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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  • Mario, I was on Avi’s team.. saw it all happen. I wanted to thank you for writing this article.

  • Arsham, I am so very sorry – I believe it could have been avoided very easily.

  • Ryan M

    Mario,

    This article is bias on the side of creating fear on scare tactics. By using Avi’s death to promote your point is just astoundingly sad and cruel. I get you are a water safety
    expert, but not an event organize expert. People want to participate at these
    events, want the risk, and want the story to tell friends. What they don’t want
    is to put padding on everything and cry when scrapped, bruised or battered.
    11,000 people on Saturday at Mid Atlantic and 17 injuries are an insult to
    numbers. I was told our courses are baby walks compared to military courses let alone assessment and selection phase of Green Beret training courses. If you can’t swim, don’t feel comfortable doing an obstacle, walk around it like many others.

    Lastly, the water was nowhere near 45*F as I swam in this
    water temp before. On Saturday the water was closer to 60-65*F in a small pool
    with divers on the sides, floating rescue swimmer in the middle and medical
    staff on the sides. Video on youtube of the course event will validate my point
    above.

    Please don’t take our enjoyment and spit on it because of one tragedy. Otherwise you would be sailing with breathable sails on boats.

  • Ryan M

    Arsham, Sorry for your loss. I was on course the same day and heard the news.

  • Ryan (Guest) – the divers were so well prepared that it took them over 6 minutes to recover Avi after his teammates (not the safety personnel) noticed he did not surface and called for rescue. I’ve seen the videos on Youtube. They show rescuers stationed too far from participants to assist and not paying attention. Nothing tests the readiness of rescuers and the efficacy of a plan like an actual emergency. TM failed last weekend.

    And please read below – if his friend and teammate, Arsham, was not offended – perhaps you can lighten up just a little. Tough Mudder has been handling water safety issues for a few years. I’ve been doing it for a lifetime. I’m not making this stuff up. For very little expense and just a little applied controls over a few of the obstacles, this accident could have been avoided.

    And I wasn’t “spitting on” your enjoyment. I was commenting on the organizers not accounting for all that might go wrong. I don’t think they are bad people and I don’t think that these events should be closed down – to the contrary, I think they can be a blast. I also know they can be safer without taking any of the fun out of it. Safer is better.

  • Bob Pratt

    Guest,
    Easy to stand behind a keyboard and bash people isn’t it. It would be sad and cruel to ignore this death or blame it on the victim. To use this opportunity to see if we can prevent similar deaths is both noble and timely.
    I’ve both participated and worked at OCRs. Here are my observations:
    You post that people want risk, and I’d disagree, people want ‘perceived risk’ that is why these events are so popular. If people want risk it’s easy to find, there are sky-diving, rock climbing, white water, mountain bike etc…. areas all over the country. Many people who enter these races want to feel as if they have accomplished something ‘larger than life’ but they do not want to put in the time nor effort to earn that right. So they turn to events such as this that claim to be extreme.
    Tough Mudder is hardly “The Toughest Event on the Planet”.
    Why else would people who cannot swim, not even a single stroke, pull themselves along the ropes bordering the swim course? or sneak around obstacles rather than do the burpee penalty?
    I mean no disrespect to the athletes that do train for these events, the ones that prepare both physically and mentally for the event.
    Regarding the safety of the water obstacle: we close pools when we cannot se the bottom of the pool, it’s too dangerous. We limit the time interval of people jumping off boards and platforms; we MUST account for everyone surfacing and making their way to safety.
    There are steps we can take to make these events safer, we owe it to the competitors, their families and the emergency responders.
    Bob Pratt

  • Pingback: Update: Tough Mudder – Witnesses Say Rescue Was Slow()

  • David

    I hate to burst your bubble but the “military” training is nowhere near as well controlled as you portray. I did some of this stuff in the military and it was actually a little less covered than Tough Mudder. We had guys die in training every year. May God bless and keep this young man.

  • doogie

    Why do people want to do this anyway? If someone came up to me and said that they did this and finished it, it wouldn’t mean anything to me other than they must be really bored and have thrill issues.

  • I hate to burst yours but your experience base of “one” during your particular training may have been more covered than you think. If it was at all difficult, you may have been too tired to notice. And yes, military members die every year in training, but (wait for it) they signed up for combat jobs. They actually took a job where dying is a calculated outcome when they go to work. But I will rephrase for you: In the hundreds of military training events that I participated in, designed, supervised, and directed – we covered them a lot better than TM did here. Were you talking about boot camp, or were you involved in some elite special forces training?

  • David

    I don’t know Mario… the waiver says in big bold letters YOU CAN DIE DOING THIS OBSTACLE COURSE. These are consenting adults. Remember high dives? Kids these days don’t because of “bubble wrap the world” types. I have been a medic for 82nd airborne, 75th Ranger Regt, 3rd Ranger Batt (with 2 tours in Iraq), and yes now I am an Air Force as a Medic. At the TM I participated in they had radios, gators we EMS personnel, water and safety stations and ON-SITE Care-flight bird. One death in 3/4 of a million participants in something like this is very impressive.

