When tragedy strikes, we want answers. But what if there aren’t any?
Full disclosure: I knew Avi Semgupta, the young man who lost his life on a “Tough Mudder” course this past weekend in West Virginia. He had coached my daughter early on in her rock climbing career. I recall only this about Avi — he was a genuine and nice man — and I would say the world probably needs more of people like him. He smiled. A lot.
He lost his life after diving into a mud pond on the course, an obstacle referred to as “Walk The Plank” (pictured above). He didn’t come up, and his friends couldn’t find him under the water. After seeking help, they found him, revived him temporarily, but it was too late.
The “Tough Mudder”, if you don’t know, is part of a fitness trend of military themed cross country runs. Others are called “Warrior Dash”, “Spartan Race” and “Tough Guy”. They involve running a 3 to 12 mile cross country course, which is interrupted at intervals by challenging obstacles, which test the participants endurance, will and strength. They also foster a camaraderie because many times you cannot complete an obstacle without help from other participants.
Some are less challenging than others, “Tough Mudder” being one of the tougher courses because it’s design simulates British Secret Service training.
I can’t even imagine what Avi’s friends and family are going through right now. The loss of such a good young man cannot be explained. Efforts were made by all involved but they failed. An investigation is ongoing, and I hope, for their sake, there is some kind of answer; he hit his head, his body was shocked by the cold water; something, anything to put his friends minds at ease.
Was death the result of negligence of the staff; too many people in the water at once; or just an overzealous young man attempting to challenge his limits? Maybe it was all of the above.
According to Outside Magazine, the risk is well known among racers, and while this was the first “Tough Mudder” fatality, other races haven’t been so fortunate. In fact, the races live up to their names and their challenges.
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 theAmerican 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.”
My only hope is that all of the good that come from these races, of people finding out what their threshold of endurance is, of people learning to cooperate to achieve goals, I hope it isn’t all tossed away by this tragic event.
Here is video taken of Ravens Coach John Harbaugh running in the same West Virginia Tough Mudder. It gives you an idea of the scope of the event.
My prayers go out to Avi’s friends, family and the Earth Treks climbing community.