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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  • psrobinson

    Thanks, Mario. You continue to astound with just common sense.

  • Betty Lou

    Tremendous

  • Scott

    I’ve worked one event such as this as an EMT. Fortunately, the obstacles were tame in comparison to what I am reading here. Sounds like these event sponsors and promoters could use an experienced emergency manager to add some common sense and emergency planning.

  • Dan

    First, yes they do monitor how many people jump at a time during the walk the plank challenge. When I did the race there were quite a few military personnel (or at least people wearing army fatigues) monitoring when you jumped so you didnt jump on the person before you.
    Second, what more do you want? The event was life changing! I trained for months i understood the risks i was taking i did just fine. If everything in this world was so safe and bubble wrapped, it would be pretty boring and nothing would be accomplished. If so unfit person decides to need heed the warnings and goes into this without any training, than thats not the TM’s fault.

  • Dan – you have an experience base of one. I am glad your TM was Life Changing. It was for Avishek Sengupta as well. At your event, people were watching and controlling the jumps. In their own promotional videos, nobody really is. Again – it’s not controlled like “real” military training. (If you really want your life changed, enlist.) I don’t want people wrapped in bubble wrap, I’m saying that the events are more dangerous than the organizers would have people believe. I think they should be required to post all injury data on their website so people know what they are really getting into, and I think the “safety expert” that signed off on having people jump from 15 feet into a cold,muddy hole thinking that 4 guys with rescue tubes was sufficient coverage made a mistake. It took them 6 minute to get Sengupta out. Why? Because they didn’t know what they were doing.

  • Brian

    Thanks for the interesting point of view on this. I did the TM Mid-Atlantic in Oct 2012 and even though I’m a sub 4 hour marathon runner, it still kicked my butt.

    I believe TM is such in a tough position of balancing a fun event for those that are ready and somehow protecting those that aren’t. Think of the blow back they would receive if they pulled someone from the course b/c the TM folks thought the participant was not fit or able to finish the course? Even though TM would have been acting in the best interest of the person they pulled, they would face never ending attacks in the blog-sphere and maybe a lawsuit. I’ve seen this type of behavior from skiers when I worked at a ski resort, seen 250lbs people get verbally aggressive when being questioned for starting a half marathon in a 1:45 pace corral, and similar actions in other endurance sports I’ve done.

    The real issue here is participants not properly gaging their readiness and the inability (due to legal and social liability) of promoters to prevent people from competing in difficult events. I don’t know the gentleman that died and don’t know if this was the case; what I do know is that the culture of entitlement to participate, no matter what the cost, is growing in this country. Until this issue is addressed, more will continue to be seriously injured and die in TMs, marathons (Boston 2012 heart attacks & dehydration), cycling races, ski resorts, national parks etc.

    The current condition is that event promoters have responsibility, but little authority (due to legal and social reasons). Without both responsibility and authority, there cannot be good leadership. And, without good leadership, there will be problems.

  • I believe TM is in the tough position of deciding between a reasonable number of participants and the profit that comes from allowing 13,000 people to play on the same weekend. It’s a tough spot, I’m sure; “Fewer runners would be safer, but look at all the cash I am making.” – They are making the same mistakes that all successful organizations make; they experience lack of failure as the same thing as success. Nobody died before, so I must be doing it right.

    I agree that many (many) people sign up for the events and are not physically prepared; but this is also true. At my physical peak, I was as tough and more prepared for an aquatic obstacle like the Plank than anyone I know. If someone jumped on my head – it could have lead to my death. If I couldn’t control my inspiratory gasp, it could have led to my death. That obstacle, in particular, is an unreasonably stupid thing to build. I know – I am an expert at unreasonably stupid.

    And if the promoters can ask participants to waive all rights including that of their heirs should the event kill them – even if it is due to the negligence of the promoters themselves (that’s in the waiver) – then certainly they can run the social risk of saying “If we feel you are unable or unfit to continue at any time in the course, you agree that we can stop you.” The promoters have exactly as much authority as they need. Participation in Tough Mudder isn’t a birth right.

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  • Donna

    I agree with Dan. What do you think a death wavier is? They may present this as a fun run with your friends, but they also caution you on the dangers of the course. One thing goes wrong, and suddenly people descend on it like hungry vultures. I’ve done three and I never questioned the safety provided once.

  • sleuther

    The lifeguards at Great Wolf Lodge (indoor waterpark for kids) have a lifeguard at the top AND bottom of water-features like slides, in constant communication with each other. They make sure that the kid at the bottom of the slide has cleared before the next kid at the top can go down. As a parent I was very pleased to see this as I have two kids (one featherweight beanpole, one who’s more solidly built) and even with just the two of them (not to mention the dozens of other kids on each piece of equipment) it would be all too easy for the kid at the bottom to get hurt otherwise….

    This seems like the most basic safety precaution there is. I don’t understand why the organizers of this event couldn’t manage it….

  • Awesome – I’m glad you had fun. What is a “death waiver?” I think it is a pretty good indication that the activity you are about to engage in is something you may want to rethink. And I am not suggesting that Tough Mudder (or the ilk) shut down. I am only suggesting that they could be safer. That’s all. They may be a blast, Donna, but they are not doing as good a job as they can do to make your death less likely. If that makes me a descending vulture, then – well – stand by, I’m just beginning to circle.

