Beyond Extreme | Are Ultramarathon Races Getting Too Dangerous?
Ultramarathon events are booming, but following a death in Patagonia last year, some are questioning their safety
Words by Jacob Warner
It’s April 2015 and ultrarunner Mel Gosse is halfway through the inaugural Ultra Fiord, a gruelling 100 km race in Patagonia. Arriving at a checkpoint and nursing a foot injury, she and her husband Jon decide to call the race quits. They’d endured hours of sledging through knee deep mud on a cold mountainside with neck high glacial rivers to boot. “We were frozen, out of food, and out of water," Gosse recalls.
The scene at the halfway checkpoint is bleak. Departing runners are turning back after finding the route ahead blocked by avalanches and those who do continue are being forced to jump over crevasses in order to proceed. “People were getting lost on the glacier," Gosse continues, “we had one runner who was hypothermic, but there were no doctors, and the volunteers couldn’t contact the race director for help."
"The scene at the halfway checkpoint is bleak. Departing runners are turning back after finding the route ahead blocked by avalanches…"
Fast forward to the 2016 edition of the race. Under similar freezing conditions on the mountain an experienced Mexican ultrarunner, Arturo Rueda, is reported missing. As rumours begin to spread amongst the finishing runners, everyone fears the worst. Later, the heartbreaking news is confirmed – Rueda has died from hypothermia.
Participation in ultramarathons has more than doubled since 2004 and new events have naturally sprung up to fill this demand. Using epic locations with more challenging terrain is a clear way of attracting runners to an event. However, it appears that the Ultra Fiord organisers, NIGSA, aimed higher without providing the necessary safety guarantees. NIGSA admitted that Rueda’s death had: “…made evident important weaknesses in the event’s general model" and has promised a number of alterations for the 2017 edition such as mandatory gear checks, quicker evacuation plans, and better support at aid stations. Safety improvements that runners like Gosse were calling for a year earlier.
“Many people have been devastated by the loss of Arturo," reflects Yitka Winn, a competitor at the 2016 edition, and a writer who has written extensively about the Ultra Fiord race. Besides signing a liability waiver that included vague terms such as ‘wild environment’, ‘climatic conditions’, and ‘specific geographical limitations’, Winn found it hard to get concrete details of what to expect in Patagonia. “I spent a lot of time talking to people who'd run it the previous year," she explains. It was through others – not the organisers – that Yitka learned of the extreme weather, minimal aid, and unorganised support. “I gathered this information on my own initiative," she points out.
"Besides signing a liability waiver that included vague terms such as ‘wild environment’, ‘climatic conditions’, and ‘specific geographical limitations’, Winn found it hard to get concrete details of what to expect in Patagonia"
Clearly the organisers provided inadequate pre-race information to competitors, as well as insufficient gear checks and safety contingencies. “Something like that was completely preventable," Gosse reflects on the tragic death of Arturo, a likelihood that she and other runners had foreseen occurring at subsequent Ultra Fiords. “Stuff can still happen," she says of the typical risks ultrarunners face, for example: Someone’s heart can just stop randomly or you can fall off a course pretty easily." However the consensus is that Ultra Fiord competitors were exposed to risks outside what is normally expected at an ultramarathon.
Looking at other events sheds light on what safety features runners usually expect. I spoke with Dr. Fiona Beddoes-Jones, race psychologist on the 268-mile Spine Race across the Pennine Way in Northern England.“It isn't like a normal ultramarathon," she emphasises to me, as the event occurs across multiple days but the risks of adverse weather, low temperatures, and inhospitable terrain are consistent so safety is likewise paramount. How do the Spine Race organisers prepare for the worst case scenario?
"Having a race psychologist helps to diagnose problems relating to fatigue, hypothermia, and sleep deprivation in participants…"
“We have a duty of care to our competitors, crew, and volunteers," Dr. Beddoes-Jones says. The Spine Race uses trackers to monitor each competitor's location, as well as volunteers on the route and safety teams reporting back to the race organisers. “We’re also the only race that I know of who have a race psychologist," she says, “it’s critical of any ultramarathon." With the longer duration of the Spine Race, the cognitive fitness of participants can degrade severely. Having a race psychologist helps to diagnose problems relating to fatigue, hypothermia, and sleep deprivation in participants - preventing inconspicuous weaknesses before they become a danger. This newer angle on race safety shows what kind of unexpected risks need to be addressed when creating more demanding events.