  • David – thank you for your service – and…YOU CAN DIE DRIVING TO THE OBSTACLE COURSE. And IF you did, and a contributing factor was the paramedic that showed up to the car crash decided to wait three minutes before checking your airway your family would sue. You KNOW you can die driving to the obstacle course – but that doesn’t mean you expect it or you should have to. TM also advertises (and brags) about how many medical and rescue personnel they have on site.

    If the waiver is so compelling and you are so willing to accept the risk, why do they have the rescue people there? Why have them at all? If their is no accountability or responsibility for them to act in a way that actually makes a difference – why do you think they employ them?

    There very presence is an implication of assistance should things go wrong. Sengupta jumped KNOWING that there were rescue guys there to help if he got into trouble. They actually did not help.

    I don’t want to wrap the world in bubble wrap. And as a paramedic you know all about standards of care and duty to respond. All I am saying is that these events can be safer. To disagree that they “can be safer” is ridiculous. You know why? Because they can be.

  • Ryan T

    Thanks for an outstanding article and you hit a number of important points. The military screens, builds up and trains those of us who go through specialized training well before we show up for and while in a school. Plus there is extensive risk management, planning and coordination before training. I understand the TM is not Ranger school or the Q-course but the point is there is a lot of training, planning and safety that needs to go into these events and it appears that they are falling short.

    The one thing that is annoying me is this reference to the fact that the contract stated you could die while participating. Seriously, I’m willing to bet the poor man who died at this event did not show up with the thought that he could actually die. Regardless of what was in some contract. Everyone I’ve talked to who has done one of these events (full disclosure I have not participated in a TM) have admitted to me that they viewed the “could die” line placed in the contract as a way to make the race seem tougher/scarier and therefore make the completion of the race seem like a bigger accomplishment. So let stop insulting the man who died with this nonsensical sediment put forward by some that ‘ he read the contract and should have known that he could have died.’

    I’ll echo the point that I do not think they need to stop these events and I’m glad there are races like this that can motivate people to exercise, build teamwork, spend time with friends and push themselves to accomplish something. And at the end of the day you cannot eliminate all risk but you can conduct detailed risk assessments and incorporate best practices to ensure you are running the safest event possible. That was not done in this case and unfortunately a person died.

  • Sadie

    I’ve known a few participants. Of them, one did not train much and went into it with more of a ‘this is going to be an awesome party’ attitude. She passed by many obstacles but did finish. Another was well trained and an accomplished runner but after being totally covered in wet mud, actually passed out during the electrical zapping portion.The passing out was short lived but caught on video. The idea of being face down in mud as I wait for my body to “come to” from being charged while other participants run by and the crowd cheers does not appeal to me much anymore. I’ve also seen and heard about how crowded the course gets and that there are lines to do obstacles – hardly seems like a race at that point. If I were 20 years younger, yeah, I’d likely be all gung ho to do one of these.

  • eesastorm

    I just completed my first Tough Mudder on Saturday. Your commentary is so off base as to be laughable if the topic were not so tragic.

  • I’ll bet it is – but then again, you just did your first, right? Is there any chance that Tough Mudder made some changes based on the tragedy? Do you think they might have implemented some controls to avoid another occurance? Of course things were different for you. Of course they were. Hopefully, TM stays vigilant. I’m just sorry that someone had to die before they took real notice, but that is usually the way things change.

  • Keep up your excellent work at coldwatersafety.org, Moultan. PS – My Kayak is in desperate need of a bay outing. I need to renew in CPA and get back at it!

  • Pingback: A request for videos and images from Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic 2013 – Avishek Sengupta()

  • Miss Curmudgeonly

    As a triathlete, I know firsthand that anything can and will happen when
    you add a water element. Not only do you have fit athletes where
    something goes wrong and they drown (see: many Ironman races over the
    past years), but then you also have people who literally can’t swim
    signing up for triathlons (see: Chicago triathlon, where people pull
    themselves the entire way using the rope on the wall, in Monroe Harbor).
    So when you deliberately add a 15 ft drop into cold and murky water?
    Yeah, really bad idea.

    I’m a very good swimmer, and I myself once
    experienced SIPE during a tri – a sprint tri no less (I’ve done
    Ironmans with no issue). I later read about this, that when you have a
    tight wetsuit (as they all are), drinking lots of water (as people do
    before races), and very cold water (early morning swim, first race of
    the year in very cold water), then SIPE can ensue, as it did for me.
    Very scary, even though I managed to paddle/float my way out of the
    water, where i proceeded to cough up blood for some time.

    ANyway,
    point being, this was an accident waiting to happen. Yes, these races
    are supposed to push the envelope, but not to the point of stupidity.