On many people’s minds is the untimely death of a runner in the Chicago marathon. There have been quite a few over the years though percentage-wise it is still quite small due to the explosion of race participants over the past 30 years. One study showed it at .002% for sudden death in marathoners. Some of those running deaths include famous running advocates such as Jim Fixx. In the 1970s through studies on marathoners, it was posed that if you completed a marathon you were immune to heart attacks for years to come. These studies have been long since shown to be poor correlational studies that ignored many hidden medical issues that indeed predisposed and individual to heart disease, heart arrythmias and heart attacks. Indeed Jim Fixx was just such a person. He had a family history, his father died at age 43 from a heart attack.
There are a number of causes for heart attacks and/or cardiac arrythmias while exercising. Family history, high cholesterol, various drug use (i.e. cocaine & steroids), diseases or actual anatomical/structural defects (i.e. narrow arteries, valve prolapse). Running doesn’t cure us of these things. In fact, running (or exercise in general) may actually trigger an underlying pathology. We can indeed be very fit and yet unhealthy at the same time.
Let me share a personal story with you. Claudia is a very close friend as well as another coach for RxRunning. She’s been an athlete all her life. She represented the USA in the World Duathlon Championships in 1995. She is a Masters All-American miler. She ran a faster mile at the age of 42 than she had in high school more than 25 years earlier. Last September, after one workout she complained of some breathing difficulties. It persisted for a few workouts. Pollution and heat were bad so the initial thoughts were that it was just an environmental issue. She decided to listen to her body and went to the doctors. They decided to give her a two-part nuclear stress test because the initial results didn’t reveal anything – however, women don’t always present with the same symptoms as males. They wanted to be sure nothing else was going on. When she returned for the second part, they stopped the test and immediately sent her to the hosptial. During those few days between the two parts she had had a heart attack. Within 2 hours she had gone to the catheterization lab and had two stents inserted into closed cardiac arteries. She was back running within 6-8 weeks and building back up.
Some of the causes for sudden deaths while running are avoidable certainly and some are not. One study indicates that 81% of victims had symptoms, and chose to ignore them.
Through proper medical care, routine check-ups, reasonble living habits and listening to your body (as Claudia did) it is possible to run, continue running or get back to running again… and not just be a statistic.
On a final point I will add this. It is sad anytime someone passes away before their time (whatever that means). We all have to go. So, when I’m to go, I’d like to go doing something I love. Forget getting hit by a bus, nailed in a drive-by shooting or dying from pneumonia… I’d rather die on the run.