Are obstacle races getting too dangerous?
Gruelling obstacle races are an increasingly popular’and dangerous’challenge. What does it take to conquer one, and should you even try?
As stereos cranked Eminem’s carpe diem anthem, ‘Lose Yourself,’ an emcee pumped up the men and women ready to take on the Tough Mudder at Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a ski resort near Barrie, Ont., one bright August day. To get to the waiting area, participants had to clamber over a six-foot fence’just a small taste of the much more punishing, painful and, yes, dangerous physical tests ahead in the event. Tough Mudder co-founder Will Dean was once a U.K. counterterrorism officer, and the original obstacles were designed by former members of the United Kingdom Special Forces. The Tough Mudder is advertised as ‘probably the toughest event on the planet,’ but with people waving to the music and cheering ‘hoo-rah!’ it had the happy vibe of a concert. After swearing the Mudder oath (with vows like ‘I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time’), some practically danced past the start line.
Extreme obstacle racing has a fearsome reputation and it’s well-deserved (be sure to read this whole article before deciding if it’s for you). Yet it’s a trend that has picked up major momentum in a few short years. The most popular events include Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race, all of which run events in Canada and around the world. (They’re listed on the official websites: toughmudder.com, warriordash.com or spartanrace.com. Most races occur between May and September.) Women make up about 30 percent of those who do Tough Mudder’considered the most gruelling event (races are held in Whistler, B.C.; Toronto; and Montreal). Warrior Dash claims an almost 50/50 gender split. Another rival series, Spartan Race, actively encourages women to take part with initiatives like the ‘Spartan Chicked’ Facebook group; women represent about 35 percent of participants in their obstacle races.
In the throng at Mount St. Louis Moonstone was Karyn Filiatrault, 33, a realtor from Toronto. Although the new mom was a seasoned runner with a competitive streak, she felt more than a bit terrified. She had joined a coed team from her local gym to train for the Tough Mudder after a fitness instructor dared her. ‘I had just finished mat leave and thought, What better way to show the world I’m back to my old self than to prove I can take on a military-style challenge,’ she recalls.
To prepare, Filiatrault kept up her existing workout routine, including running five to 12 kilometres three times a week and doing a postnatal boot camp twice a week, and went to her neighbourhood playground to try out the monkey bars. ‘I couldn’t even do two pull-ups by the end of my training. So there were a lot of nerves going into the race,’ she admits.
Natalie Holdway, 29, a TV producer with CBC News in Toronto, says it was ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) that motivated her to join a coed Mudder team organized at her office. In the lead-up to the May event, the avid runner hit the park with her teammates once or twice weekly for circuit training workouts offered on the Tough Mudder website. ‘Everyone took it as an excuse to get in shape,’ she says.
What to expect on race day
After teams at Mount St. Louis Moonstone crossed the start line, the ‘warm-up’ entailed trekking up a ski hill too steep to easily run up. Details of the challenges faced vary by Mudder event and remain hush-hush until the week of, but participants can expect 20 to 25 obstacles spread over 16 to 19 kilometres. With names like ‘Arctic Enema’ (a full-body plunge into a water- and ice-filled Dumpster), ‘Boa Constrictor’ (a claustrophobic crawl through plastic pipes) and ‘Everest’ (a near-vertical sprint up a giant plywood board covered with sheeting and then greased), the obstacles are as much mental as physical: Finishing requires confronting anxiety and fear.
For Holdway, who tackled her Mudder on a 5ºC day in May, the aforementioned ice-cold dunk was the second obstacle she faced in the challenge, and it left her shivering for hours. ‘I would have enjoyed it if not for the cold,’ recalls Holdway, who says she doesn’t regret doing it. The best obstacles, she felt, were the ones that required team spirit’like helping her co-workers and strangers scramble over walls they could never have gotten past on their own.
Whereas a marathon is an individual feat, these obstacle courses call for camaraderie, which is a big part of the appeal for most participants. In fact, 90 percent of those taking part in Mudder do so as part of a team. It is a bonding experience, but it comes with unspoken peer pressure, too: ‘In the moment, it’s like, I have to do this’everybody’s doing this,’ recalls Filiatrault of the treacherous obstacles she wishes she had skipped. (You can bypass a Mudder obstacle without penalty, but in Spartan, you are explicitly discouraged from skipping without attempting the obstacle.) One, called ‘Walk the Plank,’ involved leaping from a 12-foot plank into a muddy water pit alongside other jumpers’a scenario that Filiatrault says could have caused concussions, neck trauma’or worse.
