These days you'd be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of obstacle course racing. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash...it seems everyone knows someone who has crawled under muddy pits of barbed wire and leapt over flaming logs resulting in the most epic of Facebook profile photos.
But with the popularity of obstacle course racing, or OCR as it's often referred to, also comes numerous stories of injuries sustained at these races, as well as fear inducing reports encouraging runners to pick another sport. Typical injuries include sprained ankles, cuts and scrapes, as well as the occasional broken limb, and absolute worst case scenario: death. While loss of life is incredibly rare, it has happened, such as the 2013 drowning of 28 year old Avishek Sengupta during a Tough Mudder race.
There is no denying that with the addition of obstacles, some of which are inherently dangerous in and of themselves, such as fire, heights, or barbed wire, that obstacle course racing is a far riskier sport than traditional road or trail running. So is obstacle course racing really worth the potential risk?
The answer is clearly subjective.
If you are an elite athlete, surgeon, or have some other profession where a possible injury would absolutely ruin your livelihood and career, then maybe the potential for an injury is simply not worth the risk. But for the rest of us, the potential to broaden our fitness horizons while pushing our mental and physical capabilities...and having a lot of fun... might be well worth the risk.
Let's check out a few pros and cons of OCR.
Pro: OCR is so much more than running. I've met a number of very fast, very fit road runners who simply lack the upper body strength to do a single pushup, never mind pull themselves up and over an 8 foot wall. Training for an OCR will force you to work on ALL aspects of fitness: endurance, strength, balance, flexibility, and more; many of which are ignored by the traditional avid runner. Racing an OCR will clearly and quickly show you what your fitness weaknesses are.
Con: The "do more/never quit" mentality that surrounds OCR may be too much for beginners, resulting in an overuse injury during training. Or worse: a race day injury from attempting an obstacle they physically weren't prepared for yet.
Pro: OCR will force you out of your comfort zone. These days, everything in our society seems to be about ease and comfort, and about doing as little as possible to achieve our end goals.
Not the case in OCR.
When was the last time you were cold and wet for hours on end, or had to carry a big, unwieldy log up a large mountain? OCR will not only make you uncomfortable, but may even force you to face some of your fears, such as heights and small confined spaces. The personal and emotional growth that can come out of facing your fears and leaving your comfort zone truly is priceless.
Con: Sometimes, forcing yourself to leave your comfort zone can cause you to ignore that inner voice warning you of danger. Maybe you know you are unable to grip monkey bars, for whatever reason, but you see everyone else successfully completing the task, so you try it anyway and end up falling. You knew you should have listened to the voice of reason, but the adrenaline flowing and the mob-mentality caused you to second guess yourself, resulting in injury.
Pro: Some of the obstacles are really, ridiculously fun. A combination of both primitive adventure and the sort of fun you had as a kid playing in the mud. When was the last time you got to plummet down a waterslide through flames? I'm pretty sure I never got to do that before OCR.
Con: Some of the obstacles are not dangerous by design, but can be due to user error. Falling off of the top of a 12 foot wall hardly ever ends well, nor does catching yourself on barbed wire.
Pro: the majority of OCR race directors take care in ensuring the race course is as safe as possible. Well, as safe as leaping through flaming logs and crawling under barbed wire can be. Despite the fact that many obstacles look dangerous, there are often insurance regulated safety measures in place, making the race far less dangerous than it may appear.
Con: Some aspects are completely out of the race directors control. For example, I know of a few people who have sustained small cuts due to branches, rocks, etc., and the mud they subsequently crawled through after resulted in an infected wound.
These are just a few examples. So, as we've established, injuries are certainly possible in obstacle course racing. But there are steps you can take to minimize your risk of injury.
Stick with well established races. These companies are more likely to have their safety standards up to par, whereas some smaller races may try and cut corners to save costs. I've seen some very unstable obstacles and lack of safety measures taken at some of these less experienced races.
Avoid crowds if possible. Injuries are more likely to occur when there are more people vying for the same foot or hand hold. If you approach a wall or cargo net crawling with people, give it a few seconds (or minutes) to allow the crowd to thin out before attempting to climb it.
Know your limits. Can't swim? Obviously you should avoid deep water obstacles. Do heights cause you to freeze up and panic? Maybe you shouldn't attempt that 20 foot cliff jump. Have a recurring injury that might prevent you from lifting heavy weights? Don't pick up the 80 pound atlas carry. You get the idea here, know your physical and mental limits.
Most importantly, the best way to avoid injury is to train for the race. Just because many advertisements allude to the fun, muddy, beer drinking aspect of the race doesn't mean you don't actually have to put in any work to reach the finish line. Chances are you will still be covering 3 or more miles, and facing obstacles that will require lifting, climbing, and crawling using both your body weight and added weight (such as carries). A body physically trained for such tasks is far less likely to sustain injury.
Plus, the race is far more enjoyable when you aren't suffering from lack of adequate training.
So, are obstacle course races worth the risk? In my OCR loving opinion, yes they are, but truthfully only you can make that decision for yourself. In the end, while the race director is responsible for providing a safe course, you are responsible for your own actions. If any aspect of the race course feels questionable or unsafe for whatever reason, use your best personal judgment and modify, or skip the obstacle altogether. Show up prepared, know your limits, and most importantly, have a muddy good time.