The rewards and risks of extreme exercise

Comments (3)
By Peter Hadzipetros

It's rare that someone dies running a marathon or half marathon. Extraordinarily rare when three people die. Yet that's what happened in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009.

Within 16 minutes, three men collapsed and died while running the half marathon in Detroit. All had trained to do the event and – according to news reports all were relatively healthy.

Emergency medical staff were on hand quickly for each man, but none could be saved.

It's a tragedy but unfortunately it happens. People who sign up for any organized race have to sign a waiver acknowledging that they understand the risk they are taking in participating in an extreme event.

No sane person would compete in a half marathon or marathon without doing the proper training. It is hard on the body and you need to be prepared for it.

A whole lot of exercise doesn't necessarily mean that you're immune from heart troubles.

Studies have suggested that you're at higher risk than the general population of suffering a heart attack while you're running a marathon, but the rest of the time, your risk is much lower. A study out of the University of Manitoba also suggests that long-distance races can cause damage to your heart – but it's healed within a week, with no long-term effects.

But the evidence is not clear-cut. A three-year old study suggests that for runners over the age of 50, it might be difficult to tell the difference between the positive effects of training on the heart and the onset of cardiovascular disease.

You have to know your limits. But the heart is a complicated and tricky little organ. By the time you realize something's seriously wrong, you may already be knocking on the pearly gates.

But there's risk in any activity – probably more in a life of non-activity.

The Detroit deaths prompted the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association in the United States to issue a warning: we need to be more aware of the prevalence of sudden cardiac arrest.

The association estimates that 300,000 Americans die every year from sudden cardiac arrest. That's one person every two minutes. Clearly, not all of them are running marathons.

Some of them are at home watching television or outside office buildings, taking a smoke break.

Yes, three runners died in Detroit doing something that gave them great joy on Sunday.

What didn't make the headlines was that on the same day, in Columbus, Ohio and Toronto, 30,000 people crossed the finish lines for marathons and half marathon and while maybe not extending their lives, sure improved the quality of it.

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Comments (3)



I am still sore from finishing the Beijing Marathon on Oct 18th, it was my first, and possibly my last marathon. I think that 4 factors may have contributed to the Detroit tragedy 1. Most rookie marathon and half marathon preparation guides do not have one run the full distance before the actual race. 2. Runners often mistakenly believe that they will run faster in the race than in training and so go at too fast a pace. 3. In training a runner gets a pretty good idea of what is a reasonable distance for him or herself. These runners probably went beyond that limit, I know I did. 4. Training is time specific, and no matter how you feel or what the weather is like, that race you trained for for four months and spent $80 to enter is going to happen at 8am on race day. Sometimes it can just be the wrong time.

Posted October 20, 2009 08:30 PM

Ron Parker


Running may be good for your cardio vascular fitness but weight training for the over 50's is much more beneficial. A one hour session using slow protocol twice weekly is the minimum, but the results are great. The increase is bone density and muscle development staves off osteo porosis, improves heart function, burns more calories and even helps digestion. I ran three days a week until I was fifty, and have only weight trained for the past 17 years. I feel better, am able to do more in a day and pack 10 more pounds of muscle with a smaller waist than before.

Posted October 20, 2009 01:27 PM

Amy Dar


A death in any sporting event is unfortunate. My sympathies to the runner’s families and friends. A death during a marathon always reminds me of the ‘ironic’ death of Jim Fixx, noted running enthusiast and author, at the age of 52 in 1984 during his daily run. In my mind his death was not due to the running itself – his previous lifestyle had caught up to him (i.e., at age 35 he weighed 240 lbs. and smoked two packs of cigarettes per day). Running smart is key, and if you do this your run is no more dangerous than your morning commute.

Posted October 20, 2009 12:26 PM

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Peter HadzipetrosPeter Hadzipetros is a producer for the Consumer and Health sites of CBC News Online. Until he got off the couch and got into long distance running a few years ago, he was a net importer of calories.

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