'I expected Gelt Gladiator event to be safe'

Competitors tackle one of the obstacles
Competitors tackle one of the obstacles

An outdoor sports fanatic whose life was changed forever by a preventable accident at the 2015 Gelt Gladiator event said today: “I expected it to be safe.”

For super-fit 52-year-old Steven Martin, the day had started positively as he joined the 2,500 other enthusiastic competitors on what was being billed as one of the most exciting obstacle course challenges ever seen in Cumbria.

It was May 16, 2015.

By the end of the day, Steven was in hospital, bleeding from a head wound and with two of the discs in his neck crushed beyond repair.

He told me I was lucky not to be paralysed; not to have broken my neck

He was one of five competitors seriously injured – victims of negligence.

At Carlisle Crown Court, Gelt Gladiator’s creator, 42-year-old Mike James, was given a suspended jail sentence for failing to ensure the safety of competitors. The worst injury – a broken neck – was sustained by Cheryl Armstrong.

For the first time, after James apologised to the injured people and admitted he had let them down, Mr Martin spoke of the price he has paid.

A veteran of numerous previous outdoor endurance events, who has raised thousands of pounds for good causes, Mr Martin thought Gelt Gladiator would be like all the others – well-organised, gruelling and safe.

An obstacle called Avalanche 2 proved otherwise.

Along with hundreds of others, Steven clambered to the top of the muddy bank and was then confronted by a 30m-long tarpaulin slide, its surface made slippery by a constant supply of water from a hosepipe.

He leapt onto the slide and hurtled downwards towards the pool at the bottom.

“Like many people, I went down headfirst,” said Steven. “I reckon I was sliding down at about 30mph. Then I hit the bottom. A pain shot through my neck, arm and shoulder. It was such a shock. I wondered if I’d hit somebody.

“I didn’t know what had happened. But my expectation when I jumped was that it was safe.”

The pool he landed in should have been at least 6ft deep but it was only half that depth.

Dazed, bleeding and severely concussed, Steven clambered from the water. No first aider was nearby.

For a full hour he lay on the ground, comforted by a steward. Finally, somebody arrived in a golf buggy and Steven was moved onto a spinal board.

In the following days he suffered excruciating headaches.

Doctors later told Steven just how serious his injury was: the irreparable crushing of two vertabrae discs in his neck. Surgeons had to operate, replacing the discs with artificial carbon fibre ones.

He also suffered a blood clot between his spine and his windpipe.

In total, Steven spent two weeks in hospital.

He said: “The surgeon who did my operation said that the line between having this operation and going into a wheelchair was very, very fine.

“He told me I was lucky not to be paralysed; not to have broken my neck.”

Even so, Steven’s life will never be the same as before.

With 30 per cent less movement in his neck, he remains vulnerable.

“All my sport has had to stop,” said Steven, who previously loved badminton, hockey and swimming, as well as obstacle-course events.

“It’s also affected my career. I’m an account manager with a big engineering firm, so I don’t now go into confined spaces or up ladders. That’s all stopped.

“The worst thing was the effect on my role as a dad. My youngest son was only six at the time.

“Running around kicking a ball with him in the garden, getting on the trampoline – all that kind of thing has had to stop.”

Steven added: “This accident could have been avoided. I’m not one to dwell on things but if you are running these events you have to make sure people are safe.”

Steven, from Kirkby, near Liverpool, was one of five people seriously injured at the 2015 event. The most serious injury – a broken neck – was sustained by Cumbrian woman Cheryl Armstrong.

She too was injured in the pool where Steven was hurt.

She underwent complex surgery during a 10-hour operation and was off work for five months adjusting to what the court heard were “life-changing” injuries.


 Mike James

Mike James

The founder of the endurance event has apologised, saying: “I let them down.”

Gelt Gladiator boss Mike James, a 42-year-old married father-of-two, said he deserved to be prosecuted for failings at the very first Gelt Gladiator event in 2015, which attracted almost 2,500 participants from across Cumbria and the north.

In an exclusive interview with the News & Star, James, of Knowe Road, Stanwix, accepted fully that his preparation for the event was inadequate, particularly his failure to do an adequate risk assessment for two dangerous obstacles.

Asked how he felt as he stood in the dock at Carlisle Crown Court, Mr James said: “When I heard the judge sum up the things which had gone wrong, I felt I deserved to be there.

“From the outset, I took responsibility. It’s my company and I don’t blame anybody else for what happened. The judge was correct in what he said.

“My first feeling was how sorry I feel for the five injured people. My initial reaction to the event could have been better. There was a little bit of ‘This is the style of event in which people get injured’.

“But I was negligent – I made mistakes that contributed to the injuries.”

Mr James said he was inspired to launch Gelt Gladiator by the Total Warrior event, having had an events managements career that had included being venue operations manager for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

In the years before that, he organised various road running events, catering for in excess of 100,000 competitors, Mr James said.

He continued: “Gelt woods and the surrounding area are a beautiful location and I did my research, travelling round to various different events and looking at the kind of obstacles that were used. Where I let these injured people down was in not allocating enough time to build the course.

“I allocated six weeks. I did put together a generic risk assessment for the event but I didn’t put together specific risk assessments for obstacles. That’s where it fell down. With the Avalance 2 obstacle, the water was at a certain depth at the start.

“As people went through it, the water depth decreased and I didn’t have a water topping-up mechanism, or [warning] signs.”

Despite the problems in 2015, said James said the following two Gelt Gladiator events had been hugely successful, raising tens of thousands of pounds for numerous charitable events, including a fundraiser for the Motor Neurone Disease Association that is associated with former Carlisle United player Tony Hopper.

James said: “Thursday was the worst day of my family’s life. But I learned from what happened and put right what was wrong.

“I wanted to prove to people that this event could be a success and now we bring in the best health and safety teams. This year’s event saw the number of competitors going up by 900. I’ve worked hard to regain people’s trust.”

At the conclusion of the prosecution of James at Carlisle Crown Court, where he admitted not taking sufficient measures to protect competitors, Judge Peter Hughes QC gave him a suspended 10-month prison sentence.

The judge said the injuries sustained by two of the victims could easily have been fatal.

Three other people taking part in the popular event, which was watched by many families with small children, suffered lower-limb breaks or dislocations at a final course hurdle.

Neither that, nor the Avalanche 2 obstacle, were properly risk-assessed – part of what the prosecution said was a catalogue of errors.

James, the sole director of Endurance Sports Limited when the first Gelt Gladiator took place, said he underestimated the enormity of the task.

On the day, there was no event control manager, no control room, Mud Bomb marshals were without radios and there were insufficient volunteers.

The Gelt Gladiator events of 2016 and 2017 were without injury or incident.

Passing sentence, Judge Hughes told James: “It is an appalling catalogue of injury that proper planning and careful supervision on the day should have prevented.

“The injuries to Cheryl Armstrong and Steven Martin could so easily have been fatal.”

The judge added: “You organised this event on a financial shoestring. You embarked on the day on a wing and a prayer.

“You knowingly cut cost at the expense of safety and that aggravates the seriousness of the case, along with the failure to take prompt action to close down the Mud Bomb, thereby unnecessarily exposing competitors to injury.”

In addition to the suspended jail term, the judge imposed a 15 week curfew, 250 hours of unpaid work and prosecution costs of £20,000.

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