A Killer Event 

Fatalities raise questions about the risks of marathons.

We've all heard some weekend warrior say it: "I'm going to do this if it kills me."

And every once in a while it does. Last Sunday, three people died running the half-marathon in Detroit, a jinxed city if there ever was one. Last year, a 27-year-old man died after finishing the Little Rock marathon, and in 2007, the Chicago marathon was halted after one runner died and more than 300 fell out on a hot day.

Could it happen here at the St. Jude Memphis Marathon on December 5th? Highly unlikely, but anything is possible when thousands of people participate in extreme sports.

The Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon drew 19,300 runners on a day when the temperature was 30 degrees. The fatalities, all men, included a 36-year-old, a 26-year-old, and a 65-year-old. One collapsed after crossing the finish line, and the other two collapsed after the 11-mile mark. They were the first deaths in the Detroit marathon since 1994.

The Memphis marathon has been held every year but one since 1990. It has never had a fatality, and race organizer Dwight Drinkard said that over the last seven years that St. Jude has been involved as sponsor, only two or three people have been transported to the hospital.

A field of 15,500 runners and run/walkers is expected this year. I live near North Parkway on the first part of the race course near what, in Memphis, passes for a hill. Farb that I am, I have watched every race from the sidewalk, coffee cup in gloved hand. It always inspires a mixture of shock and awe. Awe at the first group to come by, especially the wheelchair entrants, and shock at the apparent insanity of the hundreds who are already walking by the time they hit Midtown and have either 10 or 23 miles to go.

Drinkard says all entrants sign a waiver stating that they are in shape to run the half-marathon or full marathon. They are advised to hydrate but not overhydrate, which is equally risky. On the back of their bibs there is a place where they can write their medical history in case they fall out and need a doctor's care. There are three medical stations on the course and a field hospital at the finish line at AutoZone Park.

"You watch that weather forecast," Drinkard says. "Our doctors tell us runners can begin overheating when it's 50 degrees outside."

At the other extreme, sub-freezing temperatures may have been a factor in Detroit.

"A hot day is more dangerous than a cold day, but hypothermia can be dangerous," says Dr. Frank White, a Memphis pathologist who has run 22 marathons.

White called the Detroit deaths "a peculiar statistic, a medical oddity" that could be better understood if and when autopsies are performed. But he said 10,000 farmers baling hay or 10,000 people shoveling snow might also result in multiple fatalities.

"The elites are usually pretty well conditioned," he says. "Those people in the half-marathon might not have been as well trained."

White stopped running marathons in 1995 because his legs gave out, not because of safety concerns. He still jogs at a 10-minute-mile pace. He finds it "astounding" that marathons are so popular at a time when society in general has an obesity problem. A former race director, he offers this advice from philosopher runner George Sheehan: Being fit and being healthy are not the same thing.

Memphis lawyer Mike Cody has run 35 marathons, including 13 Boston marathons, for which runners must qualify by making an increasingly demanding cutoff time in another marathon such as Memphis.

"When we started the Memphis Track Club in the 1960s, the marathon would be 100 elite runners who were going to run it in under three hours," Cody says. "Now you've got thousands who may run it and walk it in six hours. It changed the whole dynamic of road running. Now it's a social ultimate health issue. In the past it was speed, with fast runners running long distances."

The Memphis marathon is a great civic and promotional event with a perfect health record. Let's hope it stays that way. If you want to be a part of it but the December weather gets funky, maybe you should stay on the sidewalk. One jinxed city is enough.

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