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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Your statement about the Pittsburgh race is absolutely incorrect. There WERE injuries to elite competitors. I have a close friend who ended up with a broken foot as a result of the collapsing A frame and know of other injuries such as concussions from the collapse.
I was running BFX (who started after elite racers) in Pittsburgh, and I saw A-frame collapse first hand.. Everybody in elites continued a race except one guy who got cut on forehead (on his way to medical he was talking like “let me continue”), and if there were broken feet or concussions on A-frame there would be injured bodies near the obstacle which was NOT the case.
On other note there were concussion and broken foot at other obstacles, but that happened because racer’s judgment not poorly constructed obstacle.
Arseni you are wrong. My friend did break his foot but from adrenaline got up and ran further before the pain set in to where he quit like 5 min later on the course and I did get a concussion from the fall when 2 people landed on me. Medics tried to stop me but I continued on and finished the course still. Just because you didn’t see any injuries as you came through doesn’t mean there weren’t any
I feel compelled to comment with my thoughts on the Atlanta event and this specific obstacle because I was there and subsequently wrote a review of the race for ORM…
When I encountered the river, there was an official present with a walkie-talkie though I only ran a single lap so I can’t speak to the area being monitored on a consistent basis throughout the day. I included a first person perspective photo taken with my GoPro from in the water in my race review and this person is clearly visible. You can also see that the water was moving at a pretty good clip. It’s also worth noting there was a large downed tree across a portion of the section of the river that had to be negotiated and also posed potential safety concerns. Finally, the thought of encountering a venomous snake crossed my mind that morning as well, and while I didn’t see any, I know the area and it was well within the realm of possibility.
In hindsight, I never questioned whether or not the person on the riverbank was BattleFrog staff, volunteer, lifeguard, etc. and probably should have. Looking back, I would definitely like to have seen a more obvious indication that qualified emergency response personnel was close by and at the ready. Water levels at both the river and the lake crossing were noticeably high especially for someone of my stature (5′ 6″). While I never felt in danger, I could certainly see how someone with limited abilities negotiating this type of obstacle and/or lack of experience swimming in natural bodies of moving water could find themselves in serious trouble.
I maintain that the Atlanta event was well run though I am admittedly experiencing a delayed sense of relief no one including myself was injured or worse.
My entire team commented during and after the water crossing over the tree how dangerous that was. I feel it posed a real danger to newbies, weaker swimmers, and less athletic participants. That tree alone was very scary. I’m 5’2 and when I crossed the water was over my shoulders. When I climbed over the tree I definitely felt like I was getting sucked underneath it, but I’m a strong swimmer so I was able to fight the current and get to the other side.
Battlefrog definitely has room for improvement when it comes to safety. Atlanta 2 was challenging because of the majority of volunteers flaking due to the weather. That being said, volunteers should never staff an obstacle like that. That should have had professionals.
Guys, I enjoyed every event! I ran Cinn and Atlanta, which was closer to Alabama than Atalanta, and I do not have any problem whatsoever with any obstacle. I signed a waiver, I know what to expect and if anything happened to me, this is by my choice and I am not going to blame anyone or hold anyone else responsible after I signed a waiver. You see the obstacle, the obstacle looks dangerous, if you are afraid something may happen, do your body builders and go around the obstacle.
Keep up the good work guys and don’t change a thing. Get upset if you want but to me this weeds out all non hackers!!
I was at Atlanta. My whole group discussed how dangerous that was. I am a good swimmer (I was a lifeguard back in the day). I feel that the current was strong to swim against. The tree was challenging because there was a real danger that you could be pulled under it and trapped. Weaker swimmers, or those new to the sport could have been swept away by the current. There were not even volunteers at that obstacle. With the current there at minimum should have been trained lifeguards present at the start and finish of obstacle.
Many people voiced this. I still love battlefrog. It’s a great race. They got screwed by the rains making the majority of volunteers not show up. BUT they didn’t put ANY safety precautions in place for an obstacle that could have potentially led to a fatality had the stars aligned in a tragic way. I’m hoping that they learn from this and improve for the 2016 season.
I know first hand how hard it is to depend on volunteers. They are, after all, volunteers and working either for free or for some simple nugget the race director decided to hand down. So there in lies the problem. In no uncertain terms should any obstacle on the entire course ever solely be manned by a volunteer. No matter the difficulty of the obstacle. Personal employed by the race company should be present at each and every obstacle. It only makes sense that the people familiar with not only the obstacle but the terrain and more importantly the staff should be running the obstacle. Volunteers should only be responsible for extra EYES on the athletes, lending a hand, running an errand and if need be support during an emergency.
If race companies(generally speaking because battle frog isn’t the only one) don’t have the budget to man each individual obstacle then we need to start asking ourselves some serious questions about the standards we as athletes should expect from these races.
My hope is as we evolve in the sport we as a community can embrace the fact that the learning curve is steep and we(race companies and athletes) are all doing our best to keep up. That being said, excuses should be few and changes should be made. If not, penalties should be enforced….
