It’s Time to Change Course

The MudRunManiac website has enabled me to share my passion for mud running with thousands of folks looking for an excuse to have fun and get filthy. In ways, I’ve positioned myself as a spokesperson for this niche that has rapidly navigated itself to the edge of mainstream. As an advocate of filthy fun, I believe I have a responsibility to share not only the awesome aspects of mud running, but also the parts that really need improvement.

If you haven’t heard the news, this past weekend we were saddened to learn that we lost one of our own. Tony Weathers died while he was participating in the Original Mud Run held in Fort Worth, Texas. His body was recovered in the Trinity River crossing early Sunday morning. Known to his friends as “Weatherman,” Weathers was an elite athlete who could run a mile in under 5 minutes and was a regular in a twice-a-week “boot camp” class. An exact cause of death has yet to be determined

Now in its 14th year, the Original Mud Run is held annually in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. The race features a competitive and non-competitive division. Participants of the competitive division are required to wear “boots and utes”: a military-style boot with “some combination of leather and mesh” and “camouflage utility trousers or long pants.”The format of the Original Mud Run is similar to that of Tough Mudder, as participants must run through mud and conquer a series of obstacles to complete the race. Obstacles include, “Gorilla Ropes,” a 25-foot span of monkey bars set over a mud pit; “Leap of Faith,” an “8-ft platform positioned over a mysterious depth;” and “The English Channel,” described on the run’s site as “a very long stretch of water.” Details about the race are scare on the Original Mud Run’s website; however, the site claims to reveal all in its Dirty Laundry Newsletter for subscribers.

These types of tongue-in-cheek scare tactics and lack of details are commonplace in the mud running niche, as there is currently little in the way of regulation when it comes to providing mud run participants with accurate and detailed descriptions of obstacles and course layouts. Most events proclaim at least one “mystery obstacle” that is kept secret until race day, which helps create a last-minute buzz on an event’s social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. Personally, the lack of details about a mud run and the excitement and anticipation leading up to a race helps keep me engaged and talking about the event. However, while I enjoy the lighter side of mud running, I also understand that there is a very serious risk involved, which is most often represented by a death waiver that all event participants must sign. While I realize the hazards of mud running, I also put some confidence into the event organizers who are responsible for ensuring that risk factors are minimized.

Many mud run sites will list the finer, more grave, details of their event in an FAQ section. Here’s a look at the Original Mud Run’s FAQ section:

Q: How far apart are the obstacles, will I be running long distances before I get to an obstacle?

A: Each course is different; we try to design the course so the furthest you will run is about 1.17 miles during the first part of the race just to spread people out so they won’t get backed-up on the first obstacle. Other than that there will not be more than about a half a mile between obstacles. 

Q: Do I have to know how to swim in order to participate?

A: No although it is recommended. There might be areas on the course that require you to swim but there will be guide ropes and lifeguards in those areas. There will also be alternate routes for those who do not want to swim.

Some finishers of the Original Mud Run are frenetically pointing fingers at the event for Weathers death, suggesting that this year’s race was disorganized and inadequately prepared for a large turnout of participants. Here’s what a few runners had to say on the mud run’s Facebook page after learning of the Weather’s tragedy:

(M.W.) I had the same experience and I was in the competitive division. It had NOTHING TO DO with [not] being able to swim 75 yards. It [had] to do with the NUMBER OF PEOPLE ALLOWED IN THE WATER AT ONCE. Panic-stricken drowning people were crying and terrified pulling people under the water, INCLUDING MYSELF. I was dragged under and thank God my boyfriend was able to see that and save me. This was horrible. I’ve talked to the news and will continue to do so.

(C.C) I had fun but the entire thing was completely chaotic. 2 1/2 hour wait at packet pick up with about 6-8 volunteers registering hundreds of people is insane. As many runners as they have and only two days for packet pick up of course it will be jam packed, under 10 people signing all these people up is ridiculous. There was no direction on the course and only a handful of volunteers.

