Experts warn about adventure run risks

Adventure runs packed with obstacles, but can they be dangerous?

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Adventure runs packed with obstacles are a hot trend, promoted as a healthy and fun way to get out and get dirty. But, can they be downright dangerous? Critics say some race organizers are pushing things too far for participants.

Sarah McDowell competes in as many as 30 organized runs a year, and sometimes she throws a little adventure into the mix.

"The majority of the time the obstacles are pretty great and they're a pretty good time," said McDowell.

Adventure runs, like the ones McDowell competes in, are all the rage. A host of companies let participants slither through mud, jump through flames and even offer military-inspired obstacles.

"It's a lot of fun," said Maria Burla.

"It's a great way to get together with girlfriends, get a little exercise and have a lot of fun," said Emily Schulz.

But along with good, but maybe not so clean fun, the competitions can be risky. Dr. Balu Natarajan with the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine said he's seeing patients with injuries different from the type you'd find in a marathon or 10k.

"Jumping over fire, going through mud walls, twisting, turning, if the athlete thinks 'It's just three miles, it's not that big a deal,' those are the ones who approach this in an almost brazen manner that are most likely to get injured," said Natarajan. "Three miles with a lot of obstacles is fraught with risk."

It's risk that can put more strain on the body, leading, to bruises, breaks and sprains, as McDowell learned during one race when she injured her ankle while navigating a muddy obstacle.

"It was the first time that I had ever really thought, 'Wow, this is a little bit more in the danger zone than I wanted to be,'" McDowell said.

"There's been other things like second-degree burns and drowning and things like that," said Troy Farrar of the United States Adventure Racing Association, which sanctions outdoor team competitions.

It's the more severe injuries that has medical and event experts speaking up. Channel 4 reached out to some of the companies that organize the runs for information on safety precautions. Two refused comment, but Ben Johnson with Tough Mudder said, "Our top objective is – and has always been – to deliver safe events. We work with engineers and industry safety experts... to continually review our obstacle designs and on-site response capabilities..."

Farrar said the USARA used to insure some obstacle runs.

"A lot of people started getting injured, and basically our underwriters won't cover them anymore," Farrar said.

The USARA has safety standards for the races it governs, but the adventure runs are different.

"They don't have a governing body laying down any safety standards," said Farrar. "Some guys are doing a really good job of keeping their obstacles safe, and other guys aren't doing quite as good a job."

Farrar is pushing for standardization, meantime, runners are on their own to make sure when they sign up for a race, they research the group hosting the event and look at reviews and reports of previous injuries.

McDowell still participates in the occasional adventure run, but avoids them when she knows she has another race on the horizon.

"It's just too high of a risk of injury for me," said McDowell.

There are no statistics that track injury in these types of races, and Dr. Natarajan said many of his patients do run in them safely. If you're thinking of signing up for one, you'll likely be asked to sign a comprehensive waiver before participating.

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