Monday, October 19, 2009

Death at the Marathon

The last time someone died during the Detroit marathon was in 1994, when a 42 year-old runner died of a heart attack. That is until yesterday, when 3 people died in a span of 16 minutes while running the half marathon. They weren't running together, and the weather wasn't hot -- it was in the 40s here in Michigan yesterday.

This is troubling on a number of levels. First of all, we really don't think of runners as people in danger of dying. People who are in good enough shape to run a half marathon are not supposed to be in bad enough shape that it will kill them. This seems to counter the natural order of things.

Add to that the fact that two of these runners were young. One, Jon Fenlon, was 26 and one, Daniel Langdon, was 36. The third, Rick Brown, was 65, and while his death is not any less tragic, on a gut level it does not offend our sensibilities quite as much. Again on a gut level, 65 year old people do die from time to time. I'm sure that if I knew Brown I would know him to be healthy and vigorous, and my worldview would be shaken by his sudden death. But I didn't have the good fortune to know him and so, perhaps heartlessly, it doesn't bother me nearly as much. Fenlon and Langdon, on the other hand, were not only in good enough shape to be running this race, they were both younger than I am. That's not how it's "supposed" to work.

There is a real temptation as well to see a nefarious pattern in these deaths. After no deaths for 15 years, three in 16 minutes sounds like a lot. I went looking for some data, and found references to two studies, one of the London Marathon and one of the New York Marathon. In the London study, the risk of death was found to be 1 in 67,000 runners. In New York, it was 1 in 320,000. That's a big difference, but for the sake of argument, let's take London number.

There were somewhat less than 20,000 people in yesterday's Detroit marathon. At that rate, we should have about 1 death every 3 or 4 years in Detroit, so three in a day is a lot. The odds of that happening are about 3/10 of one percent. On the other hand, if you look at the stats since 1994, there have been 4 deaths in 15 years, which is just about right. It's all how you look at the numbers. And the fact that the three who died yesterday died in rapid succession isn't really surprising at all -- they were all between an hour and a half and two hours into the race. If you're going to have a health issue, it's reasonable to assume it's more likely once you're a fair amount into the race.

Any death during a marathon is horrifying. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It's just important to keep in mind how unlikely it was to happen to them in the first place.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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