I’m not sure I agree that staff should be at every obstacle. Certainly they should be present at those with the most potential for safety issues, along with qualified and trained rescue personnel if needed. I think Spartan’s policy of having volunteers with radios that can immediately summon staff or medical support if there’s a problem is adequate for many of the lower risk obstacles like walls, heavy carries, barbed wire crawls, etc.
Ryan, races will start having paid staff at all obstacles when racers are ready to pay multiple times the amounts we currently do for races.
My instinct is to say, as Jerry did, “gut the eff up, you signed a waiver”, but not everyone’s expectations are the same, and waivers are only paper-thin protection (see what I did there?) for race organizers. So yes, some obstacles such as water obstacles should be manned by lifeguards, volunteer or not.
I’m not sure sure this kind of thing is unique to Battlefrog, but they seem to be an easy target for criticism. And I firmly believe the risks are much higher in other situations, for example running down steep muddy hills with trees and rocks in the way, which is frequent. It’s impossible to find a balance between risk and excitement that will please everyone.
I read this an felt obligated to comment about my story. Although I did not compete in this particular race. I have done 7 other obstacle course races over a few years and hope to get back into it soon, I fell off a 25 foot high cargo net and am recovering from a lower vertebrae compression injury. I had to wear a torso body brace for 4 months. The cargo net wasn’t pulled taut enough between two tall trees. I was near the last wave to race that day so hundreds of people had loosened that rope around the trees before me. I had my doubts f the safety of this obstacle before I started climbing. Against my better judgement I climbed it and lost my footing on the slippery loose rope.There were no volunteers around the obstacle where I was until after I fell. Not to mention there seemed to be many other injuries going on this race, someone needing stitches, and someone broke a bone? It also was VERY cold! I now argue with my doctors frequently that in the future I would like to continue racing. I would hate to have to give up this, some say “strange” obsession with these obstacle races that challenge even the most elite of athletes. But, that being said, I agree there needs to be some standards and policies in place that protects us athletes. We want to be challenged not injured! This has been a long road to recovery for me and I sincerely hope no one has to go through what I have had to.
This article is ridiculous. There is element of danger at everyone one these events no matter who the organizer, why you sign a waiver. I’ve done 3 battlefrog events 2 in PGH and 1 in Miami and there have been plenty of safety personnel and volunteers at every obstacle at every race. The mine swim in PGH this past year did run out of headlamps but the volunteers there told the four us there to wait as more were on the way. The mine was outlined in chem lights and had lifeguards and safety personnel in an inflatable boat in the water. The author singles out BF injuries are unfortunate but they happen it’s the nature of the beast. Author also fails to bring up a death at a TM event, zero BF fatalities.
There were indeed injuries at the A Frane break in Pittsburgh. I personally received a concussion from falling and having two racers land down on my head/neck and a friend of mine broke his foot as well. Get the facts straight.
I was at the Atlanta BattleFrog in November and the Water Crossing was as described in the article. The storms the night before had the current fast and water level rising. I just made sure I stayed with a group as that was the only safety at hand.
So every race has a good chance of freak accidents but the ones citing you signed a waiver here is your sign. Being challenged vs putting you in harms way is completely different. Another great example of BF doing as little as possible in Atlanta is this- the venue was booked out almost a year with terms and conditions but they didn’t dig deep enough at obstacles causing multiple injuries myself included but when asked they blatantly stated they werent allow to dig any deeper per the venue rules.. So after coming down the modified Tsunami into a shallow 4′ hole and a compressed spine later work through said injury and what do we see but not one bit two other OCR at the same venue who dug deeper. Those race organizers were asked the same question and the answer was there is nothing stating those limitations. I don’t call thing like that freak accidents I call it neglect.
The water obstacles are really inherently dangerous and definitely need more supervision from the organizers, and not just BF but all of the races. Drowning is not something to scoff at. At mile 6 in a Spartan race, I cramped up in the muddy pond crossing. Luckily my friend was within arms reach and pulled me out. I now skip water obstacles because of these dangers and my lack of confidence in race organizers to safely patrol these obstacles.
A life guard at a pool with a strict training regiment is not fool proof. In murky waters with cold conditions? I think this is a disaster waiting to happen. Some of the water is so dark that if you do go under, no scuba diver will find you.
Signing a waiver makes it ok to be negligent? Not a chance.
If you sign the waiver…
Don’t complain..if you get hurt you know what your up against. If your not ready to endure discomfort or didn’t train
Your body enough, suck it up!
I have hurt my knee, dislocated
My shoulder, have plantar fascia. If you not ready or get hurt..
You can back out at anytime. boom! If your not ready
That’s ok, know your limits,
It’s risky, it’s a sport that not everyone can complete. That’s what it’s all about. We accept the risks and dangers, if you do not and you just sign the waiver, go take on a safer sport. Hooyah!
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