How Safe is Marathon Running?
With the tragic death of a 23-year-old male runner on Saturday, October 10, at the Baltimore marathon, an important question is: How safe is marathon running? The death of this young man, who collapsed during his run and never regained consciousness, is the second to occur during the marathon’s nine-year history, an event called Baltimore Running Festival.
The other death associated with the Baltimore marathon occurred in 2001, the inaugural year for the marathon in that city. The 29-year-old woman, Laura M. Clancy, who worked in New York City, died after suffering a brain aneurysm. Although not common, deaths during marathons and triathlons, which typically include a marathon running portion, should be examined.
A marathon running death that was especially shocking was that of 28-year-old Ryan Shay, who died in New York during the Olympic trials in November 2007. During that same year in October, two deaths occurred during the Chicago marathon, and the course was shut down. In 2008, three participants in marathon running events died in the United States.
According to a report presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual scientific session in Orlando, Florida, in March 2009, sudden deaths in triathlons are about twice as high as in marathons: 1.5 deaths per 100,000 participants versus 0.8 per 100,000. The researchers in this study looked at deaths that occurred in 2,846 triathlons that included 922,810 participants.
Deaths associated with half-marathon running are also a concern. At the 2009 San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, two runners, one male and one female and both in their thirties, collapsed near the end of the 13.1-mile run and were pronounced dead later at the hospital. These two deaths were the first associated with the four-year-old marathon running event in San Jose.
Yet another tragedy associated with a half-marathon running event occurred in Nashville in April 2009 when a 26-year-old man died of a sudden cardiac event during the Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon. His death was the first in the event’s seven-year history.
Research indicates that deaths associated with marathon running and similar events are typically associated with undiagnosed cardiac conditions. In a study performed at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation in Minnesota, researchers assessed the prevalence of sudden death among 25,413 endurance runners who had competed in marathon running events over a 30-year period. They found that the four sudden deaths that occurred were each due to unsuspected structural cardiovascular disease. None of the four runners had prior documentation of heart disease. The scientists concluded that although marathon runners may have underlying and potentially deadly cardiovascular disease, their risk of sudden cardiac death related to marathon running is very small (1 in 50,000).
Although the risk of sudden cardiac death associated with marathon running may be small, every one of these deaths is tragic. So often they strike down the young, men and women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, in the prime of their lives. Unlike sports that are ostensibly much more dangerous, such as skydiving or free diving, marathon running, where ones feet are on the ground, seems much safer. According to the statistics, it is. For the family and friends of those who have died from marathon running, it likely is not.
Baltimore Sun, October 10, 2009
Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2009
Maron BJ et al. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 1997 Jan 2; 29(1): 224
Redelmeier DA, Greenwald JA. BMJ 2007 Dec 27; 335(7633): 1275-77
San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 2009
The Tennessean, April 26, 2009