More than 1 million Americans participated in the Warrior Dash obstacle course race in 2012, according to the event's website, which also touts the race's "fierce" course with "12 extreme obstacles." For most people who participate in these races, leaping over fire and scaling wooden barricades are ways to gain a sense of accomplishment and mix up an exercise routine. But obstacle course races present risks that traditional road races do not. Some health and running experts are concerned that a lack of proper training and education means participants take serious risks .
Participation in races like the Warrior Dash, which comes to St. Francisville Oct. 12, has increased in recent years. Kelly North, an event director with Red Frog Events, the company that organizes the Warrior Dash, says the race has grown from five locations in the U.S. in 2011 to 42 locations this year. Like a roller coaster ride, the challenges in the races present a sense of danger that participants find appealing.
But Virginia "Gini" Davis, a physical therapist and the owner of Crescent City Physical Therapy and Perfect Fit Shoes, points out that the races can't be controlled like a roller coaster can. "There are parts of it that you cannot control because of other people involved or other elements in the course," she says. "It's a false sense of well-being. ... There hasn't been a roller coaster accident in many years. Throw in the fact that there have been spinal cord injuries (at the obstacle course events). There's a lot to know about yourself and the course and a lot to think about."
In 2011, at least four deaths were reported involving participants at the Tough Mudder race series and other similar adventure races. According to the Kansas City Star, two men died and several more were treated for heat-related illnesses after a Warrior Dash race in the Kansas City area. Injuries and deaths have been caused by diving into shallow water, electrocution, heart attacks and hypothermia.
What draws people to extreme racing? Davis says it's a culture-driven phenomenon brought on by the popularity of reality TV shows about extreme sports. "People watch it on television and it looks funny and fun," she says. "Maybe that's why people jump into it without thinking about what can happen."
North says people looking for new experiences are drawn to the races. The Warrior Dash is 3.2 miles long and consists of 12 obstacles, most of which are inspired by military exercises, like climbing up a rope over a wall or jumping over a line of fire. "I think of someone who wants to go and hike the entire Appalachian Trail," she says. "That's a crazy experience you don't get to have every day. They're challenging themselves to do something they wouldn't do every day and that's not necessarily available to them every day."
As for safety, North says the Warrior Dash can be completed by anyone who can comfortably run a 5k race. "Our race courses are created to challenge the elite athlete, but also to be able to be completed by someone not in the best shape," she says. "If you can walk a 5k you can do the Warrior Dash. As long as you can walk 3.2 miles, it might be a little harder for you, but almost anyone can do it."
Participants can skip obstacles, and North says Red Frog does everything it can to ensure safety at the races. "We have a wave system, so it's never just 6,000 people running the Warrior Dash today," she says. When it comes to crowd control, North says race organizers work with local law enforcement to provide security for the events.
But crowd control is exactly what Davis worries about. "You have a lot of people smushed together," she says. "You may be pushed or someone may fall over you. I've been with the Crescent City Classic and lots of different races. We're always concerned about injuries and how to manage crowds and people so it's not people on top of people."
Davis also worries about preparation. "You get a lot of people swept into the action of it, not even thinking about what they're getting into," she says. "Generally, people are not well-trained for the events being as extreme as they are. It's not just climbing over an obstacle wall."
Roland LeBlanc, co-owner of the Louisiana Running Company and a competitive runner in New Orleans, says people get injured because the obstacles require the use of a host of different limbs, not just the legs. "A flat 5k, you can walk or run it," he says. "Now toss in a rope barrier, doing all these different body movements. You find a lot of people who have walked out of Warrior Dash sore as all hell, not expecting what it's supposed to (be). Your body's not used to all the movements. Your muscles will give out here and there. You have to be in some kind of general fitness to stay injury-free."
North says Red Frog does all that it can to inform participants, but at a certain point, they have to use their own discretion. "We try to prepare our participants as much as we can in terms of descriptions on our website. ... People can ask themselves, 'Does that look like something that I can do?' We want people to challenge themselves, but obviously they walk that fine line of not pushing themselves too far."
Davis says the races can be run safely, but advises participants to proceed with caution. "Running is the easy part," she says. "I'm not only a runner, but I've been treating all kinds of sports-related injuries for a long time as a physical therapist and what people aren't prepared for are the dangerous elements of it."