Adventure racing takes toll on even the fittest

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Shannon Racculia thought she was prepared for the Ruckus Pittsburgh obstacle course race in Washington, Pa., last weekend.

A 33-year-old physical trainer from Greensburg who specializes in readying female clients for rugged adventure races and mud runs, Mrs. Racculia registered for the July 16 Ruckus race with a group of fellow trainers. She had run obstacle courses before, and signed up for the Ruckus event to help her prepare for an even tougher race in the fall.

Repeated hill runs at the beginning of the course and scorching heat taxed Mrs. Racculia and her friends. When they reached the first constructed obstacle on the course, the runners encountered an unexpected challenge.

Sitting at the bottom of a dirt pit racers were supposed to scramble through was a racer with a visibly broken bone.

"He had jumped in and shattered his leg," Mrs. Racculia said. "[We thought,] here comes the psychological game, because there's already somebody down."

High-intensity adventure races such as Ruckus, Tough Mudder, Muddy Buddy and the Warrior Dash have gained in popularity over the past two years with gym rats and road runners who want to test their fitness. There were a handful of adventure races run in Pennsylvania last year, with more planned this year.

About 1,500 registered for the Ruckus, which like other such races is primarily running, with obstacles that can include mud pits, walls racers have to scale, tire fields, and beefed up monkey bars known as "gorilla bars." The fastest racers finished in 30 to 40 minutes, and winners got a golden helmet for their efforts.

But in the novelty of such races, typically run on fairgrounds or paintball courses, lies in their danger. Safety measures for obstacle course races are developed through trial and error, and organizers face little regulation from government -- or even from within the industry.

"All these organizers are in a race amongst themselves to come up with new obstacles that are more outrageous than the last," said Joseph Ashton, a personal injury attorney with Stark and Stark in Yardley, who is investigating several claims by injured adventure runners. "People get ahead of themselves, and [participants] get hurt."

Liam Brenner, who co-founded Ruckus Sports in 2010, said he hires local doctors to work at each race instead of traveling with his own medical staff. Ruckus event staff usually follows the race from town to town, he said.

Mr. Brenner hired 10 doctors from UPMC's sports medicine clinic to serve on-site at Ruckus Pittsburgh, as well as an emergency medical technician and a paramedic. The medical team responded to the man with the broken ankle that Mrs. Racculia encountered and took him to a hospital in an ambulance that was waiting on the grounds.

He was one of three participants to require hospitalization for his injury. A woman broke her ankle, and one man sustained a mild concussion. A total of 15 participants suffered injuries that were recorded by event staff during the four-mile Ruckus race last weekend.

"I expected more significant injuries, to be honest," said Dr. Tanya Hagen, director of the UPMC Shadyside Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship Program, and the head of medical operations for Ruckus Pittsburgh.

Ruckus Pittsburgh was Dr. Hagen's first foray into adventure racing medicine. At first, she worried about sending three of her medical fellows and seven of her residents to provide care at the event.

"I didn't want [my doctors] to be involved in something that was not safe," she said.

Ultimately, Dr. Hagen said she was pleased with the way Mr. Brenner allowed her staff to recommend adjustments to the course before the event and would provide medical staff for future Ruckus Pittsburgh events if asked.

Mr. Brenner said he and Dr. Hagen's medical staff would meet this week to discuss all 15 reported injuries and plan course improvements based on the injuries. He also said he would contact the hospitalized racers for additional information about their injuries, and to offer his sympathy.

"Adventures races are inherently risky," he said. "But even though they are, we want to let them know we're not happy they got hurt."

Tami Collingwood, 40, of Canonsburg, has run several half-marathons, and said she is no stranger to the occasional running ailment.

When Ms. Collingwood twisted her ankle while dropping from an 8-foot wall erected in the middle of the Ruckus Pittsburgh course last weekend, she shrugged it off and finished the race without reporting the injury to event staff. She treated the injury at home, and said she would return to adventure racing again in the future.

"You get kind of addicted -- it's like an adrenaline rush," she said.

Ms. Collingwood, a contracts attorney, said she knew that she was assuming responsibility for any risk she might face during the event long before she signed up. She reached that conclusion without reading the exhaustive five-page waiver participants must sign when they register.

"I knew that if I read the thing, I wasn't going to sign it," she said. "I know what it says. It says you're not liable for anything. But the fact of the matter is under the law in Pennsylvania, if you sustain bodily injury, you have the right to pursue a claim no matter what."

Mr. Ashton said his personal injury firm is looking into a number of "viable cases" belonging to adventure racers -- some of whom have missed work or required surgery to address their injuries.

Few of their cases have gone to court yet, Mr. Ashton said, but he believes adventure race participants have a right to pursue legal action against race organizers, regardless of the releases they sign.

"These races are meant to be a challenge," he said, "but they are not meant to be something that can't be navigated safely and successfully."

While Mr. Ashton said organizers have a legal obligation to plan the safest events possible, Mrs. Racculia said she and most other adventure racers view injury as an inherent part of their sport.

"For anybody who's done a couple of these races, it's par for the course to break something," she said. "No one is surprised. I keep telling my husband I'm not sure what arm I'm going to break. I hope it's the left one."

Lauren Rosenthal: .


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