Scared to death

I’m assuming most of you heard about the recent death in the Chicago marathon…a young guy only a few minutes from the finish line. Unfortunately this was not the first death in a marathon nor will it be the last. This causes a lot of questions amongst the running communities and especially the non-running communities.

Did he die because he ran a marathon? Should he have not run the marathon? Are marathons dangerous?

I came across a great article today that I’d like to share:

“Don’t let deaths scare you off marathons” by Andre’ Picard

A 27-year-old man died on Sunday in the Toronto Marathon. A 35-year-old man died in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9. A 32-year-old man died in the Montreal Marathon on Sept. 25. Three high-profile deaths by cardiac arrest in seemingly healthy men during mass-participation events in less than a month.

How long will it before there are calls to ban marathons or demands that participants undergo mandatory medical testing before they can run?

As tragic as these deaths are, a knee-jerk response to restrict these type of events would be a mistake. The solution, while counterintuitive, is to encourage a lot more people to lace ’em up and hit the streets. The benefits far outweigh the risks – regardless of the impression you may get from the newspaper headlines.
Those who think that marathons are deadly dangerous are grossly misinformed: They don’t understand statistics and science – or, at the very least, choose to not do so to reinforce their prejudices.

About 50,000 Canadians suffer heart attacks each year. Almost 40 per cent of them are fatal, meaning 20,000 deaths. On average, two marathoners a year die during races. Yet they garner more media attention that the other 20,000 or so deaths combined.

Put it down to the man-bites-dog syndrome: The media have a penchant for the unusual, particularly when it occurs in a public venue. Nobody is counting or cataloguing the La-Z-Boy deaths – the thousands of people who die while watching TV or another sedentary activity. The science is unequivocal: The sedentary – the 50 per cent plus of Canadians who barely move each day – are at greatest risk.

Being active – including running – dramatically decreases your risk of death, particularly from heart disease (which has just been edged out by cancer as the country’s No. 1 killer). People who are fit have 50 per cent fewer heart attacks than those who are sedentary. They also have a lower risk of stroke, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Being fit does not require feats of super-athleticism. It means upping your heart rate – maybe even working up a sweat – for 30 to 60 minutes a day. That’s the equivalent of running (or jogging slowly) about five kilometers for most people.

You don’t have to run a marathon to be fit. And you don’t have to be Kenyan-marathoner-thin to run either. More than 61 per cent of Canadians are overweight or obese and spectators at any big city race know that there are marathoners in those ranks.

But running – and more important training for a marathon – can make you fitter. It can even offset the risks of being overweight to a large extent. The research shows that more activity is better for your health. Those whose activity levels surpass the minimum recommended norms tend to have a healthier body weight, lower blood pressure and better cholesterol readings and, over all, they tend to eat better. (Never mind that many marathoners have a voracious appetite and a sweet tooth to boot.) Yes, runners get injured, but their bones are actually stronger and their injuries pale in comparison with those suffered by the obese and the frail.
There are intangibles as well. Marathon and half-marathon participation has exploded in recent years because running is the social activity of choice for many. It is no coincidence that the new runners are predominantly in their 30s and 40s – when the fat starts to accumulate around the middle and the prospect of hanging out in bars to make friends becomes overly depressing. Running is not about vanity, it is about being part of a community and being good to oneself.

Public policy should encourage Canadians to be active. Building running trails, bike paths and sidewalks is one of the best investments in health promotion we can make. So, too, is promoting marathons, bike tours, inline-skating races and whatnot – even if it does inconvenience car drivers occasionally. It would be a shame if the legions of Canadians who are joining running groups at the YMCA, the Running Room and countless other spots were misled into thinking that running is deadly. And it would be downright tragic to slap them with dissuasive measures such as pre-race screening or medical tests. Doing so would be expensive, intrusive and ineffective.

The reality is that about 95 per cent of those who die during marathons have underlying heart problems – either genetic or lifestyle-related. A surprisingly high number of people have heart abnormalities, but most are benign. Detection does not lessen the risk of death, except in some specific instances. As for the lifestyle-related problems – high blood pressure and high cholesterol – these conditions are commonplace and runners are no exception. Hey, that’s why a lot of them run in the first place. But predicting the risk of a heart attack during a specific activity is almost impossible.

Paradoxically, if you’re going to have a heart attack, a marathon is one of the best places to have one because paramedics and defibrillators are nearby. About 75 per cent of people whose heart stops at a race survive; in everyday life, it’s about 15 per cent.

Ultimately, runners and non-runners alike owe it to themselves to go beyond the headlines and retain the important data. Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, examined records from marathons where there were 3.3 million participants over a 30-year period. There were 26 deaths. That’s a death rate of one in 126,000 – roughly the same as the death rate in the general population. Stated plainly, people die of heart disease, not running. (And, to repeat, being fit reduces the risk of heart disease substantially.)

It is well known that Jim Fixx, whose seminal work, The Complete Book of Running, is credited with sparking the running craze in the 1970s, died of a heart attack while running. Less well known is that he had an underlying heart condition. Doctors estimate that he would have died a decade earlier had he not been fit.
Mr. Fixx would no doubt be bemused by the current debate about the safety of marathons. But his philosophy still holds true today: “I don’t know if running adds years to your life, but it adds life to your years.”


8 thoughts on “Scared to death

  1. I do think marathon deaths get sensationalize because they’re so infrequent. My favorite recent story is the 100 year old man who finished a marathon. It took him 8 1/2 hours but he did finish! Quite an inspiration.

  2. re: adding life to your years…I experienced this first hand along with star, lauri, ansley and toby saturday.While at the last water stop at lauri’s house, we passed an older couple–neighbors of Lauri’s I think–who were also training for st jude.  the half marathon.  I think she said they were like 65 or something.  They are walking it, about which I thought who gives a crap.  they’re DOING it.  Truly inspirational.  It reminded me of someone’s running mantra I read online which was, “Someday I won’t be able to do this anymore.  Today is NOT that day.”Carpe Diem, Ladies and Germs…

  3. i love that one….”someday i won’t be able to do this but today is NOT that day.”  that’s a good one that i had forgotten about.  trey, i came home and told keith about that couple too- i don’t care if they crawl the damn thing.  they’re doing it and that’s all that matters.

  4. Man-bites-dog “syndrome?” Hell, I just call it “news.”This guy should stick to writing about running, instead of what he believes for what the media has a “penchant.”

  5. toby, you really didn’t like this article?  i thought it was great because there are too many people out there (mostly fat, non-runners) who hear that a runner died in a marathon and then go on believing (even though they know better!) that the marathon caused the death.  i liked how it references that running keeps you more fit than if you don’t run and that, yes, you have a chance of having a heart attack on a run, but you have a higher chance of having one on the couch.why did this one get your goat?

  6. Oh, I got a snooty media bee in my bonnet there for a minute and vented. (Your blog was SO not the appropriate venue for it…sorry.) His paragraph on “the media” annoyed me the way you (Star) would be annoyed by some newspaper guy insulting the ideas of “all running coaches everywhere.”I did, indeed, hear the rest of what the guy was saying, though. Too much is made of those random instances for sure.

  7. no, you can totally vent on the blog.  that’s exactly what the comment section is for!  as a non-writer, i just loved that he was kind of just calling people out and defending running.  comment on!

Got somethin' to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s