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David Freeze column: Distance runners should not be deterred

The recent deaths of two competitors in the Detroit Free Press Marathon and one in its accompanying half-marathon have been big news on virtually every media outlet. The three men died within about 16 minutes of each other. Two runners died in a half-marathon in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 4., another marathoner died in Baltimore the next weekend, then the tragic news followed from Detroit on Oct. 18.
It had been eight years since a runner had died in the Baltimore event and 15 since anyone had died in the Detroit Marathon.
Twenty years ago, I ran that Detroit event and remembered it for several unusual things. The race starts in Windsor, Canada, and the first mile traverses a tunnel, marking what is billed as the only underwater mile in marathoning.
Runners exit the tunnel into Detroit’s streets, not the most beautiful course that I have ever run. The race route itself is rather unremarkable, though I was grateful that there is not a hill anywhere to be found. As marathon routes go, this one is relatively easy. Long, straight stretches and the flat terrain make for good race times, and I was the recipient of a sub-3-hour marathon.
Over the years, I have run 24 marathons, from Boston and New York and their huge crowds to a small one in Wilmington with only 62 competitors. I don’t remember a lot about Detroit in 1988, except that my goal was to break three hours and to get home safely for work on Monday.
Perhaps these runners had the same thing in mind. All told, about 50,000 runners participated in the Detroit, San Jose and Baltimore races. Most of them had a goal time, or maybe their only goal was to finish.
No matter, each competitor is challenged by a marathon, a grueling 26.2 mile event. Training for, and competing in the event is very hard on the body. Recovery takes as long as a month, with extreme soreness for several days and muscle fatigue for several weeks. The body is susceptible to colds and other illnesses during that month. So the big question is, why do it? Why run the marathon?
Here is why I did it once, then did it so often. Running a marathon is an endurance race. Training for one requires a time commitment over four to five months that might be as much as 20-30 hours a month.
My first try came in the 1980 New York City Marathon. It was fueled by an episode of my wife’s uncontrollable laughing at me while we watched TV coverage of the 1979 event. She thought it was hilarious that I even considered training for such a long race. So, just to prove my point, I trained for and competed along with 25,000 other runners in New York City that very next November.
I love the feeling of fitness, and I felt good about the way my body had tightened up. It was wonderful to be able to run for hours and still feel great.
Surprisingly, I could eat anything, and endless carbohydrates fueled those long runs. I felt better, stronger, more alert and sharper mentally. I slept well, and stress didn’t bother me nearly as much. The competition fueled my being, and frankly I loved the camaraderie of other runners. Runners love to talk running, it is just a fact. I love running, and it agrees with me.
The fact is that marathon deaths are still very rare. Minnesota physician William Roberts, former president of the American College of Sports Medicine, said “Rare things occasionally occur in clusters, so that is going to happen. But just think how many marathons around the country this year have no deaths.”
Cardiologist Kevin Harris recently submitted a study that marathon deaths are 0.8 per 100,000 runners.
I have received comments and e-mails for the last few days with opinions about running being dangerous. They come from non-runners. My mother used to say the same thing years ago. I would hazard a huge guess that many more untimely deaths can be attributed to a non-active lifestyle than those that are associated with endurance running events.
Do I think that running is dangerous? No more so than 100,000 people mowing their lawns, or going to the store, or even washing the car. We are all going to die some day, so between now and then, I am going to do something I love.
– – –
David Freeze is president of the Salisbury Rowan Runners.

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