The Road Scholar

Yes, a few peo­ple die run­ning marathons. But many, many more per­ish be­cause they don’t.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - BY PETER SA­GAL

Ou­trac­ing The Reaper

IT WAS APRIL of this year, and un­like young men in spring­time, my thoughts turned to death. It is, af­ter all, the sea­son of Passover and Easter, both hol­i­days that ven­er­ate death as a pre­req­ui­site for the cre­ation of new (and/or eter­nal) life. Then there was adi­das, bless its heart, which cel­e­brated the com­ple­tion of the most im­por­tant event in run­ning by email­ing a mes­sage say­ing “Con­grat­u­la­tions, you sur­vived the Bos­ton Marathon!” to ev­ery­one who had just run it, a mes­sage in­stantly con­demned for its poor taste, com­ing just four years af­ter the hor­rific bomb­ings which some by­standers had not, in fact, sur­vived. But I could un­der­stand the im­pulse be­hind the cheer­ful mes­sage: marathons have been as­so­ci­ated with the risk of death ever since the event was (un­wit­tingly and un­will­ingly) in­vented by the Greek run­ner Phei­dip­pi­des, who came in first in a field of one and then promptly ex­pired. Whether he ex­isted ( prob­a­bly) or ac­tu­ally ran from Marathon to Athens to de­liver news of mil­i­tary vic­tory be­fore giv­ing up the ghost (prob­a­bly not), the mod­ern marathon, based on his leg­end, was born with the no­tion of sud­den death wrapped in­side it. Mor­tal­ity comes stan­dard. Any­body who has ever run a marathon, es­pe­cially for the first time, has heard it: “Come back alive!” or “Man, if I tried to do that, I would die!” In fact, for most of its his­tory, even train­ing for a marathon was seen as a risk to one’s life. One of the ‘sur­vivors’ of Bos­ton in 2017 was Kathrine Switzer, who ex­actly 50 years be­fore had run the race on the sly as K.V. Switzer, be­cause or­gan­is­ers would not al­low women to run it, for fear that they would die when their uteruses spon­ta­neously left their bod­ies, or some­thing.

I’ve been think­ing about sud­den death dur­ing marathons since I wit­nessed one near the fin­ish of the 2011 Philadel­phia Marathon, when I ran by the crum­pled fig­ure of Chris Glea­son on the course, sur­rounded by EMTs. I’ve run four more marathons af­ter that, and each time I could not com­pletely ban­ish the im­age of Chris from my mind. He was fit, young, with no his­tory of heart dis­ease, no undis­cov­ered phys­i­cal flaw that could ex­plain his sud­den de­par­ture. As his widow Jen­nyfer put it, he died happy, suc­ceed­ing at some­thing he loved; but what he loved – what we all love – had killed him. And if it could get an Ironman com­peti­tor like Chris, well... what waited for me just be­fore the fin­ish line, or just be­yond? If death came for me, would I even know it? Would I wel­come it? Would my last thought be – as Jen­nyfer be­lieves Chris’s to have been – one of tri­umph? Would I say, “I’ve done it!” just as I was done in?

How of­ten does this hap­pen? Not much. A re­cent study of race data from 2000 to 2010 (by the Di­vi­sion of Car­di­ol­ogy at Mass Gen­eral and Har­vard Med­i­cal School) shows that of the 10.9 mil­lion run­ners who ran a marathon or a half in those years, 59 ex­pe­ri­enced car­diac ar­rest, or a rate of about one per 200 000. Of those 59, 42 died, with many of the sur­vivors saved by by­standers who in­stantly be­gan CPR. And yet the study’s au­thors con­clude that “marathons and half marathons are as­so­ci­ated with a low over­all risk of car­diac dis­ease and sud­den death.” You have a much higher risk of dy­ing of car­diac ar­rest if you are obese, have high blood pres­sure or choles­terol, and/or are in­do­lent... all of which fac­tors can be al­le­vi­ated or elim­i­nated by – let me check, it’s here some­where, oh, yes, here it is, what a sur­prise – run­ning.

The data is clear and re­in­forces com­mon sense. Peo­ple can die run­ning marathons. It’s a sig­nif­i­cant stress on the sys­tem, and can strike down peo­ple who have no ap­par­ent vul­ner­a­bil­ity, like Chris Glea­son. But many more die from not run­ning marathons, from liv­ing lives of in­do­lence and ease and even fear:

“You have a much higher risk of car­diac ar­rest if you are obese... ”

fear of what might hap­pen if they try some­thing dif­fi­cult or de­mand­ing or un­com­fort­able; or even, well, crazy.

Still. There are count­less ways to im­prove the out­look of your ac­tu­ar­ial ta­ble other than run­ning marathons, as many ways as there are types of ex­er­cise and meth­ods of im­prov­ing one’s diet. Marathon­ing re­mains spe­cial, be­cause to do one goes far be­yond what is merely re­quired for good health or weight loss or an im­proved physique. To sim­ply run makes sense. To run a marathon is to go be­yond sense, to risk some­thing, maybe to risk it all.

“Noth­ing in life is so ex­hil­a­rat­ing as to be shot at with­out re­sult,” wrote Win­ston Churchill, and such a truth im­plies that peo­ple will tend to put them­selves in sit­u­a­tions where they might, in fact, be shot at, lit­er­ally or fig­u­ra­tively. In­deed, even at my most ex­hausted, teeth chat­ter­ing and mind blank from hy­pother­mia (Bos­ton ’07) or legs rigid with cramps (New York ’09), I was still, as I stum­bled through the chute, ex­hil­a­rated. I had tempted Fate. I had flirted with Phei­dip­pi­des. I had dan­gled my­self be­fore the Grim Reaper and scam­pered away be­fore he could catch me. I had sur­vived. There’s a won­der­ful mo­ment in The

So­pra­nos in which Tony, de­pressed, is re­stored to his lust for life by two goons out to kill him. Now, the only thing I have in com­mon with Tony is we’re both from New Jersey and have a ten­dency to be, let’s say, bar­rel-chested. Let him get his joie de vivre his way, and I’ll get mine my way. But still, with the risk of death – no mat­ter how sta­tis­ti­cally in­signif­i­cant – comes the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of life. From the au­tumn, the spring. With­out death, there is no life. This is what we cel­e­brate on Easter and Passover, the day of the Bos­ton Marathon. The snow has melted, the leaves emerge. We train, we run, we fin­ish, or we don’t, and then we try again. We live for the chal­lenge; and by do­ing so, live on.

Peter Sa­gal is a 3: 09 marathoner and TV host.

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