When I finished the New York City triathlon this past Sunday, I was so excited to share with you the excitement, the challenges, and my big accomplishment, a personal best! Before I could start writing, though, I learned that two of my fellow competitors would never get that chance: A 64-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman were pulled from the Hudson River during the swim, unresponsive, and later died at New York City hospitals.
The idea that two participants died in one event has, of course, raised questions about the safety of triathlons in general, and of this particular course on this particular day -- a morning accompanied by rain, wind, choppy waters, and a puddle-filled bike course. But I hate to see the news media being alarmist about the “deadly” sport of triathlons, and I'm saddened by the tone that several of the articles have taken.
What Went Wrong?
Take the New York Times, for example, which published an article Monday morning about the first death -- that of relay participant Michael Kudryk.
After relaying the few known facts about what happened -- Kudryk was pulled from waters that were patrolled by 53 kayakers, 32 lifeguards, 4 police boats, 3 fire department boats, 2 jet skis and 2 launch boats -- the Times interviewed a pro triathlete who crashed on the bike course after hitting a puddle-covered pothole. This triathlete, the article said, "thought that the triathlon’s increase in popularity had attracted a wider range of athletes to the sport."
"“It’s now become a common trend is for people to use triathlon as a way to lose weight,” she told the Times. “But you go to races and look around, and you start to ask yourself, ‘Is this race too much for that person?’”
I know this triathlete -- and these writers and editors -- are concerned for participants' safety. But I can't help but notice a disconnect here. No, we don't know much about Michael Kudryk, and these quotes certainly don't say that he specifically was out of shape or doing this to lose weight. But isn't it somewhat implied, or at least suggested, by the structure of this article?
What we do know about Kudryk is that he was a relay participant who chose to take on the swim portion of the event -- which I'd hope means that swimming was something he considered a strength. As details emerged this week, we also found out that, according to the Daily Mail, he was a skier and marathoner in good shape for his age.
The second athlete who died, mom of three Amy Martich, had been a competitive swimmer and was in the best shape of her life, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and her death seemed to come "just so out of the blue."
Learning from the Facts
It will take some time before doctors can say what exactly caused these fatal heart attacks in the Hudson on Sunday morning. I was in the water, and yes, it was choppy. But kayakers were always within a few yards of me. There was confusion and excitement on the starting barge beforehand, but a new type of start instituted this year cut down on congestion and jostling in the water.
And while it's true that anyone can sign up for this triathlon -- without any swim certification or a doctor's permission -- the organizers do their best to prepare participants, with mandatory pre-race briefings, a detailed Athlete's Guide, and plenty of communication before the big day.
I've done several triathlons, and for me, this was the safest-feeling swim yet. So I take issue with Manhattan borough president calling the race "a game of Russian Roulette." And -- as someone who was a beginner to the sport myself just two years ago -- I take issue with people who use tragedies like this to suggest that maybe triathlons aren't worth the dangers they pose.
Doing a Triathlon? Know the Risks
If you're new to the sport of triathlons, of course it's important to understand the risks you're facing. You should be well practiced in all three events, and spend some time in an open-water situation to prepare yourself for the swim. You should talk to your doctor if you have any reason to suspect you might not be healthy enough to compete. And you should know how and when to get help, if any of the events get to difficult for you.
It's also important to understand that any activity, even just walking outside, contains some amount of risk. (Sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl explained on WNYC this week explained how, statistically, you're more in danger just getting to the triathlon than you are competing in the event itself.) Exercise can increase your exposure to some risks, such as complications from undiagnosed heart defects or other health problems. But overwhelmingly, it reduces your risk for so many other long-term health problems.
I'd hate to see someone jump into the water for their first triathlon unprepared. But I'd also hate to see someone who's considering the sport change their mind because it seems too scary. Instead, know the risks: A 2010 study found that triathlons are slightly more dangerous than, say, marathons, and that most deaths do occur during the swim than during any other event. But the number of deaths in this study were still very small compared to the hundreds of thousands of surviving participants. (You can read about the study, and an interview with the author, on Scientific American's blog.)
What Do You Think?
My thoughts and prayers are with these athletes' families, and I hope that we can ultimately learn something from their deaths -- whether race directors are able to make their events even safer, or whether they just serve as reminders that life is short and unpredictable, and that no matter what, there will always be risks.
Has the news this week changed your opinion of triathlons? Have you ever competed in one and felt unsafe during the swim? And what would you think about races requiring some type of doctor's note or certification in order to participate, as some people have proposed?
Amanda MacMillan is a freelance writer, currently blogging at LeanGreenBride.com. She is looking forward to her first sprint tri next month with Team Whole Living, the Danskin Women's Triathlon in Sandy Hook, N.J. Her triathlon training blog runs weekly on Whole Living Daily.