Lurking in the mud: dangerous diseases in obstacle races

Posted: 17th August 2015 by thea9693 in Training
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You probably will have heard of a few cases in the last week or so, spreading across social media, of mud racers who finished with more than just the typical bruises and scrapes. There were the 1000 unfortunate racers in France getting diarrhoea, a young woman losing sight in one eye, and an Olympian rower passing away after exposure to infected waters.

We’re going to go beyond the viral headlines today to discuss the diseases lurking in the mud. It only just hit me as well, after two years of racing, that every race does feature an invisible set of obstacles which we should be more aware of. Let’s be real though – when was the last time you read a race waiver before signing it?

We’ll cover all of the dangerous diseases in obstacle races in detail, but first, let’s revisit some of the viral stories…

1000 mud racers get disaster pants (Link)

We all know how tough the first couple of days after a race can be, with muscle pains and other aches kicking in. A group of OCR enthusiasts in France had it even worse when a large number of them reported feeling ill in the days after completing the race. The cause of their discomfort? Norovirus. Mayo Clinic describes this disease as “highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated by fecal matter”. Indeed, the race course had been exposed to cow manure. The end result? Out of 8400 racers, a whole 1000 got what you would call a severe case of disaster pants.

Once the word got out, you could see some of the participants posting on Facebook that mud pits throughout the course smelled like excrements. From our experience with muddy races, this isn’t an uncommon smell. You should know that the fields a a lot of OCR events are hosted in, serve to raise cattle the rest of the year. Yet it is the rugged, back-to-nature conditions are a major attraction to obstacle mud races.

 

Girl loses sight after a mud race (Link)

Around the time of the French incident, media also reported about the case of a young mother who had lost sight in one eye after completing an obstacle race just 12 hours earlier. She had felt something was wrong with her eye, however as most of us do in the trenches, she just brushed it off and continued racing. Turns out she had contracted flesh-eating bacteria (Necrotising fasciitis), common in warmer climates, which infected her cornea. Twelve hours later, her vision disappeared as the whole cornea became white and it was too late to act on this. Because of severity of damage, the mud runner will unfortunately require a full cornea transplant in order to get her vision back.

Weekend warrior or professional racer, please do consider these common diseases lurking among our favourite obstacles. Being aware of common symptoms could save your life.

 

The common diseases to be wary of

E. Coli, Norovirus and other common bacteria

norovirus tough mudder

These are probably the most common bacteria types to cause extreme cases of poisoning through contact with infected water, mud etc – anything you would encounter in an obstacle course. Much like the poor French racers from the example above, this virus causes stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting but it can result in severe complications too.

Although none of these are very common among mud racers specifically, a common thread for most of the reported cases is ingesting mud or dirty water. So a clear way to prevent suffering would be to close your mouth while going through mud, rinse your mouth and face at every water station and spit the water out.

A trick I personally use is to bring a toothbrush and some toothpaste to rinse my mouth right after the finish line. This is a critical moment where people start ingesting drinks and snacks thereby flushing all the nasty crap down into their stomachs. Don’t be fooled by the photo propaganda of racers smiling, mouth wide open with muddy teeth. Don’t eat the mud, kids, it’s not chocolate.

If you’re prone to paranoia, you could invest in a preventative antibiotic package, but this would simply result in a milder case of the virus rather than 100% protection.

 

Flesh Eating Bacteria

Necrotising fasciitis producing gas in the soft tissues causing flesh necrosis. Picture By James Heilman, MD (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

More difficult to avoid, but luckily also a lot less common, is the flesh eating bacteria mentioned above. Getting necrotising fasciitis truly is much like playing russian roullete with cases of it being extremely rare. When they do occur however, they can be horrific and lead to amputations or extreme tissue loss.

According to CNC, the “bacteria spread rapidly once they enter the body. They infect flat layers of a membrane known as the fascia, connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels. The infection also damages the tissues next to the fascia. Sometimes toxins made by these bacteria destroy the tissue they infect, causing it to die. When this happens, the infection is very serious and can result in loss of limbs or death.”.

The images for this are gruesome and extremely graphic, google it on your own discretion.

An itch could be more than just that. To protect yourself, do apply antibacterial gels/creams on your bruises and scrapes straight after the race. Also, do rinse your face and eyes with fresh water as often as possible during the race – preferably in every water station.

Again, you needn’t become paranoid. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, just get checked by your GP rather than losing time allowing this vicious bacteria to spread.

 

Weil’s aka Field Fever

Rat mud race weil's disease leptospirosis

Weil’s, also known as Leptospirosis, is a less probable disease you would pick up in a mud race, but extra awareness can’t hurt. Notably, humans contract this disease through exposure to water containing infected urine from wild animals. It is a well-known risk for open water swimmers and in the water sports community. Additionally, being exposed to or submerging in shallow rivers, mud baths and ponds, which are perfect rat and other rodent breeding spots, puts you at risk of contracting this disease.

Weil’s in the primary stages of disease causes similar symptoms to the flu: headaches, muscle pain, temperature swings. In more serious cases athletes could experience organ failure, internal bleeding and death.

As with the previous diseases covered, avoiding direct contact with murky water, mud and cleaning up open and sensitive spots should keep you fairly safe.

 

Feeling scared? Don’t be. Every sport brings inherent dangers, be they injuries or dangerous diseases like this. Luckily, these diseases aren’t very common in the OCR community and you’ll probably know a lot more about the conditions of races we participate in than any journalist, so don’t get carried away by the linkbait and exaggerated headlines.

However, as the sport gets more mainstream it’s important to maintain awareness of dangers such as this one. Let’s not forget that obstacle racing is an extreme sport trying to simulate conditions that go a bit beyond what Mother Nature would put you through, so be careful and take care of yourselves.

This article is intended as a brief guide to possible dangers, so that if you sense something is not right, you would be more likely to raise alarm sooner. Always consult your doctor if you’re worried about any aspect of your health.

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