Nov. 5, 2012 at 8:29 AM ET
By Laura Beil, Men's Health
At his gym, Tony Weathers was known as Weatherman—a ripped demigod who could curl 225 pounds and run a mile in under 5 minutes. Outwardly he was a humble sort, but inside, down to his bone marrow, he hated to lose. If his fitness class was assigned one sprint around the gym in 15 seconds, Weathers ran two. If a coworker beat him in table tennis in the company break room, he challenged the victor again and again until he won. So on Saturday, April 14, as Weathers paced around the starting line of the Original Mud Run in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, he was probably synchronizing every cell in his body to win it all. Even if he didn't finish first, he told his friends, he would be among the top 10 finishers. Just wait.
The starting line sat atop a levee that managed the occasional flooding of the Trinity River, and next to LaGrave Field, home of the minor-league Fort Worth Cats. The parking lot below hosted a lively bazaar of sponsor tents; waterlogged mudders from previous heats helped themselves to the postrace beer, and promoters aggressively pushed leaflets for still more muddy adventures.
A few minutes before the 2 p.m. start time, Tim Munetsi, a 35-year-old telecommunications specialist and Weathers's friend from class, trotted up the levee to give his buddy a send-off. A coworker of Munetsi's, Huong Morgan, 33, followed behind. Munetsi and Morgan had already run in the morning fun races. Weathers had signed up for the final start of the day—the timed competitive run.
Morgan pulled out her phone to snap Weathers's picture. It was to be the "before" shot—before he crossed the finish line plastered in brown muck. She spotted Weathers, his head bowed, fist to his heart, lost in silent prayer. He kissed his hand and pointed to the sky, and then opened his eyes.
"Hey, Weatherman!" Morgan hollered when his prayer was finished, and raised her phone. He served up the same Hollywood smile that had made him a favorite amateur model for Krave magazine and earned him a spot as Mr. July in the magazine's 2012 "King of Hearts Kalendar."
Weathers made a lazy hand sign at the camera. He noticed the crowd gathering around the starting line. "Time for me to leave Tony behind," he told his friends, "and get into Weatherman mode." He positioned himself toward the front of the pack; when the announcer finished the countdown, Weathers bolted out like a cannon shot.
A mile from the starting line, Tony Weathers was dead.
THE mud run was supposed to be just a warmup for Weathers on his way to his ultimate goal: Hawaii's Iron-man triathlon. Today mud runs abound, but the Original Mud Run claims the distinction of being the first-ever military-style obstacle race for civilians. Started by a band of Marines raising money for charity, the inaugural race, held in 1989 in Tustin, California, had 99 participants. For years, even before relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the late '90s, this production dominated the field. That's no longer true: Mud runs today are as packed as rock concerts, attracting as many as 25,000 registrants in a weekend. Their meteoric rise is hard to exaggerate; Warrior Dash, which began in 2009 with one race and 2,000 people, is predicted to field more than 800,000 runners this year. The company that runs it expects to earn $65 million. Spartan Race also began in 2009 and will host around 750,000 this year. Tough Mudder, in only in its third year, is on track to rake in $70 million in 2012. Those are just the majors. Florida alone will host 40 different mud runs before the year is out.
"I think the appeal is that it gives you the opportunity to almost be a kid again," says Warrior Dash race director Alex Yount. "It is not every day I'm rolling around in the dirt, scraping my knees and getting muddy, and then jumping over fire." People have embraced the idea of competitions that don't require months of disciplined training, so if you just want to wallow in mud holes, beer, and chicks in wet sports bras, you can. The appeal is in the camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment that comes only from sustaining electric shocks with friends . . . while dressed as Gumby. Some promoters emphasize the physical challenges while others talk up the Mardi Gras-style joviality. Still others offer both, with a dose of Camp Lejeune thrown in. Richard Lee, a cofounder of Spartan Race, good-naturedly refers to Warrior Dash as "Woodstock, with obstacle-type things."
Yet as more people are drawn to the runs, reports of injuries are making news. Risk is inherent in any sport, but racing veterans like Troy Farrar, president of the United States Adventure Racing Association, worry that mud runs may be growing too popular too quickly for the well-being of their grunge-soaked fans. Weathers might have been the first to die at a mud run, but reports have surfaced of mud race participants in California, Michigan, and Virginia sustaining paralyzing injuries. Three people reportedly became ill from E. coli after competing in a mud race earlier this year in Scotland, presumably from contaminated mud. In Wisconsin, 26 mud runners were hospitalized after an event, including one with a fractured neck vertebra.
Since the sport of mud running has no governing body, statistics on injuries are hard to come by. Race organizers say the number of participants who've been seriously hurt is relatively tiny when the hundreds of thousands who compete annually are taken into account. But Farrar notes that in 17 years of adventure races—arguably the closest cousins to these mud runs—only one critical injury has occurred, when a boulder inside a canyon became dislodged and crushed a runner. He can't recall anyone ever being paralyzed.
