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Emily Stanford, Fall 2013

Are you Tough (Mudder) enough? Extreme obstacle course attracts a range of athletes

“Remember, you signed a death waiver,” is one of the slogans for the hardcore obstacle course Tough Mudder, which has dubbed itself “probably the toughest event on the planet,” with 53 nationwide events planned for 2013.

An ominous warning. Photo by Emily Stanford

An ominous warning. Photo by Emily Stanford

Each Tough Mudder course is 10-12 miles long, with obstacles ranging from tests of strength, such as swinging across enlarged versions of playground monkey bars and warrior crawls under barbed wire, to seemingly sadistic and literally shocking challenges. The very last obstacle on each course is called “Electroshock Therapy,” where Mudder competitors sprint through dangling wires carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electricity.

 “There’s no avoiding it, you’re going to get shocked,” said Amber Neukum, 21, who finished the San Diego Tough Mudder event in Temecula in February 2013. “Yeah, your body kind of convulses, it’s like ‘what did you put me through?’ but it’s at the very end and so you get through it and then you’re done.”

Other classic Tough Mudder obstacles include sprinting up a quarter pipe over 10 feet tall that is often slicked with grease, running through smoke and fire, and swimming through pools of water loaded with ice.

VIDEO: Isaac Martinez discusses the highs and lows of competing in Tough Mudder with his brother

 What Makes a Mudder?

By the numbers, when Tough Mudder started in 2010 there were three events nationwide with 20,000 participants. In 2012 it had jumped to 35 events with 460,000 participants, with an average of 78 percent completing the entire course. The events benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists injured service members, and have raised over $6.5 million for the cause thus far.

Sports psychologist and managing partner of The Winning Mind Marc-Simon Sagal said that there is a continuum of the type of participants that Tough Mudder draws to its events.

“There’s the fitness nut who is looking for the next thing that’s going to challenge them. There’s the social user, who is encouraged by a friend to sign up or wants to follow the trend, and there’s the bucket lister who wants to check off a big accomplishment,” Sagal said.

To many, Tough Mudder seems to be solely for the upper echelon of fitness fanatics, but social media has helped the event spread into the mainstream as well.

“Tough Mudder stands out as an exceptionally ‘social-friendly’ event because the event is centered around daunting imagery,” said John Paul Engel, president of Knowledge Capital Consulting and Tough Mudder finisher. “Whether it’s the mud or massive obstacles throughout the course, having images during ‘the journey’ is way more compelling than typical marathon/running/general exercise items.”

Tough Mudder's Facebook page has over 3.5 million "likes."

Tough Mudder’s Facebook page has over 3.5 million “likes.”

About 25 percent of participants are women, according to the Tough Mudder website. Neukum signed up with her boyfriend after watching the YouTube video “Can Lauren Rock Tough Mudder?”  featuring fitness model Lauren Berlingeri training for and tackling a Tough Mudder course in 2012.

“After I signed up I posted a Facebook status about it and I think people were really surprised and doubtful that I could do it, but I did. I finished,” Neukum said.

Is It Too Tough?

 “Remember, you signed a death waiver,” became a bit too real on April 20, 2013 at the Tough Mudder event in West Virginia. Avishek Sengupta, 28, jumped off the 15-foot wooden platform into 12-foot deep murky water for the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, but he never surfaced. He was pulled out by one of Tough Mudder’s water safety staff members and his death was ruled an accidental drowning, the first death in Tough Mudder’s three year history.

Although Tough Mudder does not officially report numbers regarding injuries sustained by participants, in a statement following Sengupta’s death, Tough Mudder officials asserted, “Tough Mudder’s obstacles are designed by trained engineers; the process includes a thorough safety check and inspection by safety experts and third party engineers.”

Competitors tackle one of Tough Mudder's obstacles. Photo by Emily Stanford

Competitors tackle one of Tough Mudder’s obstacles. Photo by Emily Stanford

The Annals of Emergency Medicine journal recently published a study conducted by doctors at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, PA, who charted injuries seen over the course of a two-day Tough Mudder event in June 2012.

Researchers focused on five of the 38 Tough Mudder participants admitted into the hospital for injuries sustained while competing in the event. Of these participants, one sustained multiple burn marks from electrical injuries, another suffered from Todd’s paralysis, a seizure followed by a brief period of temporary paralysis.

In a statement, lead author Marna Rayl Greenberg said, “No training on earth can adequately prepare participants for elements such as jumping from a nine-foot height or running through a field of electrical wires while wet and hot.”

But even some sports fitness experts, including Dr. Keith Jeffers of the Jeffers Chiropractic Clinic & Sports Injury Center, don’t necessarily believe that the event is perilous.

“There are people that die during half marathons, there are people that die during marathons, there are people that die in 5k’s,” Jeffers said. “Just because one person doesn’t react well doesn’t rule an entire event as unsafe.”

In fact, according to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University, the rate for marathon mortalities is about 0.75 per 100,000 finishers. For Tough Mudder, in 750,000 participants the unfortunate death of Sengupta is the lone fatality thus far.

As part of the fees totaling upwards of $100 for participating in a Tough Mudder, $15 goes to an insurance policy for each participant that covers up to $100,000 in accidental medical benefits, according to the Tough Mudder Website.

“Honestly, yeah, hearing about the death made me really nervous, but I am continuing to train and am hoping that I will gain confidence in my fitness level and remain safe on race day,” said Emerald Smith, 21, who is training to compete in her first Tough Mudder in November in Temecula.

 Training Tough

 AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Emerald Smith discusses her training to prepare for Tough Mudder

For potential Tough Mudder participants, Jeffers suggests that beginners use a 12-week half marathon training program with gradual build up. In addition to regular running, due to Tough Mudder’s strength testing obstacles, Jeffers recommends hitting the gym three times a week for exercises such as push ups, bench press, bicep curls, and other movements for improving upper body function.

Emerald Smith and her teammates enjoy a Dos Equis beer after finishing the course. Photo courtesy of Emerald Smith.

Emerald Smith and her teammates enjoy a Dos Equis beer after finishing the course. Photo courtesy of Emerald Smith.

On race day, Sagal said that it is important to have a goal in mind, but not to get too attached to it. “Expectations can cause anxiety, you have to be realistic,” Sagal said. Anticipating road bumps and moments of panic will help participants get through to the end, with the cold cup of Dos Equis beer that awaits every Tough Mudder finisher.

“It’s the worst and the best day of your life,” Neukum said. “My Tough Mudder shirt is one of my favorite shirts I own. I wear it with such pride.”



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