The Unaccounted-For Variables: Where Tough Mudder Failed

Home/Life, Opinion, Risk, Water Safety/The Unaccounted-For Variables: Where Tough Mudder Failed

I was saddened to hear of the death this past Sunday of twenty-eight-year old Avishek Sengupta, who drowned at a Tough Mudder event in West Virginia. Saddened, but not at all surprised. Tough Mudder is one of those pay-to-play obstacle challenges that allow anyone with an entry fee and the willingness to sign a waiver the chance to do things usually reserved for elite military combat professionals. Perhaps that’s why injury and even death at such events is sad but not surprising.

The training done by elite military combat professionals involves a lot more than setting up an obstacle course and sending the troops in. They go through months of build up and monitoring, the training is extremely well supervised, and their emergency response plans are well-thought-out, practiced, and proven. By comparison, an event like Tough Mudder is a free-for-all. Here is why:

No Consideration for Prior Conditioning

Sengupta drowned in the water below the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, a fifteen foot jump into cold water.  A jump into cold water after running any distance is extremely stupid for a number of reasons (I’ll explain those next) but first consider how little is known about the competitors before they take the leap.

Military combat units- like the British Special Forces who are credited with designing the Tough Mudder obstacles- go through an ever-increasing series of physical tests before being allowed to continue to more difficult challenges. There are supervised and quantified swim tests, for example, prior to any high risk water training. How do adventure races assess a participant’s physical abilities? They don’t. They put a warning on their website and make racers sign a waiver.

The Tough Mudder Course Safety Warning:

“The course is designed to be very difficult and the terrain is at times muddy, slippery, and potentially dangerous. You will be wet after the first mile, and you MUST be able to swim more than fifty yards if you attempt the Walk the Plank obstacle. If you do not feel comfortable completing any obstacle, DO NOT attempt it; simply continue on to the next obstacle. But really, what do you think you signed up for, Warrior Dash?”

Now I don’t know if Sengupta could swim or not, but that’s the point:  neither did any of the organizers or the 75 rescue and medical personnel at the event last weekend.  Given that organizers have no idea the kind of shape a racer is in, perhaps their obstacles should exclude deep muddy pits of water where drowning is a not-so-unlikely hazard.

Hint: Drowning is Not So Unlikely

Plank2

“Test your fear of heights and cold all in one with our 15+ feet high jump into freezing water. Mudders like to display their fancy diving skills (or belly-flops) at this obstacle. Don’t spend too much time pondering your leap – Marines at the top of the platform will chew you out, or worse, push you into the freezing depths below.”

(Source: http://toughmudder.com/obstacles/walk-the-plank/ )

(We’ll leave out the disconnect between the “DO NOT attempt” in the course warning for obstacles you are unsure about and the threat above to be pushed by a Marine into doing it anyway – except to say these two messages are conflicting.)

The early morning temperature last Saturday at the West Virginia event was 41 degrees F.  That put the water temperature below The Plank at somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees.  Even if it was warmer, it was more than sufficiently cold to generate a cold shock response.  Anyone who has been hit with a cold blast of water knows the involuntary gasping that occurs when suddenly cold and wet.  Walk The Plank, the obstacle where Sengupta drowned, is designed to make that reflex occur underwater.  If it can’t be controlled, cold water is inhaled and drowning (or at least severe distress) is a likely result.

Additionally, there is the risk of participants landing on each other.  If you think that there are controls in place to ensure that those below are clear before the next person jumps, think again.  With screaming and cheering and motivating Marines, a crowd can’t be controlled to the degree necessary to ensure each jumper has surfaced and is out of the way before the next person jumps.

A Real Difference in Numbers

In a statement from Tough Mudder, organizers expressed their regrets and took the opportunity to highlight their record of safety and focus on how well-staffed events are by safety and rescue personnel.

• This is the first fatality in the three-year history of the company, after over 50 events with more than
750,000 participants.

• Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic was staffed with more than 75 ALS, EMT, Paramedics, water rescue technicians and emergency personnel.

