Like millions of people, I jumped on the budget bandwagon and signed up for all kinds of flash-offer email services–Groupon, Gilt, and the like. Some of the offers I get are entertaining (“Flirty Fitness” classes?), some are downright disturbing (DNA Testing?). I’ve noticed a trend, lately, toward offering discounts on entry fees to races, some of which are really tempting. Just this morning, my daily deal was half off the entry for “Fired Up ‘N Fit,” an obstacle course-type race patterned after the kind of challenges used in training firefighters (thus the name) and EMS staff.
I’ve previously written about the trend toward down-and-dirty fitness events like Tough Mudder, Muddy Buddy and Hero Race that have you traversing land, water and anything in between. But I have yet to take the plunge (literally and figuratively). While I’m tempted to test my body and nerve in that manner, I’ve got my reasons for resisting, at least for now. And I’m not just talking about the potential danger involved in some of the more extreme conditions these events put you through. This week, the death of a 28-year-old man during a Tough Mudder competition in West Virginia had the Internet buzzing, questioning the safety and sanity of extreme racing. What a tragedy for that man and his family and friends, a horrible, horrible tragedy. Apparently, this wasn’t some high-risk, 50+, under-trained dude out to prove his manhood: He was reportedly fit, certainly young. No one yet knows why he died.
There are injuries and even deaths at more typical athletic events—marathons and triathlons, for instance—and a lot of near-misses. I was running a six-mile race on Thanksgiving day two years ago here in Nashville when a man collapsed with a heart attack; luckily, an ER doctor was only steps behind him, saving his life. The heart attack victim was in his early 60s, but a regular runner with a clean bill of health. I’m sure he didn’t think he was risking his life that morning when he was lacing up his Reeboks.
The fact is that something could go wrong—either in your body, or with your equipment, or in your surroundings—during any athletic event. Sometimes, extreme conditions or exertion reveals a hidden health issue with tragic consequences.And at some point, you can’t really protect yourself. But you can be choosy about the risks you take, and enter into them with eyes wide open. If you find yourself contemplating a new physical challenge, here are a few things to consider.
1. Make sure you’ve had a physical exam within the last year year. That sounds like a no-brainer, but I know A LOT of people who don’t do this.
2. If you have any heart-related risk factors, talk to your doctor if the event you’re considering will require extreme levels of exertion (more effort than your toughest regular workout) or the duration is out of the ordinary. For instance, if you typically ride 25 miles on your bike a couple times a month, don’t just sign up for a 100 mile ride without your doc’s OK (and a really solid training plan).
3. Know EXACTLY what you’re getting into. Read course and obstacle descriptions carefully, look for comments from past participants, watch videos of previous races (like the one featuring Tough Mudder, below). This will help you get a sense of how challenging the race might be and guide your training.
4. Speaking of training: Make sure you provide ample time to get into condition for the specific event you’re entering. There are loads of resources on the web for this, but also look for training groups affiliated with the event (many do this), and/or consider hiring a personal trainer. This is not only safe, but it will improve your performance on race day and help you recover more quickly afterward.
5. Be realistic about your limits, and consider how hard you want to push yourself. I’m not just talking about age here. Everyone has physical strengths and weaknesses. You may want to enter a specific type of race to push yourself to address certain weaknesses–I get that. But if you blindly sign up for something that you’re not prepared for–and then don’t put in the training–you may end up injured (or worse), or at least miserable. The main reason why I’m not all over the Fired Up ‘N Fit thing is that I seriously doubt I have the upper-body strength to pull off some of the challenges. And I don’t want to jeopardize my rowing by getting injured or being so sore that I can’t practice effectively.
6. Take it seriously. Call me a mood-killer, but a race is a race is a race is a race. I’m all for having fun, but an obstacle race is no easier than, say, a triathlon or 10K. In fact, because they tend to challenge your body in ways that may not be addressed by your typical workout regimen, they may be even tougher than traditional races.
7. Do a trial run. If you think this cautionary tail is a bunch of balderdash, try replicating an obstacle, just one obstacle, to see how you’d do, today, with no training. Try, for instance, a standing broad jump (which you might have to do at some point to launch yourself over a mud pit), or head to a playground and attempt to scale the monkey bars or pull yourself over a high bar. Not easy, is it?
8. Investigate the event you’re considering. Have there been injuries in the past? A simple Google search will likely reveal reports. What type of medical facilities are on site? Are there ample aid/water stations? This information should be readily available on their website. If not, that’s a red flag.
9. Be wary of homegrown events. On the whole, a race series created by professional event organizers may be safer and simply run more smoothly. Similar events in other cities have likely allowed the organizers to refine their concept and make improvements.
I may, some day, decide to take on an obstacle race–but for now, my daily life has enough obstacles in it for me!