(M.G.B.) My first time I wore camp pants & boots…..the boots were like 100lb weights on my feet & was impossible to actually swim & I’m a swimmer. This past Saturday I wore shorts & tennis shoes & the swimming was a cinch…no issues at all for me! It does make me very sad that do many people had such problems & issues with the run. I can say if I didn’t know how or was a poor swimmer I would not do the river. It is a good stretch across.

(J.C.) When I got to the portion of the race where we had to enter the water, we couldn’t get in immediately because there were too many people entering at once. Upon entering and starting swimming to the other side, there was a guy struggling. He was a tall guy in a red shirt and there were a group of guys pulling him back to the side that we just got in. That was a difficult task though because there was a large group funneling into a small entrance to cross.

The comments are unsettling and whether or not Weathers’ death can be attributed to these conditions may never be determined. The mud running niche is growing at a record pace and we will continue to see growth of the smaller mud runs as they attempt to carve out their piece of the pie. Unfortunately, for some events the sport is simply multiplying too fast for their own good, while others are cutting-back on adequate safety and staffing in order to stay in the game. Whatever the case may be, the safety of participants is currently not the primary concern, but maybe it should be. For it’s the mudder that will keep the sport going, not the over-zealous water obstacles, the rickety rope climbs, or the shallow mud pits.  A roller coaster with a safety harness can still be the most thrilling experience of a lifetime. A few extra checks and balances on the mud run course won’t slow things down, but might just be the difference in preventing a tragedy like this from happening again. To keep this sport going, it might just be time for a change.

What do you think of this recent tragedy? Will this change the way you approach a mud run or obstacle race? Have you experienced similar safety concerns at a mud run or obstacle race?

20 comments… add one
  • Cornholios Bunghole

    Great read. Sad to hear of a death in the water. I always am a bit nervous enterig the water due to various conditions. I think the water obstacles should be the staffs major concearn. I also put some blame on the participants. I see many people enter the water sometimes very much aware of what they are getting themselves into, and then panick. I listen to my instict and my body though as I run through a race. if something doesn’t feel right, I just don’t do it. Racing is fun, but it’s not something to lose my life over.

  • Lisa S

    I have done several mud runs and you have to listen to your body, and use your brain. If it doesn’t appear safe of there’s too many people, wait it out or go around. There is always an option. We did the Patriot Games in Okla a few weeks ago and there was a zip line that ended in the lake. There was a lifeguard sitting just inside the roped in area making sure each person in the water came back up and got to the side okay. And several more watching out from the bank. Example of a job well done! Our favorite so far!

  • David

    Hey Paul,

    Well said. I’m a veteran for only a year now and I’ve done I think 5-6 events including two Touch Mudders. I live in the Dallas area and was supposed to compete in the OMR, however I had a work conflict. Obviously I can’t speak for that event, but I’ll comment on the ones I’ve done. I totally get both aspects of wanting the “last minute” OMG we have to do what feeling….yet being a practical guy I’d also like to know semi what I’m going to be facing. I’m in the 40’s, I still have a competitive side so sure there is a bit of a thrill in passing people along the course, however I will say for me personally that’s not as good as I feel when I am able to help someone who’s struggling. The vast majority of us are there to momentarily stop time and relive our child hood and the challenges are Supposed to be..well..challenging. However sometimes even when you have a map, and know the obstacles you still can get caught in a mess. I for instance am not a good swimmer, in fact I may be giving myself too much credit. My first Tough Mudder when I climbed up to jump off the 15-20 foot ledge, I didn’t remember which obstacle it was until I was at the top. Then peer pressure (self inflicted) made me dive in..and need to get rescued. Perhaps even more than placing maps of obstacles on websites, what they need is big-ass signs when you get to an obstacle or at least a hard one that states in plain English exactly what you’ll need to do to accomplish it…yes it sucks to ever go around an obstacle…however safety comes before stupidity…this coming from the guy that ran the Mudder in the rain ha ha. Bottom line, there are some ways they can maintain the integrity of the event, but perhaps spend a small amount of money and perhaps improve the safety of the course.