"Originally we were sanctioning some of these events. We liked them," Farrar says. His insurance underwriters have now placed mud runs off-limits, he says, citing too many claims. He sees a phenomenon in danger of imploding under the weight of its own crowds. "If it doesn't get cleaned up," he says, "it can easily become uninsurable, and it will go away."
Tony Weathers did not come to Lagrave Field for the beer and babes. That was not his style. He was reared in a working-class neighborhood of Dallas, his formative years spent in the care of a doting aunt, Zenill Traylor. In middle school he started track and for a time tried football, though Traylor jokes that the pads and helmet probably outweighed the spindly boy. He graduated from Skyline High, worked his way to a college business degree, and eventually landed a job at Fort Worth's Mercedes-Benz Financial Services office.
His love of winning was famous, but so was his bighearted-ness and gentle charm. He was one of those people who always seemed to be in a good mood, and if you weren't, "he'd do anything and everything to make you smile," says coworker KeBrenda Jackson.
In his late teens, Weathers discovered a love for weight-lifting. He joined the Texas Gym, a storefront operation that caters to unadulterated brute force. With free weights piled in random clumps across the floor and a banner boasting "Best Hard Core Gym in Texas," it's the kind of place that props open the back doors on a sweltering afternoon for an influx of fresh air that doesn't smell like yesterday's sweat. Weathers—his gym buddies called him T-Dubb—would slip in the door, baseball cap turned backward, and start his reps. He drifted in like smoke. "When he appeared at the gym, you never knew he came through the door. That's how quiet he was," says Mark Echols, a Texas Gym veteran. Weathers prided himself on being one of the strongest at the bench, but he never put his muscles on boastful display during a workout. He rarely wore shorts or even tanks. His muscles were his business. "He was one of those men who was willing to take his time, stop his workout, and help a guy who didn't know how to do it," Echols says.
By the time of his death at age 30, Weathers had developed a chiseled physique that he'd worked to maintain like a prized possession. He was devoted to his health, prone to eating pungent helpings of hard-boiled eggs and broccoli at his desk, and dedicated to working out two or three times a day. "He was funny about what he put into his body," says his aunt. "He hadn't drank a soda in 15 years."
In March 2011, to build his endurance and speed, Weathers joined a fitness class at the Cimarron Park Recreation Center in Irving, a city situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. The trainer, Lynetta Moore, bills the training as a "fitness boot camp." Weathers walked in wearing the saddest athletic shoes she'd ever seen, she says. "Look, Weatherman," she told him, "you're going to need to buy some new shoes." He said they were hard to find because he had a size 17 foot. "And the women were like, 'You've got a what?' I said, 'Calm yourself, ladies.'"
She turned back to her new recruit.
"Are you ready to get broke down?"
"I am unbreakable," he answered, without hesitation.
Over the next few months, Munetsi and Weathers would chat after class about the new woman Weathers was dating, about work, about family. In March, Munetsi suggested they do the Original Mud Run. (Through a spokesman, the company behind the event declined interview requests for this story.) His coworker, Morgan, an occasional participant in the boot camp class, had gone the previous year and had a blast. They signed up the same day.
On race day Munetsi and Morgan arrived early, before Weathers, for their races. As they finished their run, they saw Weathers smiling—he was always smiling—as he waited for them to cross the finish line.
"How come she's dirtier than you?" he asked, laughing at Munetsi. In response, his friends smeared a generous helping of mud down Weathers's black T-shirt. As the rules for the competitive division required, Weathers was wearing combat boots and long pants.
They walked to a truck where muddy runners were being hosed down. After a communal shower courtesy of the Fort Worth Fire Department, Munetsi and Morgan picked up sandwiches and bananas and the three sat down at a picnic table. Weathers quizzed his friends about the obstacles. Were they hard? "I told him it was easy," Munetsi says. "I figured for him it was going to be a piece of cake." They discussed the water crossings; the first was about a mile into the course. When Morgan had done the race last time, the Trinity River was low because of drought. But this year a rainy winter had swollen the waters deep and wide. Anyone who didn't want to swim to the other side could jog across the Samuels Avenue bridge further downstream. Morgan, who can't swim, and Munetsi had chosen this option.
Weathers listened as his friends described the river crossing, weighing his plan. He could swim, and he was strong. He was gearing up for a triathlon. "He did not seem too concerned about the swimming," Munetsi says.
No event is without risk. They key to safety is knowing what you're signing up for and then training to meet the challenge. In some ways, the hazards of mud runs are difficult to compare with those of other sports. Unlike most traditional competitions, mud runs attract both elite athletes and contenders who have—how to put it?—more enthusiasm than ability. To build in thrills, race organizers ask participants to do things they may have never done or not done in a long time. "Most of us haven't climbed monkey bars since we were 9 years old," says Pete Williams, who runs EnduranceSportsFlorida.com and is writing a book on training for obstacle races. "Even people who do a lot of CrossFit don't usually combine lots of running with throwing tires and pulling hunks of concrete."
