Electric shocks, flaming slides, tear gas and bum-clenching leaps into icy-cold pools.
At first glance, obstacle races such as global phenomenon Tough Mudder appear fraught with life-threatening risks. But if managed correctly, the reality is a whole lot less extreme, according to Sportscover Australia’s underwriting manager Jarrod Bell.
Since 2011, Tough Mudder has sent more than 1.3 million people worldwide down a 16km-plus mud track to be willingly tortured alongside their friends.
And while it’s the most recognisable event of its kind, Bell, whose company underwrites a number of similar obstacle races, says rival events are popping up around the nation to cater for an increasing number of weekend warriors. “In the last four years these races have really come into vogue,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges facing organisers is to entice customers to keep coming back for the torture. And not because they don’t like it, but because they get bored of the same old tricks. While this has the potential for course designers to push ideas a little too far, it’s rarely an issue, say insurers.
“We haven’t had anyone come to us where we’ve said ‘that’s not happening’,” Bell says. “But getting risk management specialists involved early irons out a lot of challenges.”
Sports Underwriting Australia managing director Steve Gilbert agrees. “Generally, event promoters are very aware of the associated risks,” he says.
Bark worse than bite
While the events promote themselves by appearing extreme, obstacles that boast the highest ‘fear factor’ are often deemed by insurers as some of the safest.
Walls of fire
Bell points to Tough Mudders’ famous final obstacle where participants run through dozens of dangling electrical live wires, each charged with 10,000 volts.
But what they don’t tell you is that the amperage is very low, and the energy from the shock dissipates quickly.
In fact, provided you have carpet nearby, you can generate a few thousand volts of static electricity right now just by dragging your feet across it. Then go high-five a colleague to see if it worked.
“There are also lots of people watching that obstacle who can literally flick a switch to turn it off. It’s probably one of the least risky parts of the course,” says Bell.
It’s the same story for the tear gas, which is weaker than your typical left-wing protest repellent, while your soaking-wet body whizzes past the fire obstacles too quickly to singe an eyebrow.
The real pitfall, Bell explains, lurks in the obstacles where there’s water.
While there haven’t been any obstacle course-related deaths in Australia since the boom four years ago, there have been several overseas.
One was the drowning of Avishek Sengupta, who failed to resurface after jumping off a 15-foot platform into water during a US Tough Mudder event in April 2013.
Initially, nobody realised that he had stayed underwater; he came up in a rescue diver’s arms at least eight minutes later.
Bell says good risk management involves having properly qualified people watching the pools, as well as clear emergency procedures in place.
“You need to have people watching who will know that three people went into the water, and that three people came out straight away,” he says.
The important insurance policies to include for these events are public liability and professional indemnity, Bell says.
And traditionally, adds fellow underwriter Gilbert, brokers have arranged personal accident cover for all sporting participants under a group policy, which is generally picked up by the event promoter.
As much of the course relies on the stability and quality of the obstacles, Gilbert says it’s also important that they’re built by professional construction contractors who are adequately insured themselves.
To ensure best practice risk management is implemented for waivers and signage, always use brokers who have in-depth experience with extreme sports, says Gilbert.
That’s because while Tough Mudder’s pre-race “death waivers” serve as both a safety reminder and edgy promotion gimmick, Bell says they’re no more than your ‘basic assumption of risk form’.
“It’s a great piece of documentation if a claim does arrive,” he says, “but for an insurer it’s not an absolute Get Out Of Jail Free card.”