my ankles. Their fault for having me swim through grey, stinky cow-pond afterwards. Nothing some serious antibiotics couldn't fix. Brett's Note: Chris, no one's keeping score, are they? But yes, you get 3 points. Better?
“I take responsibility for whatever crazy activities I do.” – Corinne Kohlen
“I love the fact that with all the testosterone, beer, and half dressed people walking around, I have never seen even a shoving fight break out. Just all around good community of people.” – Billy Findeiss
“Poison ivy at a big race in Illinois! No biggie, I signed a waiver and knew what I was getting into.” – Scott Brackemyer
“I don't have a problem with any obstacle as long as it was put together properly and will not fall apart on me. I personally like that different runs have different obstacles some that maybe fun to some that maybe a little painful. I just like it when a course has something different to offer that I haven't done before, a new experience if you will. The only time I have ever been hurt was when I slipped and fell off a wall which was my own doing.” – Matt Forbes
“Knock on wood I have avoided any major injuries. Just the usual bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes. I personally love the obstacles that challenge the mind and makes racers face their fears. For those who aren't comfortable with electric shocks, I say skip it. It's your race experience and therefore up to the individual to decide what they are willing to do or not do. I like obstacles that challenge me both mentally and physically. So I say bring on the barbed wire, ice water, electric shocks, and whatever else you can throw at me. The only obstacle that doesn't belong on an ocr course is one that is built with shoddy workmanship. An obstacle that is poorly constructed is the only one I don't want any part of.” – Doug Hopple
“After 24 races I've never been hurt other than a few scratches. I personally love the barbwire and fire obstacles, and the only electric shock I didn't like was the electric eel just because of being in water and everyone else shocking you. The high jumps are great (as long as good volunteers watch everyone) and despise arctic enema, but it is definitely an Obstacle. These are the things people sign up for it is called Obstacle Racing for a reason. And the #1 like out of every course is the great camaraderie. Everyone helps everyone.” – Billy Findiess
“I love the barbed wire, despite the number of times it's scratched and stuck me pretty good. I'm not thrilled about electric shocks, but will do it anyway. High jumps are no big deal IMO. To me, OCR goes beyond a workout or physical activity and is (or should be) designed to test people's limits and push past their physical and mental boundaries. And Dear Spartan, Bring back the gladiators!” – Chris Cow
Got your own OCR tale to tell? First off, we hope you're all better now, secondly, share it in the Comments!
Brett Stewart is the co-founder of Mud Run Guide, OCR Freaks, and the author of Ultimate Obstacle Race Training. He does other stuff that doesn't involve mud, fire, & barbed wire… but you don't really care about that – do you?