Avoiding tragic consequences
47-year-old Japanese competitor who was pulled unconscious from the surf during the swim leg and died later in hospital.
Only a year ago Erica Atkins, 43, also died after she suffered problems 20m from the Palm Cove shoreline.
On the Sunshine Coast in 2014, Victorian father Peter Farlecas died after being rescued from the water. In the same year 21-year-old Tom Lyons died after completing the Hell of the West triathlon at Goondiwindi.
At the core of most recent deaths both here and overseas are heart conditions. And it’s not confined to those under-prepared or first timers – the Japanese competitor who most recently died was an accomplished athlete.
Ironman’s Geoff Meyer, who is now chief executive officer of the Asian region and based in Singapore, said the subject has been discussed as had medical clearances.
In racing terms and conditions, athletes are advised to undertake rigorous training campaigns, compete in shorter distance events and also get medical advice. But there are no checks or tests before entry.
Out of the 110 recorded deaths in Ironman triathlon since 1985, more than 80% are males over 30. Most of the affected athletes over 30 years of age are first timers and the deaths are due to cardiovascular disease rather than a genetic disorder and fatal arryrthmia – as is the case with sudden death in younger athletes.
Sunshine Coast-based doctor Kate Gazzard has extensive experience working with professional and endurance athletes, with this subject one of her areas of interest.
She has seen many professional sports undertake compulsory cardiac screening involving a detailed history, examination and echocardiograph every year or two years for all athletes and support staff.
“In Italy every single child that plays sport is subjected to a cardiac screening test at school. Screening is always about a cost: benefit ratio but in my opinion, it’s hard to put a cost on your own life or those you love,” Dr Kate said.
When it comes to triathlon, she said the swim portion is where the athletes get a sudden surge of adrenaline and the heart rate rises rapidly.
“In older athletes this sudden surge in exertion, coupled with anxiety at the start of the race is more likely to dislodge a plaque in the coronary arteries leading to a myocardial infarction, a ‘heart attack’. Being in the water in amidst a large group of frantic swimmers also means there is a greater risk of a delay in getting rapid medical help,” she said.
“For every minute without defibrillation, the chance of survival drops 10%.”
Multisport events have quickly gained momentum, with the “can do” mantra pushing new entries into the realm.
Anyone who has lost a lot of weight, is new to the sport and has made a dramatic lifestyle change, or has experienced some concerns during training should consult a cardiologist.
She said with adventure challenges the fastest-growing industry in travel, and social media and training apps such as Strava where you gain ‘kudos’ for impressive efforts mean people are pushing themselves further than ever before for ‘recognition’.
“I’ve never seen so many photos of Garmin watch workouts on Facebook or Instagram. We are in the era of faster, higher, stronger, further,” Dr Kate said.
“Once upon a time you used to have to ‘qualify’ to race an Ironman by racing an event of shorter distance. I believe this is a good idea as it encourages progressive overload. You can’t just go for the glory event without working up to it. It makes sense.”
Geoff Meyer is a member of a start-up board called Racing Hearts, all about educating athletes who are fit to go and get heart checks.
“This organisation is all about educating athletes. We all think if we can do an Ironman we are super fit and we are invincible. But then you go and get an ultrasound on your heart and find out you have a 60 or 70% blockage there and you are another accident waiting to happen,” he said.
“I know a gentlemen recently who has done over 70 Ironmans, he’s a coach and one of the fittest guys you will meet, and he was
feeling a bit off one day and the next thing they found he had a 70% blockage. He had stints put in and now he’s back racing again.
“You can go and get a medical check-up and a normal ECG (electrocardiogram) will say ‘that is fine’ but you need an ultrasound to find blockages.”
Back in 2014 during Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast, Peter Farlecas died after being rescued from the water.