Brittany Williams was expecting to maybe suffer from muscle aches after competing in a mud run. What she wasn't expecting was losing the vision in one eye. That's what happened though, thanks to a flesh eating bacteria. While her case is extreme, runners getting sick after such runs is not.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 competitors (18 probable and four confirmed) in a Nevada Tough Mudder obstacle race were infected with Campylobacter coli (C. coli), which they contracted through contaminated muddy water. Participants in the race, which was held on a cattle ranch, frequently submerged their heads in surface water or fell face-first into mud.
But the fun of getting down and dirty comes with risks.
Symptoms of C. Coli Infection
"Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the United States," the CDC says. People who are infected experience cramping, abdominal pain, fever, and diarrhea that is sometimes bloody. Some also experience nausea and vomiting. Most victims show symptoms two to five days after exposure, and the bug takes about a week to run its course.
C. coli cases are typically caused by raw or undercooked poultry or cross-contamination with such poultry, but the bacteria also are spread through animal feces, making obstacle race participants vulnerable. "Races are commonly held on farmlands where animal feces increase the risk for zoonotic disease transmission," the CDC says.
Although the symptoms of C. coli are miserable, the victims of the Nevada outbreak dodged an even more dangerous pathogen, says Scott Youngquist, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
The 0157:H7 strain of Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, "is much more toxic but it's also found in the same environments as C. coli," Youngquist says.
E. coli victims might not have a fever, but otherwise the symptoms are similar for most people, he says. In six percent to nine percent of E. coli 0157:H7 victims, serious complications can include anemia, low platelets and even kidney failure.
Preventing an Infection
The CDC says organizers of events like Tough Mudder should warn participants of possible exposure to fecally contaminated water and the potential risks. Racers who experience diarrhea, especially bloody diarrhea, after the event should seek medical care.
If you participate in an obstacle race, it's critical that you avoid ingesting the water.
"It's going to enter in through the mouth or nose, so people that deliberately put their head in the mud are going to be at higher risk than people who don't get it on their lips, nose or nostrils," Youngquist says.