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Dying to Run

This week’s Penguin Times and Travel Blog will appear on Thursday.

This past weekend three runners died at the Detroit Marathon and Half Marathon. I got a call from a journalist who wanted to know if I thought that the popularity of marathons and half marathons, and the less-than-fit joggers who were participating, was contributing to this becoming a dangerous sport. Well, I thought, here we go. Let’s take a sad situation and use it to bash the back-of-the-pack.

The three runners who died were: A 60 year-old man who has been running for 30 years and had pre-existing lung disease, a 36 year-old man who was an experienced marathoner, and a 26 year-old man whose family said he was athletic, although this was his first half-marathon. One collapsed after crossing the half marathon finish line. The others were also running the half and collapsed somewhere between miles 11 and 12. They were NOT overweight jolly joggers.

The pernicious myth that long-distance running events are inherently dangerous would be easy to ignore if it wasn’t so widely promulgated. In fact marathoning is,  in general terms, very safe. The distance needs to be respected. One needs to prepare for the effort. One needs to train adequately. But that’s true if you plan to run a 6 minute pace or walk at a 16 minute pace.

The danger is in exceeding one’s limits. This is true whether you are running, driving a car, or rock climbing. The greatest point of risk is right at the edge of your personal envelope. While I can’t say for sure what caused these three deaths, I’d be willing to bet that – given that the collapses happen at or near the finish line – that there men were pushing. There’s nothing wrong with that, except if you have an underlying cardiac condition that doesn’t present itself until your heart is at maximum stress.

The danger is in assuming that being a runner makes you immune from disease. The danger is pretending that running makes you invincible. It doesn’t. Running may help ward off some of the diseases that affect the less active, but running is not a magic pill. We still need to take care of the rest of ourselves.

The death of a runner is sad. Death is sad whether it comes at the finish line, or at the hands of a drunk driver, or by disease, or by natural causes. Death is sad. Let’s focus on that sadness, and the loss to friends and family, and to the running community, and stop trying to point fingers at those who are doing their best, staying within themselves, and living a lifestyle that celebrates activity.

Waddle on.