Marathoning Saves More Lives Than It Takes

The people who die while racing make headlines, but there are many more who live longer because of their running.

It was April of this year when 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 a marathon in 2011, when I ran by the crumpled figure of a man on the course surrounded by paramedics. I’ve run four more marathons after that and each time I could not completely banish the image of that man 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 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 someone who looked as fit as that guy, 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 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. But many more die from not running marathons, from living lives of indolence and ease and even fear: 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 (2007) or legs rigid with cramps (2009) 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 my 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. 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.


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