Obstacle races: Muddy, messy fun or down and dirty danger?

Racer died during ‘Walk the Plank' challenge in April

By Allison McGinley - News Director

ORLANDO, Fla. - "You have to go through the electrical wires," yelled someone as they ran a recent outdoor obstacle race in Florida.

When you hear talk of electrical wires you'd think it would make a runner stop in his or her tracks.

Not Sarah McDowell.

"The majority of the time the obstacles are pretty great and they're a pretty good time," said McDowell. 

While she competes in as many as 30 organized runs a year, she often trades the hum-drum 10K for an adventure run.

And there are plenty of companies out there giving runners a chance to slither through mud, jump through flames, even offer do battle with military inspired obstacles.

"Three miles with a lot of obstacles is fraught with risk," said Dr. Balu Natarajan with the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

Natarajan says he sees patients with injuries that are very different from the type you'd find in a marathon or 10k.

"Jumping over fire, going through mud walls, twisting, turning, if the athlete thinks 'It's just three miles it's not that big a deal', those are the ones who approach this an almost brazen manner that are most likely to get injured," said Natarjan.

"There's been other things like 2nd degree burns and drowning and things like that," said Troy Farrar who oversees the United States Adventure Race Association.

 The USARA sanctions outdoor team competitions agrees and Farrar is even pushing for stricter regulation of these races.

"A lot of people started getting injured, and basically our underwriters won't, won't cover them anymore," said Farrar.

In April a Tough Mudder race turned deadly. 28-year-old Avishek Sengupta became the first person to die in four year history of that race.

Spectators screamed at divers to jump into the water at the 'Walk the Plank' challenge, according to Berkley County Sheriff's Department in Virginia.

Sengupta was pulled from the water with no pulse.

Ben Johnson with Tough Mudder issued a statement when asked about the overall safety of these races, saying, "our top objective is - and has always been - to deliver safe events. We work with engineers and industry safety experts… to continually review our obstacle designs and on-site response capabilities."

Despite the risks, McDowell says she'll continue to participate in the occasional adventure run, but avoids them when she knows she has another 10K on the horizon.

"It's just too high of a risk of injury for me," said McDowell.

If you're thinking of signing up for one, you'll likely be asked to sign a comprehensive waiver before participating. Click Here for an example of this waiver.

And the best advice: research the group hosting your next kind of adventure run, look at reviews and reports of previous injuries.

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