Williams, who has completed nine separate mud runs, doesn't believe these races pose unnecessary hazards. He's never felt unsafe, for himself or anyone else. "Certainly the onus is on the race organizers to make all of their obstacles as safe as possible," he says. "It's also incumbent upon the athletes to take a look at the obstacle and see what they're dealing with. If they cannot do it, then they should skip it. These races all give you the option of doing that."
U.S. Adventure Racing president Farrar has heard this line of reasoning before. "Here's something you also have to take into account," he says. "When people get into race mode, some still make wise decisions and consider their self-preservation. Other people, when they get in race mode, are in race mode and they just don't make good decisions. You may have some people who are really not comfortable and who say, 'I'm going to walk around,' but who wants to be that first guy?"
Even risk-calculating professionals are confounded by mud runs. Sports insurer ESIX covers 50,000 events annually, but it categorically rejects applications from almost all mud runs. "Insurance companies can wrap their arms around events that are consistent and require certain standards to be met before the event is allowed to happen," says company president Mike Price. "Mud runs have no sanctioning body to control the standardization, which greatly contributes to the potential risk."
Another company, SportsInsurance Hawaii, reviews each mud run application obstacle by obstacle because of inconsistencies in risk management. "Everyone is wanting to hold one of these because they've become so popular," says company president Dana Cagen. He has been noticing a kind of arms race among organizers of these events to create ever more outrageous experiences; one proposal recently crossed his desk that had runners entering a gas chamber. "I'm like, well, no," he says. "We're not going to have people going into something where they have to breathe something other than air." He also stays away from barbed wire, fire, and live electrical wires.
These challenges happen to be badges of honor for some of the nationally known races, though organizers insist that their environments are tightly controlled and that no one has ever suffered serious injury from them. "We constantly adjust and assess the risk of every aspect of our race," says Lee of Spartan Race. "If we're having too many injuries at a certain obstacle, we may remove it from the next race because we ultimately need to be safe." (No matter if you're a weekend warrior or an aspiring Olympian, our Injury Prevention Workout Plan will keep you pain-free and in the game.)
Water is a triathlete's greatest fear. In 2010, researchers from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation investigated fatalities in the almost 3,000 events sanctioned by USA Triathlon from 2006 to 2008, publishing their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Out of 14 deaths, 13 occurred in water. It can be a place of panic; there's nowhere for a fatigued athlete to go but down and under. The more crowded the race, the researchers found, the greater the odds of drowning.
With his running speed, Weathers would have reached the river in less than 10 minutes. The only real obstruction before it was a wooden wall that most people easily vaulted over. Lance Westlake, a 27-year-old supervisor at a mortgage company, was also running the competitive wave; he estimates he was about a third of the way back from the lead racers. Westlake splashed through the high grass at the water's edge and gave himself a push off the bottom. "My first thought was, 'Holy @!$%#! I don't know if I'm going to be able to make it across this!'" he says. "My boots immediately filled up and felt like weights on my feet.
"I was probably 5 feet from land, and I started to realize people were freaking out," Westlake says. He heard women sobbing. Swimmers screamed for lifeguards. "It was constant screaming," he says. "That was the first time I've ever feared for my life." He calmed himself, recalled water-safety instruction from long ago, and rolled over onto his back. Suddenly he felt himself being pulled under by a terrified man with a desperate instinct to grab anything to stay afloat.
"You need to get off me now!" Westlake says he yelled, and he rooted around in the water for a guide rope that had been secured across the river. To his shock, the rope was so loose that there was no way to hold on without going under, Westlake says. He passed it to the man anyway, and quickly paddled away. He thinks he saw three lifeguards, but "there were, like, 80 people in the water."
Another participant, Paul Page, a 50-year-old financial planner for a fencing supplier, would have entered the water after Westlake. He had done the mud run in 2010, and back then he estimated his wave had about 50 runners. For this race, he says, the starting line was "probably 250 people deep. I dropped to the rear because it just bothered me." As he swam, "I saw that one woman was crying. People coming up behind me were kind of flailing around." He was exhausting himself battling the water-filled boots and pants, so he flipped over to float. He yelled advice and encouragement to the panicking swimmers around him: "Turn on your back! You're gonna make it!"
When he reached the other side, Page clambered up the bank and grabbed the guide rope, leaning back hard, pulling it taut so others could hold on and make it across. He stayed until everyone he could see came ashore.
