Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some Thoughts on Training

I was reading some articles on the net that discussed the tragic deaths of three runners at the Detroit ½ marathon last week-end. Many of the experts interviewed in various media outlets thought the cluster was a statistical aberration and not a result of any changed circumstances that would raise the mortality rate for marathon participants above the current level of roughly 1-in-50,000 to 1-in-75,000. Nevertheless some interesting facts have emerged which make me wonder whether insufficient training was implicated.

According to an article at Live Science, “among people who properly train for a marathon and work their body up to such a peak performance, heart failure is very rare.” Fair enough.

Although the friends and family of the men said they had trained for the 13.1-mile race and were in great shape, from what I’ve been able to garner from news reports, this might not have been exactly accurate.
Brown, the oldest fatality in Detroit at age 65, usually ran the full marathon, but decided this year to join his wife in the shorter event. "He'd had some health problems which weren't related to running. He wasn't in the best of shape," said Allman, president of the River City Runners Club in Parkersburg, W. Va.

Langdon (36), another fatality, was apparently going the full marathon distance and had run half marathons before, but he hadn't trained for a full marathon, said his mother-in-law, Deborah Windish.

Fenlon (26) the youngest casualty, “jogged and weightlifted” and was apparently healthy. He had no history of heart disease, according to his mother, Laura Fenlon. Fenlon had been training with his girlfriend since June for Sunday's race, said his mother, "They had been running like six miles," she said. (Six miles?)

The three runners in Detroit are among a cluster of seven deaths since early September in prominent ½ marathons and marathons. If it turns out that the other’s training was implicated, one has to question whether too many runners are attempting marathons without being fully prepared.

I found this from the San Jose Mercury News: “J.T. Service, the race director for Sunday's Dean Karnazes Silicon Valley Marathon, described the recent tragedies as a "wake-up call" for event organizers — and perhaps runners, too.

"I'm not sure, but sometimes people might not be ready for what they're getting themselves into," added Service, an elite marathoner himself… Hard-core marathoners have been joined on the pavement by people of all shapes, sizes and ages who view events more as challenging fun runs rather than races.”
Service, a long-time race director, was also quoted in the Mercury article as saying, "I don't know if the marathon is the answer for everybody. Maybe that's not the best stance to take as a race director. But there are worthy distances that are shorter and still great for charitable endeavors."

Three-time Olympian Craig Virgin, the runner-up in the 1981 Boston Marathon noted that "It has been packaged, marketed and promoted that anybody can do a marathon if they get a little bit of instruction." Virgin once worked with Team In Training (a leading charitable organization), but now thinks that the charity arm of road running "falsely misleads people" into believing they can run a marathon without serious training.

Now, runners are, for the most part, responsible adults, able to make their own decision about whether they are properly prepared. On the other hand I wonder whether you could get two runners together to agree on what “properly prepared” actually means. Some marathon training programs advocate running every other day, some three times a week, and the conventional wisdom holds that 40-50 miles per week should be the standard. Those are pretty divergent concepts of training.

My question to you all is whether race organizers have any responsibility to ensure that runners appear at the starting line sufficiently trained. Is there any way to even make this workable? Should it be the race organizers business at all?


  1. Interesting post. I think every race has a waiver, so it would be hard to successfully sue. Plus from a negligence point of view can one say there is a duty of care by the organizers to the runners and, if so, can one articulate the appropriate standard of care?

    Had someone died in Chicago a couple of years ago when it was alleged that the race organizers didn't properly anticipate the consequences of unseasonably hot weather, and they ran out of water and sports drinks, that might have been the best case to try a lawsuit, especially in the litigious USA. But it probably still would have been tough.

    Also, a lot of the deaths are due to congenital problems, some are due to heart rhythm issues and only some are due to a conventional heart attack.

    You'd effectively need something akin to a driver's license in order to enter, so that someone can sign off on the runner's readiness.

  2. I guess what I meant was moral responsibility rather than legal. Those waivers are pretty tight, I'd think. I worked for NYC as a trial attorney as my first gig out of law school. The only suit I ever saw related to the marathon involved someone tripping in the road during pre-race paving. If the NYCRR were named in a suit, plaintiff's counsel would have likely named the City as well since we issued all the permits.

    Whether not the race organizers are insulated from liability, I'd think that having any number of runners drop dead during the race would be bad publicity. On second thought, maybe it doesn't matter. The general public thinks we're all insane anyway and probably sees dropping dead during a race is the predicable result of rapidly running 26.2 miles.