Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 08 Dec 2007 05:31:00 -0500

Fixx-ation

RUNNING COMMENTARY 705

(Rerun from December 1998 RC. This stands as a comment on the much-reported deaths this fall of marathoners at the Olympic Trials and Chicago, and a 10-mile runner in DC. These were tragic events for the families and friends involved, but should not be seen as indictments of the sport.)

This is getting old -- as old as 1984, to be exact. Whenever any runner dies, for whatever reason, some reporter will march out the name of Jim Fixx and suggest that running is to blame.

It happened again, predictably, in fall 1998 when Florence Griffith Joyner died. This was quite a reach, to compare a 52-year-old marathoner with a 38-year-old ex-sprinter. FloJo was no quick Fixx.

Two reporters from the Chicago Tribune really outdid themselves. They linked three deaths from unrelated ailments. The only connection was that the three victims all were, or had been, runners of some sort.

The Tribune's story ran under the headline, "Marathon Death Stirs Questions." It began by reporting that a 43-year-old woman, Kelly Barrett, had died after collapsing 24 miles into the marathon. She went into cardiac arrest in a medical tent and never recovered.

Fair enough. This was news. But then the reporters continued into speculation that bordered on an indictment of all distance running.

"Barrett's death raises questions that have attended the deaths of famous athletes ranging from marathoner Jim Fixx in 1984 to Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner in September," read the Tribune article. "Many physicians wonder if the grueling trial of a 26-mile marathon is worth the risk."

The writers quoted a cardiologist. He said that moderate exercise is good for our health, but marathons aren't moderate or healthy.

Then the story quoted a source who wasn't an expert or unemotional. Kelly Barrett's unnamed brother said he couldn't see why anyone runs marathons "just because some bozo in ancient Greece did it. I don't think people are designed to run that far. And for what -- to say you did it? It seems so senseless."

This report went on to say that 300 runners asked for medical help at the Chicago Marathon. Casual readers might think that number high, if they don't notice the figure is 1-1/2 percent of that day's runners and it included all conditions from blisters on up. Deaths in U.S. road races each year number about one in a million runners, from all causes.

Back to the three deaths noted in this story: To link them is to compare apples, tomatoes and potatoes.

Jim Fixx didn't die while running a marathon but during a routine training run. He was found to have badly clogged coronary arteries, the most common cause for a fatal attack in a runner.

Florence Griffith Joyner was never a distance runner (her longest race was a 5K), and she retired from sprinting nearly 10 years before her death. Its cause (discovered after the Chicago Tribune story appeared) wasn't a heart condition but complications of epilepsy, and she died in bed.

Kelly Barrett's death, the only one of the three with any connection to a marathon, resulted from a rhythm disturbance in her heartbeat -- a different condition from Fixx's.

These cases don't relate to each other in any way except their final outcome. They don't label distance running as dangerous.
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