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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Triskadecathon

The half-marathon is one of the most challenging and most enjoyable race distances many runners will ever experience. And yet, for many years it has suffered a reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of road racing: it doesn’t get any respect.

Despite its growing popularity, the half-marathon has struggled to overcome a significant identity crisis. It doesn’t have the aura of the marathon, the popularity of the 10K, or excitement of the 5K.

The marathon enjoys widespread fame and prestige. Major races like New York and Boston receive network TV coverage, and almost every regional marathon enjoys several days of newspaper coverage before and after the event. The 5K and 10K and 1500 meters are the premier distance running events at every Olympics – where the heroic efforts of Billy Mills and Steve Prefontaine become the stuff of legend, and repeat winners like Haile Gebreselassie forge their reputations as the greatest runners of all time.

Here’s a quiz: who won the half-marathon at the last Olympic Games? Can you name any Americans who made the Olympic team? If you couldn’t think of anyone, don’t worry – it’s a trick question. The half-marathon isn’t even an Olympic event. In other words, in the vast pantheon of athletics, the half-marathon ranks below badminton, fencing, and team handball.

The half-marathon is the only race that is identified by comparison to another event. Nobody ever calls the 5K a “Half-10K”, or the 1500 meters a “One-third 5K”, yet the half-marathon goes through life as a diminutive variation of its longer, better-known relative. And if that wasn’t bad enough - in some parts of the country, 13.1-mile races are called “mini marathons”. No wonder the race has an inferiority complex.

Our local half-marathon (The Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay - the 5th presentation being this Sunday) is like one of those nerdy kids in school named Reginald Archibald von Finkelstein - saddled with an unwieldy name that’s almost impossible to roll off the tongue. It’s also identified by the bigger race (Big Sur Marathon) it’s associated with, but has to include the location to remind everyone that it isn’t actually in Big Sur.

Monterey’s half-marathon gets its own day, but many in other cities don’t – they’re forced to share a day as the undercard of a full marathon held on the same morning. If you’ve ever seen a race shirt from one of these events, they say MARATHON in huge letters at the top, and half-marathon in much smaller font below the logo. At the expo, half-marathoners feel like outcasts when picking up their bib numbers, often lowering their voice in embarrassment when the volunteer asks them which race they’re entering.

In the large family of road races, the half-marathon is like the red-headed step child. If road races were the Rat Pack, it would be Joey Bishop. If you’re too young to remember those guys, think of the Baldwin brothers instead: the marathon is Alec, the 5K is Stephen, the 10K is William, and the half-marathon is … that other Baldwin whose name everyone forgets.

The sad part is that the half-marathon is a wonderful race. It’s long enough to be a true test of aerobic endurance, but doesn’t require the 4-hour training runs that are necessary prerequisites for the marathon. It’s short enough to allow a strong finish over the final miles, but only if you use a smart race strategy to position yourself well in the final 5K. It’s attainable enough to welcome all variety of runners, and challenging enough to seriously test the most elite runners.

Clearly, the half-marathon needs a distinctive, more distinguished name. Over the past two weeks, we’ve been racking our brains to come up with something better – and after much consideration, we think we’ve finally come up with a suggestion for improvement. From now on, we’re referring to the half-marathon as the Triskadecathon.

That’s right … the triskadecathon. You heard it here first.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The root is Latin for the number 13, which just happens to be the number of miles in the race. It’s an independent identity for an independent race. It also has a cool, slightly intimidating sound to it, which runners can say with pride when they pick up their race packets.

The word is just long enough and Latin enough and obscure enough to sound serious to anyone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about. (This counts for a lot – if you don’t believe us, try this: tell someone that you recently survived an episode of epistaxis, and watch their eyes fill with puzzlement and concern. You don’t have to bother telling them it means a simple nosebleed.) If you tell your sedentary friends or family members that you’re training for a triskadecathon, they’ll think you’re planning something pretty impressive.

The 13.1-mile race clearly deserves its own designation to set it apart from other road races – and that’s what “triskadecathon” provides. It’s a word that accurately reflects all of the race’s positive attributes (plus, it’s kind of fun to say, isn’t it?).

This weekend’s Monterey Bay Triskadecathon promises to be fantastic. The course is beautiful, the volunteer support is outstanding, and the race is a world-class event. Good luck to everyone who is participating – have a wonderful run, and hold your head high with accomplishment afterwards!

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