Munetsi wanted a photo of Weathers during the race, so he dashed across the river at a low-water concrete crossing near the starting line, waiting a couple of miles into the course at a high wall everyone had to scale. After a few moments he saw the first runners appear. He pressed the button to turn on the camera on his phone, expecting Weathers to be out front. Another clump of runners passed, and then another. Finally Munetsi walked back across the river to the finish line, shaking his head, thinking somehow he must have missed his friend.
Munetsi and Morgan waited, but Weathers wasn't among the initial finishers. They started seeing the first women, and finally the walkers. No way would Tony have let this many people in front of him, they thought. They scanned the crowd, thinking Weathers had eluded them a second time. Finally, at nearly 3:30 p.m.—90 minutes past the start time—the two approached the race timekeeper. "Has runner 2889 finished?" they asked. No, the woman said, but someone else is asking about that bib number too. They turned around to see a pretty woman, stricken with worry. For the first time, they met Weathers's girlfriend.
Lynetta Moore, his trainer, was at home waiting for word from Weathers. Finally she sent him a text: "How'd you do?" The answer came back: "This is Lauren, Tony's girlfriend. Tony is missing."
Mud runs are approaching a criticial juncture, says Cagen of Sportslnsurance Hawaii. In some ways, he says, it's part of the natural evolution of athletic events. He talks about slopestyle skiing and ski jumps--how insurance companies were loath to take on coverage until the jumps and terrain features were set up according to a specific protocol. He predicts the same trajectory with mud runs: increasing risk and more injuries, followed by safety standards. If mud runs resist standardization, he says, "there's always going to be somebody who will maybe take the risk to insure them, but the premiums will be a lot higher and the insurance providers are going to probably do a lot more to say, 'We'll insure it only if you meet certain criteria.'"
Mud run producers may also be bracing for the impact of lawsuits. Litigation has a history of changing industries, says John Shea, a Richmond, Virginia, attorney representing a runner who was paralyzed after diving into a mud pit. (As the complaint describes, the crowd around the man was urging him, chanting, "Hit it!" and "Dive! Dive! Dive!") "That's partly why the legal system exists," Shea says. "They either need to stop these races or ensure that they are run in a safe manner."
But just because it's not an official, sanctioned sport doesn't mean it has no safety codes, says Tough Mudder spokeswoman Jane Di Leo. "All our obstacles are drawn up by engineers. They manage our crews on the ground. Once the obstacles are built, they are weight-tested for safety," she says. "We want people to be challenged, but we want the challenge to be fun."
"I'm starting to worry about your friend friend," a race staff member told Munetsi as dusk approached. By this time Weathers's girlfriend had spent an hour desperately calling area hospitals as Munetsi and Morgan searched the course for injured runners and quizzed the on-site EMS workers. At 5:08 p.m., race coordinator Chasity Cooper called 911. "We have one of our participants that has never come through the finish line," she told the dispatcher. By then Weathers's family and members of his boot camp class were descending on LaGrave Field.
They wandered the riverbank all night, calling his name in the darkness. They waved their cellphones like beacons, hoping he might see the blue glow and call out. Fire department officials suggested to his Aunt Zenill that she and other family members come back in the morning; a storm was blowing in. "I will not leave this place until my baby is found," she told them defiantly. People took fitful naps in their cars, then pulled on their jackets, and walked back out into the rain.
Divers arrived at dawn. A few hours later, they pulled Weathers's body from the muddy waters of the Trinity, about 10 feet into the first crossing. The medical examiner ruled his death an accidental drowning.
As the news broke, the mud run's Facebook page exploded with impassioned comments from people who believed the death was a tragic fluke, countered by those charging that the race endangered participants. Some noted the sagging guide rope and the overwhelmed lifeguards. Others speculated about Weathers's skills, and how prepared he was.
The eeriest feeling for Westlake that Sunday morning was his utter lack of surprise that someone had drowned. "I don't think swimming ability had anything to do with it," he says. "You have to understand—if you're wearing pants and boots, pretty much all your swimming ability is diminished."
Munetsi didn't need to check the news to know his friend was gone. He was sitting in church that morning, and suddenly, in a burst of despair, he just knew. He dropped his head and began to weep. He thinks about Weatherman often and is considering signing up for next year's event, in the competitive division.
"It's something he would want me to do," Munetsi says. He believes that the greatest honor he can offer his friend would be crossing the finish line he never lived to see.
No one will ever know how Weathers became trapped beneath the water. Westlake is convinced that Weathers died trying to save another racer. "He was a great person from what I hear, so you could imagine if he saw somebody in trouble, he'd have tried to help." If a terrified swimmer had been drawn to Weathers, buoyed by strength and confidence, and inadvertently pushed him under, his leaden boots might have dragged him to the bottom.
And that's where his life ended.
However he spent his final moments, his family takes comfort in thinking his story may save someone still. Her nephew is dead, Traylor says, but she hopes that after hearing how he died, other racers might live to run another day.
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