Thursday, April 17, 2014

Untold Stories: Life, Death, and Marathons

(Cameron Gallagher at the 2014 Shamrock Half Marathon)

The 2014 Shamrock Marathon was held on a typical chilly March morning, but sadly the day was marred by the tragic death of 16 year old Cameron Gallagher from Richmond, VA. Cameron, a healthy teen and stand out swimmer, collapsed and died moments after crossing the finish line of the half marathon. Who knew that the finish line of the half marathon would also be the finish line of her life? Not long after her passing the news of her death made headlines around the country.

The sad truth is that there have been many other deaths in the US at marathons and half marathons that have gone largely unnoticed. I'm sure Cameron's age had a lot to do with increasing the depth of the tragedy, as well as social media being flooded with heartwarming images of her and her family. But, the other runners who died had families too, and many were also fairly young with much of their lives seemingly ahead of them. Cameron's death came quickly on the heels of another incident still fresh in minds of many. In January, Meg Menzies, a talented and well known runner also from Richmond was killed by a drunk driver while out for a run. Her tragic story made ripples so far reaching that people in other countries were running Megs Miles in her memory. But, I also had to think of all those who we never hear about. What if this had happened to a black man out for a casual run in Detroit, Compton, or perhaps a middle eastern Muslim in New York? Fact. It does happen, but nobody will ever hear their stories. Sad as it is, but Meg was a gifted runner, she was attractive, had three beautiful kids, and her husband was a police officer. She became an easily acceptable poster child for tragedy, unlike any of the hypothetical individuals I just mentioned. So, here I would like to acknowledge three things; those who have died in US marathons and halfs since 2009, all the untold stories of the "Meg Menzies and Cameron Gallaghers" of the world we never hear about, and the alarming increase in deaths in recent years.

Here are some sobering statistics I was able to compile.

From 2000-2008 3,718,336 people participated in marathons/half marathons in the US. Of course, many people run multiple races, so the individual number of participants is actually much lower. During this span 28 runners have died during the race, or complications shortly after. However, it is from 2009 on that the stats become even more staggering.

Marathon/Half Marathon Deaths since 2009 (There are likely more, but this is what I found)

Mark Austry, Rock 'n Roll Half Dallas, 2010. Age 32
Sean McCarthey, Rock 'n Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2010. Age 27
Cameron Gallagher, Shamrock Half, 2014. Age 16
Larry Wegner, Rock 'n Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2013. Age 50
Erik Wellumson, Rock n' Roll Half Virginia Beach, 2009. Age 23
Derek Myers, Rock 'n Roll Half Raleigh, 2014. Age 35
unknown male, Rock 'n Roll Half Raleigh, 2014. Age 31
Katie Joyner, Run Like a Diva Galveston, 2014. Age 27
Jake Zeman, Savannah Marathon, 2013. Age 35
Kyle Johnson, Pittsburgh Half, 2013. Age 23
Joy Johnson, NYC Marathon, 2013. Age 86 (she was the oldest female finisher ever and died the day after race)
Jeffrey Lee, Philadelphia Half, 2011. Age 21
unknown, Philadelphia Half, 2011. Age 40
Kenneth Spears, Berkeley CA Half, 2013. Age 49
3 runners at the 2009 Detroit Marathon. Names and ages unknown.
Erin Lahr, Dallas White Rock Marathon, 2009. Age 29
Benjamin Pigman, Country Music Marathon, 2009. Age 25
Peter Curtin, Baltimore Marathon, 2009. Age 23
Brandon Whitehurst, Rock 'n Roll Half San Jose, 2009. Age 35
Rose Lo, Rock 'n Roll Half San Jose, 2009. Age 34

Most of these deaths only made brief blips in small local newspapers, or the nightly news. There are probably many others that never made any headlines, and obviously many others from around the globe. Honestly, the US marathon mortality stats are very troubling. There were 22 known deaths that I could find from 2009-2014, and we are only in April, compared to 28 deaths total from 2000-2008. Many of the runners were known to be very healthy, and based on the ages all within their physical primes. Almost everyone was between the ages of 21 and 35 with athletic backgrounds. Not exactly the overweight 50 something I sometimes picture in my head. Also, a majority of the deaths occurred in half marathons. The Rock 'n Roll half marathon events had the highest death rate of any race. Warm weather was a factor in some of the events, but with temps in the low 80's at the highest, most deaths still occurred when the weather was ideal.

What is it about the half marathons specifically causing so many deaths? Is it the race? Is it the accessibility of getting into races, and the enormous increase in the number of events? Are the longer time cut offs more inviting to untrained runners? I doubt it, again given most of the deaths occurred in fit and seemingly prepared runners. I did, however, discover that that between the years 2000 and 2013 the number of half marathon finishers has increased from 482,000 to 1,960,0000, thus meaning that the overall death rate has dropped. With so many runners, it seems an increase in the number of deaths was inevitable. I don't think there's a feasible way of regulating who participates either. Case in point, I ran my first 50 mile ultra with basically no running experience, and still finished. Based on qualifications alone I had no business being at a 50 mile ultra marathon. But, given the opportunity to test my limits I found that I could dig deep and finish 50 miles, regardless of how unlikely it seemed based on my zero experience. I would have never had discovered that if the race had determined for me, by qualifications, or by a stricter time cut off, that I was not allowed to run. So, there is a fine line between wanting runners to explore their limits, and being safe. That being said, I again reiterate that most deaths happened to trained, healthy, and prepared runners.

So, why have we, as far as I know, not had any casualties in ultras? We have races like Hardrock held at elevations exceeding 14,000 feet, the Barkley marathons with 56,000 feet of vertical, Nolan's 14, Badwater in temperatures exceeding 125, and races that cross a thousand miles of the frozen tundra like the Iditarod 1,000. Given all the trails, weather, and ridiculous geographic locations, nobody has yet to die, and yet these are often considered the most "dangerous" events. Similarly, when watching UFC mixed martial arts, despite how brutal the sport is, nobody has died in a UFC fight. So dangerous, and yet more people die every year running seemingly benign half marathons. I will note that the pattern of participant increase is melting over into ultras. 20 years ago there were only a handful of 100 mile races, 10 years ago probably less than 20, and today there are over 125 in North America. Factor in ultra distances of 50k, 50 miles, and 100k and the grand total of new ultra events has likely increased ten fold in the last decade. Though we have thankfully never had any deaths at an ultra, one can only predict it may not be far off.

So, again, the question is this.

What is happening in our sport? Is there something avoidable that we are doing to our bodies before, and or during the races? Are heart issues in younger adults ticking time bombs that we simply cannot predict in a healthy person until it is too late? Could it be the increase of caffeine consumption at races as some medical professionals and myself have witnessed? It seems nowadays that most in-race nutrition products contain caffeine, or a caffeinated version. Many gels contain 20-40 mg with some even higher. So imagine if you unknowingly grabbed a handful of gels during a race containing caffeine, you might consume 100-200 mgs when already at an elevated heart rate. The abuse of caffeine, among other things like NSAIDS, is becoming a shockingly unhealthy trend that most people aren't entirely aware of. In the mean time, I hope the number of race related fatalities decreases, and I hope we can figure out a way to manage it sooner than later.