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New obstacle-course race hazard: C. coli

Competitors pull themselves across a body of water during the Tough Mudder obstacle course at Spicer Ranch on Oct. 6, 2012, in Beatty, Nevada.

Here’s one hazard you might not have expected to encounter from an obstacle-course race: bloody diarrhea.

After linking a 2012 outbreak of Campylobacter coli to ingestion of feces-contaminated muddy water in an obstacle course race, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising competitors that these types of races — “relatively common among men and women of the U.S. military," it said — could pose a heightened risk of exposure to C. coli.

The case — described in the CDC’s weekly “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” for May 2, 2014 — began on Oct. 12, 2012, when Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, health officials were notified that three active-duty servicemembers had sought treatment at a Las Vegas-area hospital for fever, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Interviews determined that several days earlier, the servicemembers had participated in an obstacle-course race at a cattle ranch in Beatty, Nevada, “in which competitors frequently fell face first into mud or had their heads submerged in surface water.”

Within days, 19 more patients, both military and civilian, were identified; all 22 patients made a full recovery.

The CDC’s investigation concluded that “inadvertent ingestion of muddy surface water contaminated with cattle or swine feces during a long-distance obstacle adventure course competition likely resulted in an outbreak of campylobacteriosis in 22 participants.”

Campylobacter coli is one of the most common causes of diarrheal illness in the U.S., according to the CDC, and can also cause vomiting, fever and abdominal pain and cramps.

In its report, the CDC recommends that race-planners of obstacle courses constructed on farmland or rural fields build the mud pits where animal fecal contamination is less likely, and that organizers consider including the risk for waterborne outbreaks in their participant waivers. The CDC also advised race competitors — you guessed it — not to drink the water.

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