Keeping Score

Doctors Confirm the Obvious: Running Through Electric Wires Is Dangerous

A new study details the risks of Tough Mudder, the popular obstacle event. They're a bit scary.

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It’s no secret that Tough Mudder, the fast-growing, wildly popular obstacle course event, carries injury risk, with its electric shocks, 15-foot jumps into freezing water, and runs through fire. Yes, you sign a death waiver.

Still, before you sign up for your next event, it’s worth reading a sobering new study published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. You’ll likely think twice about Tough Mudder.

Marna Greenberg, director of emergency medicine research at the Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network in Allentown, Pa., and her co-workers wrote the paper after they treated 38 ER patients at their hospital during a two-day Tough Mudder event, over the weekend of June 1. “I said, ‘what are they doing to these people that they are getting hurt like this?’” Greenberg says. The injuries, all listed in a single table in the study, are scary: seizures, fractures, heat exhaustion. (The heat index was hovering around 90 degrees on both days).

In the study, the authors describe five patients in detail. The first, an 18-year-old man, said he received 13 electrical shocks during the sinister last obstacle, Electroshock Therapy, which involves participants running through live wires that offer up to 10,000 volts of zap. He was diagnosed with an inflamed heart muscle. “His scan was similar in response to what you’d see in a heart attack,” Greenberg says.

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The second patient, a 28-year-old man, “sustained multiple electrical shocks to the head while running through the water.” The third patient, a 31-year-old man, had possible seizure activity at the event, and was diagnosed with Todd’s paralysis. “Subsequent MRI was significant for a moderate-sized left-sided middle cerebral artery stroke and a small-sized left-sided posterior cerebral artery stroke,” the authors write. Six weeks later, he still had “residual right lower extremity deficit.” The fourth patient, a 41-year-old man, lost consciousness during the last obstacle, when two electric chords struck him in the head. He fell face-first into a hard mound of dirt, sustained face and head injuries, and was discharged from the hospital against medical advice.

After finishing the final obstacle, runners are handed a cup of Dos Equis beer (Dos Equis is a Tough Mudder sponsor). Many chug it in celebration. The problem for the study’s fifth patient: she had just been shocked on the right side of the chest, and was dehydrated. She spent a night in the hospital. “The right answer is ‘come over here, we’ll get you some help,’” says Greenberg. “Not ‘here, have a beer.’”

Greenberg hopes that Tough Mudder ditches the electric shocks. “A reasonable, prudent person would choose not to participate in that obstacle,” says Greenberg.

(For what it’s worth: I profiled Tough Mudder earlier this year, and participated in the event for the story. The race is a fun adrenaline rush. I went through both electric obstacles, reluctantly. If this paper had come out before that story, I can say, with much confidence, that I would have skipped the electric obstacles. I highly doubt I’ll ever do it again.)

Tough Mudder declined to comment on the study. Some 22,000 people participated in the Pennsylvania event: 0.17% of them wound up in that emergency room. Over 700,000 people will have taken part in a Tough Mudder this year.

The company suffered its first fatality in April: the incident was ruled an accidental drowning. Ernst & Young just gave Will Dean, founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, its 2013 National Entrepreneur of the Year award.