Health & Wellness

Risky Business

A string of recent tragedies in local adventure and endurance races offers cautionary tales.

De’Yonte Wilkinson remembers that the morning of April 20, 2013 was colder than he thought it would be, but also that his teammates—a half-dozen, mostly twentysomething coworkers from the same Columbia-based Internet marketing firm—were in a great mood. That included 28-year-old Avi Sengupta, riding with Wilkinson to the day’s planned event, the Mid-Atlantic Spring Tough Mudder, a 10- to 12-mile military-style obstacle course near Martinsburg, WV. “Avi was pretty relaxed. I was driving, and he was in the back seat,” Wilkinson recalls. “We were just listening to music. When we got on the bus to take us to where we started, we were all excited and ready to go—hanging out and cracking jokes.”

Tackling the course with thousands of others, Wilkinson and his teammates only made it through a handful of obstacles, however. After crawling under barbed wire, running through waist-high gullies of water, and lifting themselves over bales of haystacks, they soon arrived at Tough Mudder’s signature “Walk the Plank” obstacle. Wilkinson reached the 15-foot platform right behind Sengupta—an experienced climber who’d worked at Howard County’s Earth Treks since high school—after the rest of the team had jumped into the muddy, frigid water below. But Wilkinson never left the plank. Instead, his panicked voice can be heard in a video taken that day by another participant—yelling to a safety official and friends that Sengupta hadn’t resurfaced from the brown 40-foot wide, 13-foot-deep pool. Tragically, almost 10 minutes pass before Sengupta’s bloated, unconscious, foaming-at-the-mouth, body is recovered.

“The team was in shock,” Wilkinson says. “Some of them were crying.”

Officially, Sengupta’s death was ruled an accidental drowning. But his rescue—the subject of a lawsuit by his family against Tough Mudder—was not the only one that day. Elkton photographer David Judd, hired by Tough Mudder to take pictures at the Walk the Plank obstacle, told police he witnessed more than 20 rescues prior to Sengupta’s drowning. And Sengupta, described by friends as good-natured and someone who never had a bad word to say about anyone, was one of 14 people rushed to nearby hospitals, including a near-drowning and two non-fatal, heart-attack victims, according to a New York Times review of ambulance records.

But as awful as Sengupta’s death was, it’s far from the only recent death at an adventure or endurance race. In fact, there has been a tragic string of fatalities in the Maryland area this summer, including a 38-year-old woman’s collapse at the Frederick half-marathon finish line in May; a Chesapeake Bay Swim death in June; and a fatal collision involving a young female cyclist riding across the country with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in June. And there have been other tragedies over the past few years, including two Baltimore Marathon deaths; another Chesapeake Bay Swim tragedy; deaths at the popular triathlons in Dewey Beach, DE, Luray, VA, and the District of Columbia; and fatal crashes involving cyclists on training rides in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, and Montgomery counties. Farther afield, there have been other obstacle race tragedies, too, including two heatstroke fatalities following a Kansas City, MO, Warrior Dash weekend. All of which begs two questions: Do participants in the booming endurance and adventure race industry—whether driven by a personal fitness goal, charity fundraising effort, camaraderie, or peer pressure—understand the risks? And are organizers doing everything possible to mitigate inherent dangers in such activities?

Neil Sandler certainly thought he knew what he was signing up for when he registered for the Columbia Triathlon—a 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, and 6.2-mile run—several years ago. A lifelong cyclist, he’d once hiked Europe’s tallest mountain and for years toted a kayak on his car roof. He’d already become a regular runner and even bought an Endless Pool for his backyard, building up to 60-minute workouts in the water. Yet, his rookie triathlon ended with him being pulled from Centennial Lake by a safety boat after fearing for his life.

“I was totally unprepared. For one thing, I’d never done an open water swim in my life,” Sandler says. “It was May, the water was cold, my wetsuit was too tight, and I had trouble breathing. So, I’m in a big age group—hundreds of people in the water, elbowing and kicking—and I start to panic.” At first, Sandler tried to move away from the scrum, but quickly the fastest swimmers from the next wave were approaching. “I’m hyperventilating. My heart’s racing in my chest, and I felt like I was having a heart attack. I remember thinking, ‘They’re going to end up dragging the lake and finding my body.’”