“Bigger and better is a great thing, but it's also risky with always wanting to push yourself further," says Gosse of the developments in ultrarunning events. ‘Bigger’ ultra races are definitely becoming popular with multiple 200 mile races debuting this year in the U.S. Can ultrarunners be confident that the event they choose to run will have adequate safety measures? Strangely, as of January 2017, the Ultra Fiord website features a quote from 2015 winner Jeff Browning on their front page.
Describing how the race is like Hardrock 100 in Colorado but before that race decided to put up safety ropes. The element of danger is clearly a good marketing tool, “There is an extremeness that comes to it which us ultra runners love," explains Gosse. However, It is bizarre for an event with a highly publicised fatality in its previous edition to be pushing its lack of safety features in marketing. We can only wait for the verdict on the 2017 Ultra Fiord to know how far the organisers have honoured their safety commitments.
On the flip side of this argument, could it actually be the ultrarunners pushing themselves too far and putting themselves at risk of injury and death rather than the event organisers? After all, the desire for new concepts partly comes from competitors seeking new challenges. “By their nature, many ultrarunners are gluttons for a bit of suffering" explains Winn. From the people Mpora spoke to it is clear that ultrarunners all seek to get something different out of the sport. It offers both a sense of physical and mental accomplishment that keeps people coming back for more. In many ways it can become an addiction, but: “it's generally a healthier addiction than others that people fall prey to in this world," Yitka points out.
“Bigger and better is a great thing, but it's also risky with always wanting to push yourself further,"
High ambition comes with a high price of failure. The dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) mark of dropping out lingers at the back of an ultrarunners’ mind during the long hours on the trail. Some events even market their DNF rate as a kind of ‘see if you can do it’ tease. Runners who haven't had a DNF before will often beat themselves up explains Dr. Beddoes-Jones with her experience of first-time drop-outs. Accepting when to stop is a big decision - Gosse pulled out of the Ultra Fiord due to injury - but what happens when the physical signs to stop aren’t so clear?
Most people who drop out will know it wasn’t their day, but for others the mental battle to keep going is a difficult one. “We simply lose our mental will to finish something," Winn explains, “and these DNFs are often the ones that runners wind up regretting the next day." Pulling out due to injury is easier to accept, but pulling out because of depleted willpower is harder to deal with. Being able to block out pain and push through the mental barrier is key to overcoming the challenges of a race. Whilst this is an asset in many cases, could this be potentially dangerous in a competitive ultramarathon situation?
“Fear of failure rarely pushes people to take unnecessary risks," says Dr. Beddoes-Jones, “although it does occasionally happen," she adds. The real danger is when hypothermia and tiredness set in, as each can seriously affect your judgement of how exhausted you are or if you’re carrying an injury. So you need to have strategies for managing these. Could fear of a DNF combined with impaired judgement put runners at risk and essentially cause racers to run themselves to death? Winn mentions some races in Europe where people have died from hypothermia, such as the 2008 Zugspitze Extreme-Berglauf race where two runners ran into a snowstorm without sufficient clothing. In this case, the organising company was acquitted of responsibility, the judge stating that the runners had endangered themselves by ignoring the safety requirements of the organiser.
"The real danger is when hypothermia and tiredness set in, as each can seriously affect your judgement of how exhausted you are…"
Runners don’t want to drop out of races, but if cognitive impairment sets in, that ambition to continue could quickly turn into something dangerous. In Rueda’s case, fellow runners witnessed him having symptoms of hypothermia, but at the next checkpoint the race organisers didn’t prevent him from continuing. It comes back to the system of monitoring as Dr Beddoes-Jones mentioned, to keep an eye on competitors at each stage and look for signs of mental as well as physical problems. Someone might seem physically fit, but be compromised cognitively.
Ultimately it comes down to both event organisers and runners taking the necessary precautions to avoid dangerous situations. “People are stubborn and race directors need to account for that," Gosse points out. “It's a responsibility on both sides," she emphasises, “as an ultra runner knowing those signs and the risks, then the same thing with the race director - knowing that people are coming into this with all different mindsets and pain tolerances." With ultrarunning participation on the rise, it is great for competitors to have demanding new events in epic locations, but there is a thin line between a challenging experience and a potentially deadly one. Athletes will always push themselves further, and organisers need to be prepared for this. Hopefully a new awareness of the risks and response from race organisers and athletes will mean that the Ultra Fiord was an exception and tragedies such as the death of Arturo Rueda will be avoided in the future.