  • Good article. How very sad. It will be interesting to see if they figure out exactly how it happened although I suppose that might be hard. I agree with what people have already stated. You have to think when you do these things. We are all attracted to mud runs, in part, due to the extremity and some level of “danger”. Although most of the “danger” is more marketing hype than anything, people get hurt all the time. The swims can be chaotic. I almost drowned during Tough Mudder Texas Coast in January. I ran the first wave on Saturday and we had a 490 foot swim across a lake (according to my GPS) after Walk The Plank. Up until that point, I had never swam a full lap in a swimming pool, let alone 490 feet. While the race organizers should have known better than to even make such an obstacle (they shut it down after the first wave), I was responsible for myself. I did something stupid and put myself at risk. Almost drowning and experiencing complete chaos makes for a great story with friends afterwards but I could have died. I almost did. http://www.martitimes.blogspot.com/2012/01/tough-mudder-texas-coast.html.

    Having said that, while I put myself into what sounds like a very similar situation, these event organizers make some dumb decisions sometimes as well. Our event was a good example. When I looked back after getting to shore, I could see the floating rescue platform was PACKED with people. That tells me that it wasn’t just me, but that the obstacle was just too challenging for a mass marketed event. I have only done Tough Mudders so far (3 of them) and the waves, in my opinion, are always too big and cause issues. The swims have ALWAYS been crowded and I have NEVER seen an event official or volunteer limit the traffic into the obstacles. While I obviously don’t know what actually caused this death, it seems like some very simple changes should be made to lower the risk while still allowing all of us to enjoy these events.

    • David

      I am still in agreement with most all replies so far. On the one hand I’m behind the idea of if they’ve told me it’s 5 feet of mud and I jump in anyway, I’ve been fairly warned and it’s on me right? However I also see it from the point of view as this: let’s take a look at the automobile. Here we have a 2-3K pound piece(s) of metal traveling at 50-80 mph. The driver is sometimes texting, talking on the phone, talking to an occupant, eating, or any of a LONG list of things besides driving. Modern car safety belts were not mandated by Congress until the 70’s even though for 30-40 years prior to that various groups and individuals had been pushing for them. It took no more than a slight amount of common sense to see that if you were traveling along at 60 mph basic physics mandated that an object in motion tended to stay in motion, right into the windshield. Yet for every person pushing for something, you’ll get an equal and vocal group fighting against it as an infringement on their personal liberties. I get that, really I do. The problem is not that we can’t all use common sense, it’s that for some reason god love us we just don’t. Recent CDC data shows that 1 in 7 adults don’t wear seat belts on every trip. It’s not like that many adults have mass amnesia, it goes much deeper into our pysche than that. The exact same goes for a mud run or any adventure sport. The Organizer has a Fiduciary (or good faith) obligation to put forth an event as safe as possible, and to reveal to its consumers potential hazards. The consumer on the other hand has an obligation to know the facts, research what they are going to do, and prepare as best they can for what they will be facing. Yes, SR and TM do a wonderful job on providing 80,000,000 volunteers, way more than any locally produced operation could…because let’s get down to it, this is a money making operation. Dance around it all you want, however every Event from TM, SM, OMR, down the list are all in it to make a profit other wise they’d close down. So, they are catering to the very thing we all desire. Tough and challenging obstacles for the masses. No, everyone that enters a TM will not complete every obstacle some are quite hard and that’s on purpose. I will note on a previous remark on the teamwork pushed on TM they are 100% accurate…its the reason I do it..yet lets again call it what it is…one the one hand they push team work don’t watch the time, help your buddy…YET on the other hand IF you want to qualify for the Toughest Mudder you must finish in the top 5%. The individual who passed away was an excellent athlete in fantastic shape and condition, so it can’t just be said that this was some weekend warrior want to be and he should have never been doing that obstacle. From every account he was an accomplished swimmer. So, if Organizers have to go back and scale down based on that knowledge how far would they have to whittle the course down? What I’m basically saying it bad things can happen, to anyone at anytime. Is smaller heats the answer? Are more trained volunteers and responders the answer? Is better disclosure of exact obstacles and skill-sets needed to accomplish them the answer? How about personal responsibility of the racer to not go blindly into an obstacle(which I’ve been guilty of myself) a possibility? In the end, its likely a combination of a lot of things. I’d like the think more highly or my fellow Racers and the Organizers than this, but as my age has taught me memories are short, and within a month, two max this even will be part of the past and any changes will be minimal until this specific event comes around in Ft Worth next year. Change does not have to be a bad thing, but it takes all of us trying to work together on both sides of the Mud to accomplish that.

