There are inherent risks in obstacle course racing. That’s why we have to sign death waivers. At the same time, race organizers do not want to have to be responsible for injuries, or worse, among their customers; it’s bad for business, so they have incentive to keep things safe. Usually, they do a good job. Will Dean of Tough Mudder regularly quotes statistics showing that his events are safer than marathons. When I have noticed conditions that struck me as unsafe, it has usually been at smaller venues or start-up races.
The BattleFrog Series has been trying to raise its profile, expanding the number of venues for 2016, introducing a 24-hour race, and most recently, sponsoring a college bowl game. Given the cost of that last move, estimated at $3 to 5 million, it is clear that BattleFrog’s backers have money to spend. However, a few incidents in the 2015 season have led some racers to ask if BattleFrog should be spending more of that money on beefing up safety at the races rather than on publicity.
I will admit that I was surprised to hear allegations that there were safety problems at BattleFrog events. I have done only one of their races, in New Jersey last June, and I remember thinking how sturdy the obstacles were. I have been to other races where I was worried about the stability of the obstacles. After all, these are temporary structures, many based on original designs, and they are meant to be dismantled after a day or two of use without much testing before being attacked by thousands of runners. Other sports have it easier: there are consumer safety protocols on most sports equipment, and with thousands of users over decades of participation, most of the kinks have been worked out. In obstacle course racing, the course designers are typically facing a new venue for every event, with limited prep time, and without the opportunity to test the obstacles with regular people to see if they will withstand the abuse that a crowd of enthusiastic, if sometimes amatuer, racers will inflict. Added to this is the pressure to come up with obstacles that are innovative and more “extreme” than their competitors can offer, and that construction crews and supplies are often sourced locally. Finally, all of the courses are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and terrain that might be challenging when dry can become treacherous when slippery.
Two races in the BattleFrog Series last year stood out for potentially hazardous conditions. In August, at the race outside Pittsburgh, the second obstacle was a standard A-frame. Since it was only the second obstacle, the crowd of elite runners in the first wave had not yet spread out, and when most of the racers were on top of the A-frame, it buckled under their weight and collapsed. Luckily, no one was hurt, but a number of racers found this to be more of an adrenalin rush than they had bargained for. [Update: we heard from several racers who were injured when this obstacle collapsed, including one who suffered a concussion and another who broke his ankle.] This obstacle was taken out of the race as soon as it was cleared.
Later in the same race, the course took the racers into an old mine, where there was a short swim to reach another obstacle before the exit from the mine. Even in August, the water was very cold, and eventually the swim portion in the mine was also eliminated. In this case, safety personnel on site made the call, as too many racers were finding the temperature contrast too extreme. Nevertheless, other racers reported that the organizers ran out of headlamps and pool noodles, which were being used as flotation devices.
In November, Battlefrog hosted a race near Atlanta on a rainy Saturday. The course had two water crossings, one (marked as “Swim” on the course map) across a lake (video starting here) and another through a stream (video starting here). Normally, where the water is chest high, you might expect to see safety divers, or at least volunteers with radios, keeping an eye out for problems. However, a number of participants who made these crossings at different points during the day noted that there were minimal safety precautions in place. One racer, Jason McNulty, described that particular obstacle this way:
One obstacle towards the end of the course was a “Water crossing”. You had to make your way down an embankment and into a river. You then had to move along the bank, across a small inlet and then climb out. This obstacle was pretty much a transition from one large meadow to another. My first lap there was a person there, they sat on top of the bank and could barely see the start of the obstacle. I can not tell you if this person was an employee, life guard or a volunteer. On my second lap this person was nowhere to be found. The water was deeper and moving faster. After my second lap I informed the D.J of the situation and he directed me to a gentleman at the starting line, I think his name was Russell. He said “OK, thanks, I will take care of it.” When I got to the obstacle on my third lap once, again, no one was there. It looked like there may have been a poor attempt to close the obstacle but I could not tell for sure. There was nothing to direct racers around if it was closed. By this time the water was a lot deeper. I am 5’10”, the first lap it was chest deep, the last lap it was almost over my head. I think BattleFrog is very fortunate that nobody was washed away or drowned.
Another participant, Jamie Haas, told me:
I would have liked to have seen at minimum a lifeguard, but really someone in scuba gear ready in case someone went under. I love water and consider myself a strong swimmer, but when you mix in current, a large number of people, brown water with 0 visibility, with no safety precautions, that is a recipe for disaster.
I know thing come up with volunteers that don’t show, but water is one where there should be a paid or specialized volunteer.
All and all it was a great race considering the weather, was just surprised at the lack of safety in the river.
I like how at Savage [Race] they have someone in the water in scuba gear when you jump off the platform.
Several other racers reported the same: one or two volunteers earlier in the day at this crossing, which was getting more and more difficult, but none later on. None of the racers I spoke with saw any lifeguards, EMTs or professional safety personnel or safety equipment at this location. The stream crossing was particularly treacherous, as the heavy rain had caused the water level to rise, making it much more difficult for racers to keep a secure footing in the rushing water, especially after several laps around the course.
According to an industry expert, there are protocols for what kind of safety personnel should be in place for water crossings. For example, a 100 foot crossing of a lake with a depth of 4 ½ feet would require eight lifeguards and three divers; crossing a 20 foot stream would also require four lifeguards. I watched YouTube videos of the water crossings at both the Atlanta and Pittsburgh venues, and not only did I not see any safety personnel, I did not see any volunteers who might have been able to call for help in case someone had trouble in the water.
Obstacle Course Races rely heavily on volunteer labor, and while this usually results in enthusiastic support, it can also mean that the workforce is not always reliable. I suspect that the heavy rain in Atlanta made it difficult to recruit enough volunteers. All the same, it does not excuse the failure to provide trained safety personnel for these sites. It appears that they were present at the mine portion for the underground swim in Pittsburgh and that they were attentive enough to know that this portion of the race had become unsafe.
So, why were there no safety personnel at the water crossing at the same event? And why were the Atlanta water crossings either unattended, or attended with “civilian” volunteers and not trained water safety personnel?
I reached out to BattleFrog HQ to answer these questions about safety issues at these two events. In response, they provided us with the following quote:
BattleFrog has one of the best safety records in participation sports. Our obstacles are widely considered the finest in the industry and we are very proud of our design and construction teams, many of whom are former Navy Seabees. At each race BattleFrog staffs a team of qualified medics, lifeguards and other safety personnel to assist if issues arise and every participant is covered with a medical injury insurance policy. No sport is totally risk free, but our ‘Battlers’ know that our commitment to their safety is second to none.” – BattleFrog CEO Ramiro Ortiz
If BattleFrog wants to move up to the next level, it needs to spend more money on safety personnel. Given the millions they spent on getting their name on a college bowl title, it has been made clear, they have the money to pay for safety. Let’s hope BattleFrog (and all in the industry) make it a priority in 2016.
Update 1/21/16 3:02pm EST
We have spoken with Chris Cow, who has reviewed several races for ORM in the past. He will be attending the BattleFrog event in San Diego on Saturday. He has asked to do a follow up on this article based on what he observes this weekend. We have reached out to BFHQ to let them know Chris will be there and to find out who he can speak to on site at Saturday’s race.
Update 1/25/16 10:00am EST
Chris reviewed the San Diego event. Read his recap here.
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