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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