      • Thanks for your insight David. I agree that change is a positive thing, especially as this niche continues to plow forward. It would be nice to see a proactive approach for once, but unfortunately it seems to take drastic circumstances to bring out drastic measures. I’m in favor of a better policing of mud runs so that the runner is best protected given the already-extreme conditions. I think strong safety regulations and staffing are a necessity in order for the sport to survive. I also think that runners need to do their homework and know their boundaries. It’s okay to try something and fail, it’s okay to skip obstacles, it’s okay to finish last. It’s only a mud run.

  • Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the great article. Last year saw several inuries and a few fatalities in the sport, and this story should hopefully be a wake-up call to event organizers, especially the leading ones. I’m looking forward to running my first obstacle races this season. These words of caution are very valuable!

  • People flock to mud runs and obstacle courses because they are challenging and there is a risk. Risk = excitement. There will always be an inverse relationship between excitement and safety with races varying in degrees on each side of the equation and attracting particular types of people to each. This country is far too litigious and that’s the problem. If I die taking a known risk that should be my fault. Now if you fail to tell me that the mud is really five feet and eight inches of quick sand (i’m 5’7 ) then yeah there might be an issue. Now if you tell me and I still jump in, is that your fault. Safety is important and should be paramount but let’s not take away what we love about obstacle racing.
    When I went to Marine Corps bootcamp I traversed some really tall and cool obstacles. A few years later I visited boot camp and found these large four foot high blue mats at the bottom of each obstacle. This is the Marine Corps I’m talking about. This story can be used to both argue for and against my stance.
    Obviously race organizers should be detailed and forth coming about their obstacles and parents should do their own due diligence to understand the course – and take responsibility for their decisions to let their children partake.

    • I would like to add that my comments above reflect my general thoughts regarding the issue of safety at races and not the specifics involving the incidents in Texas. In no way are they meant to downplay the runner’s tragic death or implicate either his or the organizer’s decisions.

      • Hey Paul,
        Thanks for the comments. To me it seems like there is a trend toward cutting corners, especially for the smaller mud runs. Whether this is due to lack of resources or lack of interest, I cannot say, but I’ve definitely seen a big difference in safety precautions after running smaller runs vs. running in one of the “Bigs” like Tough Mudder. TM has professional divers in dry-suits and taut ropes to help you traverse cold water. Smaller runs that I’ve done have one or two inattentive or ill-prepared teenage lifeguards, 100-yard swims, and ropes that sink 3 feet under water. Also, after volunteering for several races, even building obstacles, I can tell you that the smaller ones tend to omit a lot of the details on their About or FAQ pages because they often hastily wrap things up in the final days leading up to the race. The Rebel Race this past weekend is a great example of a shoddy race that clearly cut corners and did everything in its power to get people to the starting line. Not only were obstacles missing and/or broken, but every volunteer had left the course during the 3rd lap of the 15k heat. Check the Rebel Race Facebook page. Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge of mud runs and obstacle races, and I understand the death waivers, but organizers should also understand the reality that people push themselves and will try to beat a swimming obstacle despite the fact that they are poor swimmers. I just think they need to prepare for that better, whether they tag people in and out of the water, tighten ropes, or invest in dry-suits or all-of-the-above, it wouldn’t really take too much additional investment of time and money to prevent this type of thing from happening.

        One more point is the competition factor. A lot of mud runs, like Tough Mudder, heavily promote camaraderie and design their courses with this in mind. Some, however, are geared toward competing and finishing faster than the guy next to you. I prefer those that focus on teamwork, rather than races, but sometimes its not exactly clear what you are getting yourself into until you get there. When in doubt, always sign-up with a buddy.

