Sport > Triathlon's Silent Killer

Triathlon's Silent Killer

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: December 9, 2011

A recent Washington Post article brought this issue to light. Triathletes appear to be dropping dead due to anxiety attacks. The problem with this theory is that it is totally unprovable.

The post mortems can't back into the cause of death. All we have at the statistics and the apparent cause of death as being heart failure in one particular part of the race. That part being, the swim.

Using simple statistics and physics, the swim should be the safest part of the race for most triathlons. And as such race directors spend a lot of time warning people about the hazards of the bike ride (crash, die) and the run (heat stroke, you know). But the swim by and large is not mentioned. In an Ironman it is only 10% of the race. And usually the swimmers wear a wetsuit which keeps them on the surface. The risk of getting knocked out and sinking is gone. All in all, the swim has not been on the radar of the race directors.

But small problem, people keep dropping dead in the swim leg. and as best as anyone can tell, anxiety may be the culprit. Since 90% of an Ironman is biking and running, the majority of the competitors come from a bike or run background. They learn to swim to fill out the dance card demanded by the race. As a back ground statistic, the New York City Triathlon found that typically 40 people would show up at the starting line of there race and then not start. They wouldn't even get in the water. Those are the most severe cases of pre race anxiety. Once the race started to institute a psych tent, they dropped the number from 40 a year to 10 a year who refused to even start the race.

Granted, New Yorker's are the arguably the most neurotic people in America, but the deaths are scattered across the country randomly. So it's not "A New York Thing", it has something to do with the sport overall.

The majority of the death cases are new triathletes. Not all young, but new to the sport. They show up on race day with lots of pool training, but no open water training. And no experience with a group start. The combo of those two can drive the anxiety levels through the roof.

It appears that one of the biggest problems is the name Ironman. How the heck can you be an "Ironman" and have anxiety attacks.

Easy, quite easy.

I had a couple dozen races in me, two full Ironman distance races included, before the attacks hit. Mine hit in a shorter race. It hit the first time after I went through a bed of sea weeds in the Sacramento River. I had a mild attack and then bounced back and finished the race with a pretty good time.

I did the same race teh following year and fell apart in the weeds again. This time I didn't recover and was a basket case when I got out.

Then the next try was even worse. That was in PA and there I was pulled out of the water about 300 yards into the race. I was in full on hyperventilation mode after, yeah, another bed of underwater plant life combined with cold water and a wetsuit that felt like it was choking me to death.

Now I surf a hundred days a year in a wetsuit in cold water. I never flip out. I'm breathing heavy, really burning calories and putting in a lot of effort in spurts. Enough that if it were physiological that I should be able to reproduce the symptoms. But it never happens.

In one of my other sports, skydiving, I can tell you that the risk picture lines up with the death picture. People that fly small canopies and swoop landings, those are the ones that end up dead or killing someone else in 70-80% of the cases. We all know the problem, we all know the outcome, we all know the how to mitigate the risk.

Bt both sports seem to suffer from one common factor, the "I'm too macho to talk about" issue. The idea of going into a psych tent seems to counter the whole Ironman mystique. But on the flip-side, being dead really messes up your training program.

So here is the deal. We know the answer on the skydive side of the house. Fly a large canopy and don't swoop.

We aren't sure, but it seems that the answer on the Tri side is "Let's talk about this anxiety thing".

So let's.

Any Comments?


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