I was talking with my dad about my plans for the upcoming year, and I mentioned that a marathon was on my to-do list.
He paused. This is what he usually does when he contemplates saying something he thinks will upset me. Mind you, this pause never stops him from uttering his pronouncement; it just slows him down a bit.
“Look, I think you need to be careful about this marathoning. You’re almost 44 years old.” He waited to see if I’d erupt. I didn’t. “I mean, it could kill you. Just like it did those guys in the Philadelphia Marathon.”
I knew what he was talking about. Dad lives in Pennsylvania, where, in November, two men had died—one at the finish line, the other a quarter-mile short of it—during a marathon. As is often the case, these deaths had received a lot of media attention. And, of course, it had prompted questions like my father’s from the family members of concerned distance runners everywhere.
So do Dad and I have anything to worry about?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
I always remind runners that the first person ever to complete a marathon dropped dead at the finish line (or so the tale of Phidippides goes). But I don’t think you need a Greek legend, or even a news report from the City of Brotherly Love, to tell you that running 26.2 miles puts a considerable strain on the human body.
In a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at just how dangerous running is. In particular, they examined heart attack risk during marathons and their little sisters, half-marathons.
Analyzing the results of U.S. races during a 10-year period, they found that running 13.1 or 26.2 miles carried with it a low overall rate of cardiac arrest and sudden death. Examining data involving nearly 11 million runners, they found that roughly 1 in 100,000 people suffered a heart attack during a marathon. Seventy percent of these proved fatal.
So, yes, your dad is right. Running a marathon could kill you. But the chances of it doing so are about 1 in 140,000.
For comparison’s sake, college athletics claims the lives of 1 in 44,000 participants each year. In triathlons, it’s 1 in 53,000. And 1 in 7,600 previously healthy middle-aged recreational runners meet their end while out for a jog.
As you can see, these statistics strongly suggest that running a marathon or half-marathon is actually less risky than many other vigorous physical activities. Heck, as a veteran distance junkie, you’re safer covering 26.2 miles than a less seasoned runner who takes a jog around the block.
Vigorous physical activities like long-distance running carry countless benefits for your body and mind. Do they also carry a small risk of sudden death? Absolutely. And if you want to make that risk even smaller, choose a race that has big crowds. Because the study found a key difference between those racers who survived heart attacks and those who didn’t: bystanders who administered life-saving CPR.