        • Sean Mack

          Hey Paul,

          I also did the Rebel Race this past weekend, though only the 5k, and it was not just your 15k that was lacking volunteers. I raced on Sunday at 11:30 and the “mud pits” were more like sand boxes by this point minus the final one that they were pouring a garden hose into while they tossed mud onto us. Through the whole course I can recall seeing under ten folks in red shirts and myself and a fellow runner were actually insulted by a course worker for not following the poorly marked and broken down markers correctly. After all of this I approached the final obstacle, which was a ladder wall, to find it backed up with four people going over at a time. This was a safe and steady process but as I was up front with the top finishers in my heat several mudders got impatient. The wall was stormed and not a single worker did a thing to stop it. I found myself at the top with five people on either side of me and only a couple inches to try to swing my leg over the wall. Suddenly it popped into my head “This isn’t worth it you have Tough mudder in two weeks.” I climbed back down without completing the obstacle and ran the ten yards to the finish and quickly forgot the situation and enjoyed my beer and the band. Later while looking at the pictures my mom had taken I was really glad I had made that decision. There were over ten people on both sides of the wall which I then found out had just been nailed back together by course workers! This race was a textbook example of quality and safety being thrown by the wayside surely to save them the cost of paid course builders and workers.

          On the flip side I wanted to get your opinion the quality and safety of the ABF 10k. I exchanged a few words about tough mudder with you and a few other mudders around the camp fire on March 31st and it was said that the difficulty was comparable but scaled down in size. I didn’t even consider the quality and safety at the time but looking back after Rebel Race but it seems like it was at least above average.

          • Hi Sean,
            I remember chatting with you, sure! Good to hear from you. I’m not surprised about your experience at the end of Rebel Race. The organizers really have their hands full if they want to survive. I think of Tough Mudder as the gold standard (although I have yet to schedule a Spartan), and even something as simple as the vibe that is present is so different. For example, the staff at Rebel Race was largel on their cell phones, sitting in folding chairs and/or smoking cigarettes. Tough Mudder staff is encouraging, helpful and all about promoting a high standard.

            I think ABF 10K is more in-line with Tough Mudder, both in the way they motivate and help their participants and in terms of safety, as their course is pretty well staffed with volunteers. What I don’t like about ABF is their water crossings and some of their homemade obstacles. In each year I’ve run it, they’ve had to close at least one water crossing due to safety concerns. This year, the barrels tied at the far end of the crossing malfunctioned rendering the obstacle unsafe. But more than that, I think the swimming distance, especially in the cold, is overlooked in their course layout somewhat. Their website says the required swimming is about 25-30 feet. Actually, it’s more like 75-100 yards…and with frigid temps and nothing to grab onto to keep your above water, it’s got a lot of potential for an accident to occur. Another point on the water crossings at ABF is that they are staffed with young lifeguards in nothing more than a bathing suit. I saw one of them jump in to help someone, but then it looked like he needed help too since he couldn’t stop shivering. If he was my last hope, I’d be scared.

            Some of their obstacles seem a bit piecemeal and/or poorly constructed. I noticed a few nails sticking out of some of the climbing obstacles and a few boards popping through on one or two walls. I also noticed that the distance from the downslope of the ninja ramp seemed much too short. It didnt seem to provide any benefit to help you up the other side, but did seem dangerous in how it was laid out. It’s not a high budget mud run, and most of the obstacles are largely built by volunteers, but I think if they hire one or two professional carpenters and stick to carefully thought out plans, they can easily correct this problem.

            The only other negative I’d say about ABF is their overall course design. It’s really not a mud run IMO, but more of a combination of a trail run and a water course. I also didn’t care for the finish that consisted of a rock wall, a water crossing, another water crossing via single rope, and the ninja ramp. Not only was this anticlimactic, but it seemed unsafe, as the line for the second crossing was backed up and many folks stood waiting shivering. At least half of the group I was with skipped it after waiting several minutes and most all of them bypassed the ninja ramp because they were freezing and deflated from the cold. I thought this layout was unsafe and in need of improvement for next time.

            But the major difference between ABF and Rebel Race is that it’s obvious to me ABF cares about its participants, feedback, safety, etc., while with Rebel Race this is at best questionable. I know from speaking with the founder of and volunteers of ABF that they are constantly working to improve things for next time and they are committed to providing a challenging and safe course that requires teamwork to conquer. I love this about them, and it’s why I’ll keep trying it. I’m not sure what Rebel Race is committed to other than running a shoddy race with flashy marketing to make a few bucks. Long term a poor business model and one destined to expire.

