Risk and death in endurance sports

 

The essence of all endurance sport is that we go where the vast majority of the human race fears to go.


Like it or not we live in a world where 800m runners are described as “middle distance” and where many of our friends, family and co-workers speak of us as being more than slightly mad.

 

And, let’s be truthful here, we’ve enjoyed basking in the description.

 

Most of the events covered by this newsletter involve some sort of risk. By and large the risks are minimal but on occasion, and fortunately it is a rare occasion, people die. When it happens the bright light of publicity is directed at us for reasons we’d rather not have.

 

The New York Times recently headlined an article with “Death of Runner Place His Sport Under Scrutiny” in covering the death of Mark Heinemann.

 

Heinemann was an accomplished ultra runner who had achieved results beyond his natural talent by a combination of determination and strong will.

 

In the annual Across The Years 48 Hour Race he ran 207 miles: a very creditable performance that placed him third in a race he had won the previous year.

 

A day later he was found dead: killed by pneumonia.

 

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy claimed he would have stopped Heinemann during the race on the grounds that he must have been showing signs of pneumonia during the event.

He then went on to admit however that he’d never handled a case where the subject had just run 200 miles.

 

Memorably he said, “A normal person would say, ‘I feel bad; can I sit down? These people are not normal.”

 

The obvious question is where does the line of responsibility get drawn? Can race directors trust us to make our own judgments (usually at times when our brains are at maximum levels of disengagement) or should there be tighter rules and more stringent checks?

 

It’s not an easy question to answer and there isn’t a handy textbook that defines the difference between suffering and danger.

 

We all hope we know the difference but I suspect that there are circumstances when most of us would, perhaps unknowingly, cross the line.

 

Pushing the limits, not having endless regulations, the freedom to have adventures that other people dare not dream about: this is the essence of endurance sport and yet with this must come the awareness to avoid unnecessary risk. We demand it of race directors: we need to demand it of ourselves.

 

I’ve spoken about this subject in a previous editorial but it’s one we can’t walk away from. Over the years I’ve always valued my self preservation and a result I’ve drawn up my list of basic rules:

 

1.      Enter events where the race director has clearly told the race marshals/check point crews that their only role is to get as many athletes as possible to the finish line.

 

2.      My crew must give me the food and drink I’ve printed out for them pre-race. Do the obvious simple things and stay hydrated. Ignore me if I’m cranky and claim I can’t eat.

 

3.      If I’m clearly all over the place, can’t walk in a straight line and can’t answer simple questions, pull me out right there and then. If it’s a race where I’ve got time to recover put me in the shade, hydrate me and hope. If it’s not a race where this option exists, get hold of the race officials/medical team and get me out of the race immediately.

 

4.      Make sure you know the difference between a bad patch and something that is possibly dangerous. Bad cramp is painful but doesn’t kill you. Throwing up for 12 hours as I have done can be either: make sure you know your own body.

 

5.      Make sure your crew know your body too.


6.      Never get on a bike without a helmet; never get in a kayak without a life vest.


7.      Always check and then recheck all your gear. Repairing a worn part can cost money but it’s always going to cost less than your life.