UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Playing dirty has a whole new meaning; just ask anyone who has ever taken part in one of the latest sports crazes — obstacle mud running.
Competitors are diving in and organizers are cashing in on obstacle mud runs like Tough Mudder, Dirty Girl Mud Run, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race, and the popularity of these events has surged amid safety concerns.
Tough Mudder, which began in Allentown with 4,500 participants in 2010, has grown to numerous races scheduled around the nation with more than 800,000 paying to take part turning the military style obstacle race. Tough Mudder is now a multi-million dollar business with corporate partnerships with companies including Under Armour, Clif Bar, Degree, Advil, Bic and CamelBak to name a few.
Similar military-style competitions have erupted all over, including Mud on the Mountain at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion.
"We started our first adventure race in May 2012, and we had the second Mud on the Mountain in November of that year after Super Storm Sandy brought us a foot and a half of snow," said Anna Weltz, resort communications manager. "Then after 'Mud' in May of 2013 someone mentioned to do one in the summer. We followed up with our first 'Mud in the Dark' in August 2013."
Last weekend, the second 'Mud in the Dark' event was held.
Eron McMillen of Elizabeth was there for Mud on the Mountain In the Dark. The 31-year-old alternate education counselor was inspired to run after watching his brother-in-law run in the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2012 but becoming a "mudder" helped boost and hold his interest in running.
"I get bored out of my mind just running. I easily lose focus with just running. The obstacles and different challenges keeps me focused, and it's a better challenged of mental and physical strength," said McMillen. "My first 5K was the zombie mud run Run for Your Lives. So my first race was a mud run."
McMillen is a Tough Mudder participant as well. He loves the competition and the camaraderie.
"There are so many friendly people on the course who are willing to help out. There's teamwork involved, and I enjoy that. Just meeting those people is really great especially when you're doing a lot of these on you own," he said.
Lindsay Hull, 32, of Coal Center is a wife, mother of three, engineer and a committed mudder for the last three years.
"I started doing it just because I run a variety of distance races but I'm not a track star athlete kind of person. I like to run but I also enjoy weightlifting and challenging myself in other ways. A mud run was a good way to use all my training in different ways."
Her first mud run was Ruckus at the Washington County Fairgrounds.
"It had rained heavily leading up to the day of the race. The course was muddy and really challenging. Falling or turning an ankle was a concern," said Hull.
She has never been hurt in the dozens of events she's participated in, but she is aware there is always aware injury is a possibility.
Hull and her team of six people, did the Pittsburgh-Ohio Tough Mudder in 2013 less than four months after a Maryland man accidentally drowned during a Tough Mudder in West Virginia.
In 2011, two people died of heatstroke during a Warrior Dash event in Kansas City, Missouri. That same year a Detroit man was paralyzed when he dove head first into a mud pit during Warrior Dash in his home city; and in 2013, a Texas man drowned swimming across the Trinity River while competing in the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth.
In April 2013, Avishek Sungupta, 28, of Maryland died during an event known as "Walk the Plank" during a Tough Mudder event in West Virginia where competitors jump from a platform 15 feet in air into a man-made pond of freezing water and mud. It was the first death in the competition's history.
Hull's fear of falling and her knowledge of the man's drowning factored into her decision to pass on that obstacle.
"I stood on the plank shaking. I could not jump. My team had already jumped and they were encouraging me, but I climbed down and skipped that particular event," she said.
McMillen said the "Plank" obstacle gave him the most anxiety as well.
"I was careful to make sure there wasn't anyone else in the water, and I got out as quickly as possible," he said.
Mud obstacle races typically include climbing, crawling and water immersion. Mud on the Mountain obstacles include rope, rock and log climbs, mud crawls under barbed wire, running in rough terrain, and climbing the slopes of the ski resort.
Tough Mudder organizers pride themselves on difficult obstacles that are always evolving to become a bit more extreme than just running or crawling through the mud.
Among the events are "Funky Monkey" (a set of incline and decline monkey bars, slicked with butter and mud mixture, over a pit of cold water); "Everest" (run up a quarter pipe slicked with mud and grease); "Arctic Enema" (plunge into a trash container filled with ice water, dunk underneath a plank that crosses the container, and pull out on other side); and "Electroshock Therapy" (live wires hang over a field of mud that participants cross through).
"Electrocution ones are not fun," Hull admitted. "I went through them, and it was not fun. It was an army crawl through the mud, getting shocked in the back. At one point a guy on my team was getting shocked so bad he pushed my feet forward to get both of us out."