            I guess this is my long answer! Thanks for checking in Sean.

            Best,
            Paul

          • Sean Mack

            Hey Paul,

            I agree totally with your feelings on the ABF run. I myself am an average swimmer and avid surfer so the distance in the water did not bother me much but looking back I could see that being a danger to many. It is great to hear that you feel the ABF run is on the up because it is closer to home than so many of the runs that are based in PA or farther into north jersey.

            Thanks,
            Sean

  • Stacy C

    I had a similar experience at the Rock Solid Mud Run in NJ — we had to swim across a pond/lake of sort to the other side. It was mid October and water was very cold. We were told at one side to “go” so we jumped in with no guide ropes, lifeguards in the water or anything. We had to look out for each other. I was running the race myself (5’4″, 120# plus soaked) and jumping into 42 degree water along with a bunch of other people w/out the safety net of lifeguards or flotation devices was scary. When in cold water you need to be able to get your boy under control and focused. It was hard to go across but I had to get myself to focus b/c we had two more laps to go.
    I did YouTube one of the videos from that race and it was so sad to hear the cries for help I had to turn it off. I think with some of these runs people need to remember that some are not made for the just starting type adventure runner and it’s not going to be a cake walk. If there is water, assume you must know how to swim or do not enter it. The race organizations need to pile on safety as well with water activities. I have to say the Tough Mudder and Spartan do a wonderful job of water safety that I have seen so far in the past year. It is a key element and knowing that people are there to help does settle newbie nerves.

  • Cynthia Johnson

    Tragic story. Thank you for sharing; all comments. I participated in my first TM in Ohio/Michigan last weekend and loved it so much I’m looking into a Spartan right now. This article reminded me not to carried away too fast. I’m not familiar with Mud Run, but I’m understanding Spartan is timed. Maybe I’m not ready for the competitive side until I get a few TM’s under my belt.

    Prayers for the family.

  • Michael P. Cardile Sr.

    I was a spectator at the Tough Mudder this past weekend in West Virginia. I was there with my family to cheer on my son and his 2 friends, instead I witnessed a drowning that was so senseless and tragic that I am still in shock today.. I realize the consequences of the potential dangers of this race but to see an accident occur and than see the disgraceful way this young man was ( I am using these words loosely) saved is abdominal. It took the scuba diver who was old and overweight approx. 10 to 15 minutes to put his gear on before he hit the water. I have seen people who loose their watch at the bottom of a pool react faster than this man did. This man should of never died!!!

  • Mike

    I was first introduced to these mud run events about 3 years ago. In that time, I’ve completed 3 Tough Mudders, 2 Spartans and handfull of Warrior Dashes/Rugged Maniacs. The one trend I noticed each year that progressed is that these events are becoming more and more popular. The only problem with that is that a lot of the venues/cities chosen for these events cannot support the mass crowds that these events are starting to draw. It’s one thing if parking is a fiasco or obstacle wait time is 20+ minutes – but it’s a whole new story if entire events (Maryland Tough Mudder last year) are cancelled or people start dying b/c venues aren’t staffed enough or big enough to handle these crowds. My biggest reason why I stopped registering for these events is b/c they don’t cap registrations. It went from being about raising awareness for a good cause, getting in a great workout and camaraderie to being about making as much money (at least in my opinion) as possible.

    • Michael P. Cardile Sr.

      I totally agree with you..Unfortunately, i had to witness first hand the negligence of the tough Mudder..A young man drowned at the WV event a couple of weeks ago..His death was totally preventable.

  • Thanks, Paul, for this thought-provoking article, and thanks to everyone who has commented for your feedback and ideas. We’re building a permanent mud obstacle course in Cincinnati, and we are deeply saddened with the two recent deaths at mud events. Your insights are incredibly helpful as we prepare for our first event over Labor Day weekend. Our intent is to do it right – we have a great location with amazing terrain, and safety is paramount. I’m sure we’ll use many of the suggestions offered in the comments – THANKS!

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