The lesson? You have to do the actual exercises you are going to be doing in any given event to prepare. “It’s the only way,” he says. “Swimming in a pool doesn’t prepare you for open-water swimming anymore than spin classes prepare you for road cycling.” Ultimately, it’s a theme that emerged in interviews with more than a dozen race directors, coaches, athletes, and medical professionals. But what’s also clear is that organizers—whether it’s an obstacle race, triathlon, marathon, or cycling event—have an obligation to put on safe races and stress athlete preparedness.

“This issue of sudden death during triathlons and marathons is not well understood.”

In 2011, two highly publicized tragedies at the New York City Triathlon prompted USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, to examine fatal incidents. The report looked at 43 triathlon deaths from 2003 to 2011, noting the number of triathlon events had quadrupled over that period, but otherwise found few answers. (There’s no equivalent organization for themed running events, such as mud, obstacle, “zombie,” and color runs, where participation now surpasses traditional marathons.)

“The issue of sudden death during triathlons and marathons is not well understood,” says Dr. Larry Creswell, a triathlete and Johns Hopkins University-trained cardiac surgeon. “But I do think athletes get anxious about the triathlon swim, and that gets that heart rate up, and then there’s this sudden, intense exertion [which creates risk].” Conversely, he adds, runners, albeit in rare cases, get in trouble near the finish line—whether it’s a 26.2-mile marathon or 13.1-mile half marathon. “Something happens to the heart [referring to cardiac arrest episodes] when they get near the finish line. It could be the effort gets turned up when, figuratively, the finish line is in sight and something goes crazy with the heart’s electrical currents.”

The paradox, obviously, is that while obstacle and endurance events pose short-term risks, generally, running, biking, and swimming provide tremendous health benefits.

“We certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from exercise,” Creswell says, “but in terms of safety, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the event as an athlete, and nobody [a race director or course official] will think more about your health than you do.” That includes former Baltimore police commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld, who collapsed (and recovered, thankfully) from dehydration during the University of Maryland Heart Center Baltimore 10-Miler in 2009.

Following its study, USA Triathlon developed a “shared responsibility” concept for athletes, race organizers, and USA Triathlon as well, which now tracks air and water temperatures, humidity levels, and medical issues at many sanctioned races. USA Triathlon also requires an approved safety plan that “should account for unique features of an event’s location, weather, and participants.” Personally, Creswell recommends a cardiac examination “before anyone laces up a pair of sneakers and runs out their front door.”

Robert Vigorito, who put on the Columbia Triathlon for three decades, believes newcomers should consider joining a tri club, such as the Mid-Maryland, Baltimore, or Annapolis groups, which provide training and nutritional mentoring—as well as open water swim practices and group bike rides.

“[As a race director], you assume people take their lives seriously and have properly trained,” he says. “But in 30 years, you see it all, including people who show up and don’t know what order the swim, bike, and run are in.”

Perhaps the best example of support for new endurance athletes is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s 26-year-old Team In Training program, which uses paid, CPR-certified coaches and “alumni” to help athletes—overwhelmingly “newbies”—complete half and full marathons, century bike rides, and long-distance hikes.

In fact, Maryland’s Team In Training chapter hasn’t organized obstacle course teams because of the difficulty in preparing for such events.

“There are charities where it’s just ‘raise money and show up,’ but that isn’t us,” director Nicole Bear says.

John Sabin, 32, a Howard County climbing instructor and longtime friend of Avi Sengupta, wasn’t on his buddy’s team on the fateful day, but did complete the course with a team from his climbing center. A former ski patrol member, runner, and mountain biker as well as climber, he says that adventure and endurance events are quintessential “bucket list” items, but says they also fill a need “to escape the 9 to 5,” especially for millennials, young and often working in office high-tech or computer jobs, as he does. Some, he surmises, are likely motivated, too, by the inevitable Instagram or Facebook photos. But he doesn’t think he’ll do another obstacle run. (In an e-mail, Tough Mudder said they “take safety extremely seriously” and continue to review “safety procedures at all of our obstacles.” They also said they cannot comment on Sengupta’s death, given his family’s lawsuit.)

“I’ve given this a lot of thought since Avi’s death, and I realized that I wasn’t prepared for that,” Sabin admits. “I wasn’t prepared for jumping in and out of water on such a cold day—I was frozen, probably close to hyperthermia by the finish. I also saw one of my friends fall face first in the mud from the ‘electric shock’ obstacle and other people cut on barbed wire.

“It was just too crowded and unpredictable, too many people having a hard time out there,” he says. “The next day, I got a call about Avi and was told he was in the hospital in very bad shape and went to see him. It was so sad.”