  • Really – it would be easier just to remove The Plank as one of the obstacles. Watch – I’ll bet they don’t build one at their next event, or they beef up the precautions there tremendously.

  • Michael Zdanis

    This was a good critique of the potential problems and points of failure of these extreme events, one of which led to a most unfortunate death.

    One comment about your math regarding the ratio of emergency/rescue personnel to participants. The ratio of 1-350 applies only if all 13,000 runners are in the plank pond at the same time – a most unlikely event. If there are 10 rescuers for that obstacle and 10 participants in the water at any given time, you have a 1-1 ratio which is more reasonable. I agree that they probably didn’t have 10 (sounds like maybe 4) and that more than 10 people could be in the pond. Your point that there needs to be more supervision is valid but the 1-350 ratio is overblown.

  • Mario,

    As an avid OCR’er with a few years of races under my belt I appreciate your insight on this. After my move out of the upper west side of NYC, I moved to a lake community where I learned to swim. I then joined the Marines, they instilled more water confidence and safety. Next I made it through NACCS in P’Cola before earning my aircrew wings..I am comfortable in the water, it is a familiar environment, even when being hassled.

    Unless competing in the elite racer heat(s), you are encouraged to go around and skip obstacles if you are uncomfortable with them. Same thing with the Spartan. I don’t think the motivating factors you described are ‘that’ demanding, ymmv. Want to skip one? Fine..do burpee’s instead or just go around. Most races will give you a finishers medal and shirt even if you cheat or skip obstacles. I have never seen a voulenteer or a race official pull someone back to rip off their bib for not completing an obstacle unless a purse was at stake or an elite heat.

    There are literally millions of people doing these races world wide now, they are challenging, addictive and offer a great sense of accomplishment.

    There is a lot I agree with you on in your writing on this as I have been on both sides..Thank you for sharing this, I hope that the TM and other’s take a look where they need to improve, but do not change their core and make things weaker, easier or less spirited. I know a decent weekend Spartan event can bring in over $1M, I am not sure what the TM brings in per weekend, but I would suspect that they have money that they can have better, more qualified people there. Semper Fi.

  • Thanks for the comments Michael. I understand the math and the flow of participants. But that math works against the rescuers as well. There is only one Plank obstacle at a TM. At best they may be 6 – 10 observers (rescuers or otherwise) surrounding that single obstacle. The four guys pictured with rescue tubes (and a couple of standby divers in others) can’t possibly effectively monitor – over the course of a day – over 6,500 plank jumpers. The attention fatigue would would be enormous. One of the indications that the rescuers were overwhelmed in their scanning duties is the fact that it was not the rescuers that noticed Sengupta did not resurface, but rather his teammates. Another indication that the Plank is poorly designed and the rescue teams inadequate is that it took 5-7 minutes to get Sengupta out of the water.

    Let’s say you did want to effectively scan that many jumpers – you would need to rotate the guards every 15 minutes, then rotate them again, then give them a 15 – 30 minute indoor break before sending them out to scan again.

    Sincerely – it’s one obstacle out of dozens. Is it really so necessary a risk for the return? Are people really thinking “I didn’t think I could handle a 15 foot drop but now I feel like I have really accomplished something!” If the obstacle were into clear water and the guards controlled the access to a system of one wave doesn’t jump until the next wave has crossed the tank – then I believe the risk is acceptable and the coverage adequate. Otherwise – dump the plank for another mud pit and press on.

  • Christopher:

    This is a the response I gave another reader (forgive the cut and paste)

    “There is only one Plank obstacle at a TM. At best they may have 6 – 10 observers (rescuers or otherwise) surrounding that single obstacle. The four guys pictured with rescue tubes (and a couple of standby divers in others) can’t possibly effectively monitor – over the course of a day – over 6,500 plank jumpers.

    So yes – 1 to 350 is a little off when you break it down to the particular water obstacles. Over the course of the day it is actually 1 rescuer responsible four about 1,700 jumper/swimmer events. I think that too much to ask of a rescuer.

    The attention fatigue would would be enormous. One of the indications that the rescuers were overwhelmed in their scanning duties is the fact that it was not the rescuers that noticed Sengupta did not resurface, but rather his teammates. Another indication that the Plank is poorly designed and the rescue teams inadequate is that it took 5-7 minutes to get Sengupta out of the water.”

  • I appreciate your response.

    With out details, I spend most of my day scanning..and yes I agree 100%, it is tiring and can lead to complacency if not checked.

    I am doing another Spartan this Saturday in Indiana, with this discussion in mind, I will observe with interest as to whom and what they have as on scene professionals.

    Chris

  • Good luck at Spartan! I think that organization may have a different culture than TM.

  • Michael Zdanis

    Thanks Mario. I do think that your points are very valid and experience in such matters considerable. Just looking at the setup from the photos (I haven’t been a participant in one of these events), the danger of the mass drop into muddy, cold water should be obvious to even a casual observer, yet alone a sophisticated event organizer.
    I think putting such an hazard on the course and then saying, in effect, “well you signed a waiver,” is callous in the extreme.

  • The “Culture” is one thing that I am worried about since they sold to Reebok..