That sounds impressive if you don’t have access to a calculator, but I do.  With an average participation per event last year of over 13,000 and 75 emergency personnel including the Paramedics and EMTs – that’s one safety person for every 173 participants.  If even half of them are water rescue techs (and I doubt that sincerely), we are at about one rescuer for every 350 people.  1 to 350 is fine for a parade- it really is- but at “probably the toughest event on the planet?”   I’m thinking those numbers are a little weak.  When I participated in high-risk water obstacles as part of Coast Guard rescue swimmer training, the qualified rescuer-to-student ratio was 2 to 1.

Yes, this is Tough Mudder’s first death at an event, but that is more about luck than safety.  There was one other drowning, two possible heart attacks, and 17 other injuries that required trips to the hospital – not over the last year, but at last weekend’s West Virginia event alone.  Break out the calculator again and if West Virginia was average, then these events present a risk posture that may require a second look by the organizers.

Too Many Other Variables

The water is muddy with zero visibility by design.  The distractions to the limited number of rescuers are enormous. Doing training and drills at different venues is difficult if not reasonably impossible for the rescuers (and there are not enough rescuers.)

If Tough Mudder (and Spartan, et al.) want to provide a military-like experience to those who don’t want to actually join the military, they should do a better job of acting like the military.  That means testing and qualification for all event participants, adequate safety personnel, and maybe a new set of “experts” to design their obstacles.

Avishek Sengupta sounded like a very nice young man.  I’m sure he and his team were having a great time right before his jump.  But he jumped from 15 feet into very cold and muddy water with people jumping all around him at the same time.  It was a high-risk move of the elite combat military variety without the checks and controls in place during actual military training.  That he didn’t resurface is sad, but isn’t surprising.  The number of unaccounted-for variables were staggering.

READ UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE:

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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:49+00:00 April 23rd, 2013|Life, Opinion, Risk, Water Safety|53 Comments

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  • Adam Wakeling

    Tough mudder completed a couple of weekends ago. One walk the plank present although “no diving” signs there and enforced plus guys stopping too many from jumping at once. I don’t know if that was put in since the incident but I found the Uk London south one very well organised and safe (and I’m a 10st weakling with no prior training) glad they didn’t just take it out, there also was a bypass lane for anyone worried or unable to swim.

  • Adam Wakeling

    I did it an finished it. It’s a lot more fun that such boring things as football or tennis and DEFINITELY better than watching such things. I suppose though you could ask why anyone does anything for fun. The only real answer I have was “to see if I could” and to be honest it’s really not as tough as its made out to be. Rather a lot of hype and the unfortunate result of having a lot of people do ANY strenuous activity. Some people die at marathons (making no comment on the rescue or response arrangements here merely the activities themselves)

  • whygee

    The only constant is that each tough mudder is different – the terrain is different, the location, the weather, the water temperatures, the vigilance of the safety personnel, the mix of fitness levels among participants, how it is managed, etc. Ask anyone who has done more than one TM, and they’ll tell you how each one was different. My husband did this Mid-Atlantic event where Avi died in April. He also did the Mid-Atlantic with me in September in Frederick, MD. He said the April event was ten times harder, it was cold, windy, the water was colder. So, my point is that Mario is not off base. The problem I see with TM is that they are rapidly expanding, and often, with expansion and your eye on the bottom-line, it is difficult to keep up with logistics and safety…or logistics and safety are neglected. It did take an actual emergency for TM to pause and open their eyes to the unnecessary risks they presented to their market. I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear of Avi’s death. But as Mario said, it was not a surprise. Neglect like this presents themselves in other, “minor” ways such as poorly planned parking and event management which I witnessed at the September mid-Atlantic TM…you could see TM was/is growing too fast, too soon and not paying attention to the details. As things were going for TM, this was inevitable… at the expense of a young man’s life.

  • CW

    A point about how we share our stories. “He said the April event was ten times harder”. We want to think that we are awesome, that we really did something 10X harder, but it is physically impossible to do a task that is 10X harder. Let’s say I bench press 300 pounds. 10X harder is 3,000 pounds. What he meant was the April event was 5% harder, maybe 10% harder. But that does not sound as good.

    I 100% guarantee you that if we were not in the “Age of Social Media”, these TM events would not exist. They are ready-to-be-broadcast-glory-fests. Everyone wants to say they can do anything (“I could have been in the military, in law enforcement, been a doctor”, blah, blah) but the joke is on the folks who pay big money to do this stuff.

