How to Not Die During Marathon Training, Running

how_to_not_dieMarathoner, professional writer and guest blogger Jeremy Verdusco explores what you can do to minimize the risk of dying at a marathon

I know. It sounds snarky, but this post comes from an earnest place. People in marathon training and long-runners in general, need to approach this sport with open eyes to the risks and dangers of pushing bodies to their limits. Just as important, runners need to assure friends and family that they’ve managed and minimized those risks.

This has jumped to the top of my mind for a couple reasons. Unfortunately, the first is a tragedy. Recently, Cameron Gallagher, a 16-year-old from Richmond, Va., died after crossing the finish line of the Virginia Beach Anthem Half-Marathon.

The second reason comes from the British Medical Journal. According to their research, the most likely person to die during a marathon is a “middle aged adult man” around the age of 41.

That’s me.

Get a doctor’s advice

Sudden coronary events are the primary reason for death during a marathon race. As a “middle aged adult man,” I know that. My doctor knows that. And, my doctor knows I run and that I run crazy distances whenever I find the time and inclination.

That first step should begin any running career. But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a doctor; I just play one on the Internet. See your own doctor. Tell him you run and that you want to run distances longer than rational people would. Tell him to check out your ticker. Remind him of your passion for distance during each annual checkup and ask, “Is there anything I should be concerned about?”

What happened to Cameron Gallagher can’t be expected. As a father, I feel for her parents’ grief. No one thinks about a teen having heart trouble. But, as “middle aged adult man” (or woman, since the fairer sex is gaining quickly on men when it comes to marathons), starting with a physical and medical checkup gives runners–and their families–peace of mind.

Watch the binge eating

This is my downfall. I walk in the door from a 15-mile long run and my higher-thinking self says banana smoothie with a big handful of almonds. My baser self screams entire large pizza. Too often, I listen to those base instincts. A recent study in The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association hints that many of us long-runners do the same.

Male marathon runners have also been shown to have paradoxically increased coronary artery calcified plaque, the Missouri study says.

The study carefully points out limitations to methodology, but does say more study would be of “great interest”–presumably both to scientists and the running community.

This story in the Wall Street Journal riffs on the Missouri study and has a choice quote or two. “Run it off,” a cardiologist says, is sometimes taken to the arrogant extreme.

Look, we’ve all done it, so I’m not pointing fingers. After one marathon, I ate a double-decker turkey burger with a fried egg and bacon on it and a huge serving of french fries, and washed it all down with two beers. It filled that calorie deficit and served as a sodium-filled reward. Running a marathon is crazy. Some of the things I’ve eaten in the name of the long run fit into the way-past-crazy department. I need to work on this and I bet a lot of marathon runners do, too.

Sensible food choices, I think, can minimize the risks the Missouri study finds.

Listen to your body

My body always tries to give me clues and cues. Yours does too.

Maybe it’s that little tick in your shin, or a persistent ache in your quads. I try to take them all seriously in their own way. Shortness of breath is the big one for me. (This is where I remind you: I’m not a doctor.) I’ll run through lots of pain and discomfort, but when I can’t seem to catch my breath, I stop. I haven’t had an instance where shortness of breath didn’t go away quickly after a walking or standing break.

There are many signs of a sudden cardiac event: short breath, discomfort in the upper body, light-headednes and others. Of all the signs, short breath and nausea are the only one’s I’ve experience on long runs. But I’ve asked my doctor and read up on what to look for, and you should too.

Take your phone, ID

I always carry my mobile phone and wear an ID bracelet with an emergency contact number on long runs and during races. That’s a good policy. If a sudden health issue happens, whether it’s your heart or a careless driver, minutes matter. Having a mobile phone means you can call for help. Having an ID bracelet means a passer-by can call if you can’t.

One Encouraging Word

Death, as a subject, scares people. It gets scarier when the inevitable happens: someone dies during a race. The British Medical Journal study, however, offers some encouraging news.

Organised marathons are not associated with an increase in sudden deaths from a societal perspective, contrary to anecdotal impressions fostered by news media, their report reads.

They studied 26 marathons and collected data covering up to 30 years for some races. In all, those races had almost 3.3 million participants over the study years. Researchers found 26 deaths directly attributable to those marathons.

From a public health perspective these data suggest that running a marathon is no more dangerous than typical community activity on U.S. roads,they concluded.

Marathons, like any human endeavor, have risks. If you’re not taking risks, you’re not living. But, being aware of those risks and taking steps to minimize them helps ensure you live to run into old age. More important, being able to say you’ve taken these steps will help ease the concerns of friends and family, who call each time they see another marathon death on the TV news.


photo credit: Kris Krug via photopin cc

2 Responses to How to Not Die During Marathon Training, Running

  1. Trevor March 28, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    Thanks for the post Jeremy. I wasn’t aware of the Cameron Gallagher story. So sad 🙁

  2. Randy Grein March 29, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Thanks Jeremy, the technical information will be helpful. I have long been involved in ‘dangerous’ sports, specifically motorcycle racing (30 years) and wrestling after college, as well as running. I have been injured, have friend that have been injured seriously and a couple have died. As you say, there is some risk to manage but risk is part of life.

    Frankly I find it odd that people are frightened of the risks of marathoning. They aren’t zero but they are much lower than most other activities we throw ourselves (and our kids!) into. American football averages 12 deaths a year in high school and college, where is the concern? Especially as a significant number are from preventable causes such as heat. (See http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/average-12-school-football-players-die-year-study-article-1.1309671 .) Pushing the limits can be dangerous, much more so when fueled by ignorance of the dangers. That marathoners and beyond have such a great safety record is testament to risk management by the entire running community. Keep up the good work.

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