Safety is key at Freedom’s Run, but at mud runs?

Last week as Freedom’s Run founder Mark Cucuzzella talked about how he approached creating alternate routes for the event’s marathon and other road races once the shutdown of the federal government had put federal parklands off limits, it was clear that he’d placed participants’ safety front and center.

“We wanted to keep the race on track but only if there was a way to do it safely,” said Cucuzzella, a family physician and lifelong distance runner who lives in Jefferson County with his wife, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in D.C., and their children. “If we hadn’t been able to come up with routes that kept our runners safe, we wouldn’t have gone forward.”

Cucuzzella’s focus – doing everything in his power to ensure the best possible outcome for those who take part in Freedom’s Run – is admirable, and has me wondering whether decision-makers at the Tough Mudder happening this weekend in Berkeley County operate with the same mindset.

Though questions remain after the Tough Mudder event in April where dozens were sent to Berkeley Medical Center with injuries and a 28-year-old Ellicott City, Md., man died at a hospital in Northern Virginia, organizers of the competition have invited athletes to return to the same course without bothering to detail any changes they’ve made to keep participants safe this time around.

According to witness accounts included in the official probe conducted by the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, Avishek Sengupta spent between five and 15 minutes beneath the surface of a muddy manmade pond before finally being pulled out by rescuers. He suffered brain damage and was taken off life support a day later.

But even before that tragedy– the first death at a Tough Mudder – some were sounding the alarm about these extreme fitness events.

Months before Tough Mudder came to Glengary, I’d happened across an article in Women’s Health magazine that stuck with me. “The Dangers of a Mud Run,” read the headline on Laura Beil’s account, with the intro’s summation in all caps: “Mud runs have exploded in popularity – their insane terrain draws women who are sick of boring treadmill slogs and rote fitness classes. But while challenging your body and testing your mental limits is a rush, overcrowded courses and lax safety standards can put your LIFE IN DANGER.”

The story included the experience of Dallas resident Patricia Wooldridge, who had to be airlifted to a burn unit after tripping and falling into a fire line at a mud run in 2010. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and is looking forward to plastic surgery to ease the itching in the scars along both arms.

The story also noted that “mud runs have no governing body, don’t publicize injury data, and don’t have to follow any uniform safety rules.”

The Tough Mudder organization formed just three years ago, but has held more than 50 events across the nation. Sengupta succumbed a day after competing April 20 at the National Peacemaker Training Center on a former farm in Back Creek Valley.

His death came despite the presence of dozens of paramedics, water rescue experts, emergency personnel and volunteers. A coroner ruled the death an accidental drowning.

Tough Mudder spokeswoman Ashley Pinakiewicz hasn’t discussed details of Sengupta’s death. She told a reporter from The Sun of Baltimore: “Everything that was reviewed by the police was that this was an accident and that our obstacles were safe.”

The Tough Mudder organization has repeatedly stressed that its obstacles are designed by engineers and tested by safety experts. Close to 14,000 competitors took part in the April Tough Mudder.

In a statement following Sengupta’s death, Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean said: “As organizers, we take our responsibility to provide a safe event to our participants very seriously. Tough Mudder is devastated by this tragic accident.”

But Tough Mudder officials haven’t done much at all to explain how the course that participants will tackle this weekend in South Berkeley is safer than the one faced by Sengupta in April.

It’s still not even clear what precisely led to Sengupta’s death. The victim, racing with a team of friends and co-workers, was fit and in overall good health. Witnesses have said that as participants took on the Walk the Plank obstacle – jumping 12 feet into a chilly mud pond – there was no race official to direct them. Maybe a subsequent jumper landed just where Sengupta did, perhaps knocking him in the head?

Though the sheriff’s office found no criminal wrongdoing, witnesses lamented how long it took a rescue diver to enter the water and find Sengupta, a Towson University grad who worked in digital marketing in Baltimore. “There was zero visibility,” one said. “It took four to seven minutes to get Avi out of the water.”

Another witness, Brett Brocki, talked to D.C. television reporters and to Sun, showing them video of the incident he’d taken with a helmet cam and that he’d also passed along to the Berkeley officer investigating Sengupta’s death.

In his video, the rescue diver contracted by Tough Mudder to oversee the Walk the Plank pond is seen learning from Sengupta’s teammates that he hasn’t emerged from the water, but minutes pass without him entering the water to search for the man. Bystanders start to yell at the rescue diver to get into the pond and find Sengupta.

As news coverage of Sengupta’s drowning appeared on news sites and then popped up in Facebook posts, a number of Tough Mudder fans began weighing in, to defend the race as safe. They hadn’t had any problems, they were quick to point out. Maybe Sengupta wasn’t in the proper shape to take on this kind of challenge, they speculated. He made a mistake and paid dearly for it, they insinuated.

I thought of the waivers we’re asked to sign when we embark on a 5K or a marathon or go skiing. Sengupta signed one before the Tough Mudder, and he may have regarded it as merely a formality. Absolve the race from any calamity that might befall me? Sure, no problem.

We tend to believe that all race officials are like Cucuzzella: Safety first, without question. But when the event we’re taking on includes not only a 10-mile run, but fire pits, leaps into zero-visibility mud ponds, climbing hills while being sprayed by fire hoses, a gauntlet of live electric wires and the like, the question is, Can they?

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One Response to Safety is key at Freedom’s Run, but at mud runs?

  1. Tough Mudder Chief Operating Officer Don Baxter:

    Baxter said additional safety rails have been added to the obstacle and lifeguards will now focus on specific areas of the pit.

    “We have a number of lifeguards who were watching the pool as a whole and would survey the entire area of water,” he said. “Now we’ve essentially just focused our responsibilities with individual lifeguards watching individual parts of the pool and watching participants go into the water and then come back out again.”

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