Calculated Risks

“If you knew there was a possibility that something terrible might someday happen, would you stop doing something you loved?”

That question popped into our inbox this month, shortly after marathons made front page news for the worst possible reason: the deaths of competitors at separate events in October and November. Honestly, we’re still not sure what the correct answer should be.

In October, a 35-year-old man collapsed and died during the Chicago Marathon on a day of record heat and humidity in the Midwest. Four weeks later, 28-year old elite runner Ryan Shay suffered heart failure during mile 6 of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died before the race was finished.

Sadly, deaths in marathons are not unheard of, and shorter races also see their share of tragedy. Furthermore, such events appear unrelated to weather, geographic location or to the victim’s level of fitness.

Our local community has even been impacted; two runners have died in the 22-year history of the Big Sur Marathon, and one runner suffered cardiac arrest (and was revived) during a 5K in Salinas this year.

Runner deaths are the shark attack stories of the endurance sports community: although they are exceedingly rare, they absolutely (and justifiably) terrify everybody to the point of rethinking their rationale for doing the activity in the first place.

That was the implied basis of the question in our inbox: Is running dangerous? And if so, why do we continue to do it? Why do we push our bodies to extremes of performance that could someday prove fatal?

All runners engage in a sort of internal decision-making process in response to that question. Like everything else in life, running comes with its share of risks. The question we all answer is whether the benefits we get from running and racing outweigh the potential risk.

With any activity, if the risk/benefit ratio is favorable, the activity appears acceptable. However, we all have different definitions of “favorable” (which helps to explain the existence of sports like BASE jumping or bull riding), and reasonable people will disagree about recommending certain activities.

People might tell us that runners have died in marathons. We’ll reply that nearly all of those people – as was the case in October and November – had preexisting heart conditions that were either undiagnosed or untreated. There is a good chance that those individuals might still have died very early deaths if they were sedentary.

Others might say we’re risking death by training and racing. We’d respond that our odds of dying in a car accident are about 200 times greater, but that doesn’t stop us from driving. In fact, the odds of dying while running are 6 times lower than drowning in the bathtub, and lower than dying from small animal bite. In other words, everything is risky.

Some may recommend that we take up another activity – but to us, that is simply non-negotiable. The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits we gain from running are far more than we are willing to give up for a vague suggestion of greater security.

Country star Garth Brooks sings, “Yes, my life is better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.” Life wasn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. We’d rather be in the game, facing all of the risks and all the rewards, than sitting out with fear of catastrophe.

We realize that to some people, that might sound reckless – and that’s why there’s no correct answer to the question posed at the top of the column. The two of us consider the risk of running to be incredibly small. However, if a cardiologist told us we had a heart condition that could kill us if we continued to run, perhaps our answer would be different. But the decision would be a lot harder than you’d think.

All we know for sure, above all else, is how thankful we are for the gifts that running has provided us. We’re thankful for the ability to do the activities we love, to whatever degree we desire, in the beautiful surroundings that we’re lucky enough to call home.

We also understand that nothing is promised, and there’s a slight possibility that each day’s run could be our last. However, if it were all taken away tomorrow, we still wouldn’t do it any other way. We’ve each been fortunate to experience so many wonderful things from running and racing that we would still be forever grateful.

So today, we’re giving thanks for the sport that means so much to us, for the opportunities and experiences it has provided, and for all of the miles in life we’ve covered so far. We can only hope that we’ll continue to be blessed with many more in the future.

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