  • bigyaz

    “Let’s say I bench press 300 pounds. 10X harder is 3,000 pounds. ”

    That’s a really silly analogy.

  • Steven Feeney

    That is exactly it. On the nail.

    The founder, Will Dean, have given various talks on the subject that Tough Mudder is actually selling “glory, humblebragging”.

    He believes that the new luxury item is social media bragging.

  • JK

    I just finished the Tough Mudder in Kentucky yesterday so I wanted to offer my opinion on this issue. Was the event fun? Yes. Was it one big injury waiting to happen? Absolutely! The safety culture of the race organizers? Nonexistent IMHO. Would I do another one? Probably not. Walk The Plank was a prime example. They tell you to only jump in feet first….then one of the guys at the top tells me ” you know I can’t stop you from doing a flip, right?” My condolences to the friends and family of Avishek.

  • Typical – free-for-all safety management.

  • some guy

    I also finished TM in KY this past Saturday, as well as the same one at the same place a year ago. That was before some guy died, by the way. At both of these events, Walk the Plank was organized. There were lanes leading up to the platform. We were told when to ascend to the platform. We were told when to jump after the previous group had surfaced and cleared the point of impact. There were plenty of people lining the sides of the pool ranging from photographers to volunteers, EMTs, and participants waiting for their teammates. There were no Marines on the platform ready to throw me or anyone else in. On the contrary, this Saturday, I chose to stop and catch my breath before jumping and I was told to take my time. The air temperature was in the high 40’s to low 50’s, though the water was noticeably warmer. At this point in the event (Walk the Plank is typically in the final mile or two of the course), the deep water below the obstacles is a welcome barrier to the cold air and wind above the water surface.

    It’s unfortunate that someone died during an event, but, by the numbers, it was bound to happen at some point and it is bound to happen again. Someone (or everyone) obviously dropped the ball on that one. Personally, if I had a teammate that failed to surface, I would go in after him myself if I saw that the emergency personnel were lollygagging. I have never felt uncomfortable with any of the obstacles, but I have seen several people bypass ones when they did not feel up to task. This practice is accepted and encouraged. Participants need to understand and respect their limits. That being said, no amount of preparation by the organizers can ever ensure that another accident will not eventually occur.

  • Like you said – ” Someone (or everyone) obviously dropped the ball on that one.”

    Well, there it is. They either dropped the ball, or it is something that is “bound to happen” and “no amount of preparation” can stop it. You can’t argue both sides of this thing.

    Here is what I know for sure. If Walk-the-Plank were removed as an obstacle, it would be impossible to drown at the “walk-the-plank obstacle.

  • nhr215

    Tough Mudder is just so stupid. They try to present as dangerous and so challenging. You want danger? Try amateur boxing or spending a week in the back country on your own. There is very little risk in these, this particular accident not withstanding.

    And you want something tough? Do an Ironeman. Or a marathon. Or century bike ride in the mountains. This is such a lame artificial event clearly designed to give urban wimps the pretend fantasy camp of being in the military.

  • wiseman

    I agreed with most of your article, it is a little on the extreme side, but has many fair points. But this person isn’t “arguing both sides of this thing.” What I think he is saying is that it’s going to happen again, because somebody’s going to drop the ball again. It works one side of “this thing.”

    If we took away vehicles we wouldn’t have innocent people killed by drunk drivers. While impossible to fully control, we do our best by making laws to help get rid of these accidents. What needs to happen to find a way to improve the safety of the obstacle, not get rid of it completely. Maybe shiftwork to help avoid “attention fatigue”.

    I’ve done 5 Tough Mudders and the Walk the Plank obstacle is under the most surveillance as far as emergency personal, there was no marine threatening to push me off, instead recognized my fear of heights and gave me a wink and said “you can do it.”

    It’s a tragedy that can’t be ignored, but instead learned from so nobody drops the ball again. Becuase 1 person out of millions died doesn’t mean you shut it down. If that were the case we’d have a lot of privileges taken away.

    Again, thanks for taking your time to express ypur concerns and replying to the comments.
    Thoughts go out to the kid and his family.

  • dave

    one man died and people do get injured. That is why you sign a waiver. if you want to be safe and limit your risk of injury or death go run a marathon…..