Indeed, placards along the course sometimes declare ‘Remember You Signed a Death Waiver,’ which is no joke. The waiver that participants must accept during the online registration process and then sign again on the day of the event warns that minor injuries (such as scrapes, sprains and cuts) are ‘common,’ while serious injuries (broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions) are ‘less common, but do sometimes occur.’ Catastrophic injuries (paralysis, heart attack, even death) are described as rare but possible.
Every Mudder event saves the scariest for last: ‘Electroshock Therapy.’ One of two electrical obstacles, it’s a dash to the finish line through a sludgy field covered in a canopy of dangling wires charged with up to a total of 10,000 volts. Holdway likens the sensation to getting a bad electric shock when you pull something out of the dryer. But Filiatrault says, ‘It zaps you so hard, I fell to the ground and so did the people I was hanging on to. I don’t remember my face hitting the mud. The only reason I know I blacked out is because when I finished the race I had mud all over my face.’
Electroshock is one of the riskier activities, noted a recent report in Annals of Emergency Medicine, which found that a two-day Mudder in the U.S. prompted more than 100 calls for emergency medical services, and 38 visits to the emergency department. Four out of the five patients that doctors examined had serious injuries (such as heart problems) associated with the electrical obstacles. Due to the nature of the challenges, the report said, ‘Training might not have prevented many of the injuries that occurred.’ How do you train for getting shocked?
When Best Health asked, Tough Mudder declined to provide their own injury statistics ‘for participant confidentiality reasons’ and had no comment on the report, but stated that dehydration, heat exhaustion and hypothermia are the most common medical issues they address on-site. People with any pre-existing medical conditions are urged to check with a doctor before signing up. Because of the toughness of the course, on average 22 percent of Mudder participants end up not finishing.
Luckily, Filiatrault conquered the course with only some ‘epic’ bruises to show for it. ‘I was delighted with myself,’ she recalls of the euphoric finish line, where everyone had earned a beer, an orange headband and bragging rights. ‘It was a fun day, but it was more dangerous than I care to experience again.’
For Holdway, some health effects lingered: ‘If I could imagine what hypothermia is like, that was how I felt during the event.’ She says she had a cold for a month afterwards ‘because it shocked my immune system so badly.’ Still, she says she wouldn’t rule out trying it again in warm conditions. ‘The whole exercise changed the dynamic of the people I work with. We’re friends now,’ Holdway says. ‘When you’ve grabbed each other’s butts over a wall, you really get to know someone.’
How to train wisely and race safely
Remember, if you have signed a waiver, there is danger in participating. The following information applies only to physical fitness readiness; nothing can prepare you for the electric shock and other obstacles. Participate in these events at your own risk.
From a fitness perspective, as long as you do the right training and get a doctor’s okay to participate, extreme obstacle events are doable for all fitness levels, according to Joy Victoria Yonan-Renold, a certified personal trainer with Equinox Bay St. in Toronto who has finished two Mudders. ‘When I ran it both times, there were people of all shapes and sizes,’ she says.
To prepare, check out the event’s official website for training suggestions. Yonan-Renold advises a workout program of at least three months, incorporating strength training and cardio at least twice weekly each. For cardio conditioning, she recommends including both lower-intensity runs (five to seven kilometres) and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which you can do solo or in a group class (such as Metcon3 at Equinox).
For strength training, Yonan-Renold suggests that you work your whole body with moves such as squats and dead lifts, then master the monkey bars with pull-ups and military presses.
Training with a partner or your teammates is a great way to motivate yourself and build consistency. Online videos that preview your chosen event can give you an idea of what you’re in for, and rev up your training sessions.
During the race, skip obstacles if you don’t feel comfortable doing them. Also, events like Tough Mudder aren’t timed’and finishing fastest isn’t the objective’so go slow if you need to. If you haven’t reached the halfway point by a designated time, you may be shown a modified and shorter route to the finish.