running a risk ?

Last Sunday, over 20,000 runners participated in the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon.  I was one of these runners.  And very sadly, two fellow participants died. 

Jeffrey Lee was a 21 year old student, set to move to Seattle when he was to graduate at the end of the school year.  He completed the half marathon just under his goal time of two hours, and then collapsed at the finish line.  Jeffrey was bright young man, a great student and friend to many.

G. Chris Gleason was a 40 year old lawyer from upstate New York, an experienced athlete, having completed Ironman Lake Placid this past summer.  He was pushing a 3 hour time in the full marathon when he went down just a quarter mile from the finish.  Like me, Chris was a father of two kids, and married to a marathoner.  I passed a guy being attended to by paramedics near the 26 mile mark.  I don’t know if this was Chris, as I would have passed this point about 40 minutes after Chris did. 

Apparently neither Jeffrey nor Chris has any known health risks that made anything think twice about whether they should have been out there running.

But when things like this happen, people react (or overreact) in different ways.  Some members of a online running community saw this as an reason to say “tsk tsk” to folks who attempt to run distance without training properly.  While this happens (I’ve done it), these comments were made before anything at all was known about the runners in question.  Generally, it’s prudent to withhold one’s judgment until there’s something to inform one’s judgment.

Judging by the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News the next day, the local media sees this as an opportunity to sell more papers.  The guy pictured on the front page, crawling after finishing, had just run a 2:24 marathon.  That’s a five and a half minute pace per mile.  It’s bound to take a bit out of you.  It’s also about five minutes off of the top finishing time for the day – so this guy was in contention, and had to have trained pretty well for the event.  But the front page paints a gloomy, dire picture of endurance sports.  That’s screwed up.  And then there’s the cranky Philadelphia sportswriter who claims that “human being were not built to go 26.2 miles at a clip”.  In the same column he offers opinions on Socrates as well as football.  Oddly – he talks about how barbaric marathoning is, but offers no such observations about a sport known to cause long-term brain injuries.  Any thinking reader will discard this sort of tripe.

Conversely, the article cited on the front page is actually quite good – check it out.  Barbara Laker, the author talks about hitting the wall while doing her first marathon, and how another runner made sure she was okay, and talked her into believing she would finish.  I remember feeling doubt and disorientation around mile 22 in my first marathon.  All I could think of was what it had taken me to get to the starting line – that’s the hard part.  I eased up, relaxed, the clouds cleared, and I finished.  She nicely captures the leap of faith required to get to the starting line in her article.  She also does a nice job of expresses the sadness we all feel when we hear of things such as Chris and Jeffrey dying :

“Every marathon has moments you never forget. And last night, I couldn’t stop thinking of the two men who died running down a dream. I imagined the deep pain that their relatives and friends must feel.  Last night was supposed to be a time to celebrate, not mourn.I don’t know exactly why or how they died.  But I understand why they were out there.”

Thank you Barbara for your thoughful words.  There are risks to many things we choose to do in life.  Life’s sometimes an uneven mix of preparation, determination, genetics, and chance.  Best not to live in fear of what we don’t control, and don’t know.



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