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Global Head of Sport & Leisure and Contingency, AXA XL

There’s an ultramarathon race in Tennessee so tough that only 15 people have completed it within the time limit since it began back in 1986. The way to enter the race is secret, and it begins at any time between midnight and noon on race day. Runners have 60 hours to complete the course, which is said to be at least 100 miles long over mountainous terrain in Frozen Head State Park.

Challenges like these take place all over the world. The Death Race in Vermont can take more than 70 hours to complete and may include challenges such as chopping wood and carrying packs of rocks; the challenges are unknown before the race begins. The Marathon des Sables in Morocco sees competitors run about 150 miles – or a marathon a day for about six days – across the Sahara Desert.

The Viking Hundred Run in Kent, England, follows a 100-mile route taken by Vikings when they invaded England and sees many competitors donning helmets and costumes; there is a 32-hour time limit to complete the challenge.

The altogether more civilised-sounding Marathon du Médoc involves running through some of France’s finest wine country, with wine and cheese on offer at every refreshment station.

None of these are challenges for couch potatoes and are unlikely to tempt the average fun-runner or gym-goer. But the chances are that you recently have been asked to sponsor a friend or colleague taking part in an obstacle race or some form of endurance challenge – or maybe you have even done one, or are thinking about doing so, yourself.

These types of events see runners splash through mud, climb over walls, wade through water, leap on inflatable obstacles and even get electric shocks. Yet despite this, they have grown in popularity in recent years, and organisers continue to think of new and whacky challenges to add to the races to keep them interesting for competitors.

Experts advise would-be competitors to take some simple risk management steps to prepare for their event. These include:

  • Wearing appropriate clothing – and be prepared for the weather;
  • Ensuring you have trained enough;
  • Doing the exercise you will be required to do in the race – for example, swimming in a pool is not the same as swimming in open water;
  • Not try competing if you feel unwell in the days immediately prior to the event; and
  • Listening to your body!

Competitors in these events typically sign a disclaimer to say they are fit and healthy and accept the risks involved. And, of course, the safety of competitors is a priority for event organisers.

Nonetheless, there are of course risks associated with any form of mass participation physical challenge, and insurers have an important role to play in helping to ensure these events can take place safely.

Underwriters look at several factors when assessing these events. These include the risk assessment carried out by the organisers, whether the event has been submitted to the local authority and obtained the appropriate licence, whether the route crosses a public road or highway, the medical assistance that will be on site, and the way the event has been thought out.

Well-organised events will have marshals at each obstacle who will keep a tally of racers as they attempt the obstacle and make sure they have safely negotiated it. Underwriters also want to see that the event has robust emergency procedures in place.

For certain events (for example, those ratified by UK Athletics), competitors will not be permitted to wear headphones – especially if the race crosses a road – primarily for safety reasons of course.

As these races grow in popularity, organisers are learning from their experience and developing risk assessment and management strategies alongside keeping their events fresh, interesting and attractive for competitors.

Obstacle course races are a great test of all-round fitness, combining a mix of speed, strength and endurance, and their popularity is due in part to the sense of camaraderie they engender. So if you are tempted by the idea of running through fire, hanging off monkey bars or scaling a 15-foot wall, they could be just the challenge for you.

And, as a risk professional, you will not be surprised to hear me recommend that you prepare and assess the risks and have the proper equipment to make sure you stay safe and enjoy yourself.

About the author: Paul Thomas is Global Product Head, Sport & Leisure at XL Catlin and can be contacted at

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