Thursday, August 11, 2011

Death by triathlon

I am going to be participating in a standard distance triathlon this weekend as a swim relay member.  Funny that the person who recruited me for this challenge was my doctor, because it turns out that triathlons are VERY DANGEROUS, especially the swim, at least according to the New York Times (article 1) (article 2).  One man died of a heart attack during the swim portion of the New York City Triathlon and another had a heart attack during the race and died days later.  Any death is a sad event, but I think that these articles take an alarmist tone. Obviously, many activities that we all do every day like driving a car or walking across a busy street (even with the signal), are much more dangerous than the 1.5 in 100,000 statistic for death during triathlons.

Especially troubling to me is that article 1 quotes professional triathlete Jasmine Oeinck (chosen for the interview because she sustained minor injuries from a cycling accident during the race), who suggests that the problem is that overweight participants compete:
It’s now become a common trend is for people to use triathlon as a way to lose weight,” Oeinck said. “But you go to races and look around, and you start to ask yourself, 'Is this race too much for that person?'"
On an endurance athlete forum, the discussion was similar.  Nothing in the article mentioned that either of the participants who had heart attacks were overweight. Maybe they were and that prompted the comment?  I think it's wrong to make the assumption that an athlete who dies during an athletic event dies because they are too fat or out of shape. Professional runner Ryan Shay died during the Olympic Trials of a massive heart attack, caused by a preexisting heart condition that went undetected. When I did the Bike to the Bay event a few weeks ago, I saw a very fit man on a stretcher who was also rumored to have had a heart attack during the event.

As I have documented here, I could very well be one of the competitors that Oenick would be worrying about. But I also am very healthy, train very carefully for my events, am an experienced open-water swimmer, and have every confidence that racing is safe for me. Every participant in a USA Triathlon-sanctioned event signs a waiver stating that he or she knows that there is inherent risk involved and stating that her or she has prepared for the event. Sure, some people sign that waiver without reading it, but there is no way to prevent that.  Other suggestions like requiring a doctor's note or open-water certification, would be just as easy to subvert and would only add expense and paperwork without making events any safer.

I consulted a statistical chart and it turns out the risk of death in the U.S. is 1 in 1. And though 1 in 6 people in the U.S. will die from heart disease and heart attacks are often triggered by exertion of some sort, that exertion could be having an argument, shoveling snow, or having sex. No one is suggesting that people stop doing those things, though it may be only a matter of time before some expert suggests that overweight people should stop having sex.

Hopefully race directors will do whatever they can to make sure the events they run are safe and let competitors be responsible for deciding whether they can participate safely.  Yes, I am actively trying to lose weight, just like many other people who participate in triathlons.  The fact that these races inspire people to train and get fit should be seen as a positive thing, not a negative. What we supposed to do, train in the dark of night or work out at special "fatties only" gyms until we are thin enough to be worthy to compete?  I really would hate to see people discouraged from participating in fitness events unless they look like Triathlete magazine cover models.

Luckily for me, I know that my doctor would approve of me participating in the swim on Sunday.  I would not advise the other athletes swimming with me to give me any patronizing looks, as it is easy to accidentally kick someone during the swim and I have strong legs.

(Sorry to the RSS feed readers who now have multiple versions of this many-times-corrected post.)


  1. We're all going to die of something anyway. You know you are physically prepared for what you are participating in so don't worry. Also, I was thinking in the Shay case that I heard he had a heart condition which they did actually know about but doctors said it would be fine for him to run (since it was being monitored). Besides, you can participate in these events, win them even, and die on the drive home. Just be as healthy as you can and participate in life! Leave the debate in the hands of couch potatoes.

  2. Ooooh!A tri! Have a great time!
    You know what though, as a bit of a veteran of the lardy-yet-determined athletic scene, I have learned that I can either focus on what one ignorant skinnyfast says and chew on that and make myself all sad, or I can recognise that, really, hardly anyone cares what I do or what I look like.
    Expecting a triumphant race report soon :)

  3. Yep, she knows nothing about the ability of overweight folks. Ignore and good luck this weekend!

  4. I hear occasionally of an otherwise fit person having a heart attack during some high energy event, a run, a football game, ect. From what I understood the culprit is frequently undiagnosed heart disease because relatively young, skinny people do not realize that they should be screened for it.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07