Weltz said Mud on the Mountain planners like to "shake it up" when it comes to obstacles.
"So if you've competed before, it means you're coming into something fresh and new," she said.
But Hull doesn't fear getting hurt or injured, and she believes organizers are concerned about safety.
"Events like Tough Mudder are a big business, therefore they're not trying to get someone hurt that wouldn't be good for business. They are coming up with challenges that are adventurous for someone like me who is always looking for something fun to try."
Participants, who face the possibility of injuries including hypothermia, lacerations, burns and broken bones, must sign a waiver prior to entry of each event that absolves the event planners from any liability in the event of accidental injury or death.
Critics like retired U.S. Coast Guard inspector Mario Vittone, who now serves as a maritime consultant in coastal Virginia, have a different view. Vittone spent his career as a rescue swimmer and questions the lack of oversight and consideration given to athlete preparation.
Following Sungupta's accidental death, Vittone posted this on his blog, "Tough Mudder is one of those pay-to-play obstacle challenges that allow anyone with an entry fee and the willingness to sign a waiver the chance to do things usually reserved for elite military combat professionals. Perhaps that's why injury and even death at such events is sad but not surprising. The training done by elite military combat professionals involves a lot more than setting up an obstacle course and sending the troops in. They go through months of build-up and monitoring, the training is extremely well supervised, and their emergency response plans are well-thought-out, practiced, and proven."
Vittone continued, "Military combat units- like the British Special Forces who are credited with designing the Tough Mudder obstacles- go through an ever-increasing series of physical tests before being allowed to continue to more difficult challenges. There are supervised and quantified swim tests, for example, prior to any high risk water training. How do adventure races assess a participant's physical abilities? They don't. They put a warning on their website and make racers sign a waiver."
McMillen and Hull both indicated they have never felt pressured to do any obstacle. But both mudders do agree that training and preparation are important.
McMillen runs regularly and takes part in boot camp and body challenge workouts to increase cardio stamina and strength.
Hull takes part in boot camp work outs, teaches cycling classes, and regularly goes on "rucking" with friends. Rucking is hiking with weighted backpacks for miles through rough terrain. She also expressed surprise at the lack of preparation by many participants.
"My first race I thought you had to be an all-around athlete, and then I saw people who appeared to just show up and do events leisurely. I feel like people don't take how serious it can be. If you've hardly trained, you're increasing your risk of getting hurt," said Hull.
At Seven Springs, ski patrol members and trail marshals, with first aid and CPR training, man the obstacles and trails, according to Weltz. In the event of injury or medical emergency, first aid trained staff and EMTs triage the severity and take the appropriate action and an ambulance service is immediately available to transport injured to area hospitals if necessary, Weltz said.
"We also take special precautions like a head lamp for the 'Dark' events and we take out some of the obstacles out of the equation that aren't conducive, like swimming in November. We use slope lighting, neon colors and strategic lighting if necessary. We track runners by their bib numbers, and for 'Mud Dark' the maximum capacity is 750," said Weltz.
Mud has become big business.
Competitors are forking over on average between $70 to $100 for some races, while other businesses are benefiting from athletic gear sales and training preparation.
Some races like Tough Mudder and Dirty Girl net nearly a million dollars in entry fees from large races with as many as 10,000 participants.
More often than not the registration fee is non-refundable for participants. Tough Mudder does not offer refunds or partial refunds under any circumstances.
Mud on the Mountain's registration management company Active.com does not issue refunds but will allow participants to transfer their bib number to another participant for a "token transfer fee."
Dirty Girl Mud Run recently came under fire for canceling an event in Charleston, West Virginia just days before the July 26 race.
Dirty Girl announced through its Facebook page that due to circumstances beyond their control, the event would be canceled and posted this message, "per our policy, we will not be issuing refunds under any circumstances."
What followed was a social media uproar.
Hundreds responded to the Dirty Girl Facebook post and on Twitter, expressing their displeasure with race owner 100 LLC based in Delafield, Wisconsin and Colorado based Human Movement, the race's producer.
By July 28, Human Movement announced via the Dirty Girl Mud Run Facebook page that it had acquired all the assets of Dirty Girl and may issue some refunds. Meanwhile Preston & Solango, a Charleston law firm, filed a class action lawsuit against the race owner and producer on behalf of the would be mudders who paid entrance fees.
Following a swarm of complaints, the Better Business Bureau reminds would-be registrants to read the fine print before signing up for themed races.
Information from: Herald-Standard, http://www.heraldstandard.com/