Death Stalks Triathlon

For the second time in two months, a triathlete was killed during the cycling portion of an Ironman 70.3 event. I dread seeing these announcements. I like to think we do these things for fun and to be healthy and not to go die. It is always tragic when death reaches out its evil sickle and steals one of our own but sometimes it hits a little closer to home. The latest victim was Kristen Oswald who collided with a large truck while competing at the Ironman Ohio 70.3. Kristen was from Royersford, PA which is a mere stone’s throw from here. As soon as I saw the name it seemed familiar. I won’t pretend we were close friends or even distant ones but I’ve met Kristen and her triathlete husband Chris at various events over the years. It is inevitable that you meet most of the local crazies in this sport at some time or another.

You meet members of your local triathlon community everywhere.

Still, despite only a passing relationship, death hurts when you can put a face and a friendly conversation around it. I spent a lot of yesterday thinking about Kristen’s untimely death.

This story repeated itself last month at Ironman Mt. Tremblant 70.3 when Jill Levy Morris was hit and killed by an Ironman support vehicle. Details of exactly what happened to Mrs. Morris are unclear but the story doesn’t change. It is simply another death of an athlete during what is supposed to be a fun event.

Triathlon is no stranger to death. Reports pop up throughout the year with frightening regularity of deaths during events. Almost always, the deaths occur during the swim and are unexplainable other than by autopsy which typically show some hidden heart-related issue. Just this spring an apparently healthy and vigorous Philadelphia firefighter died near the end of the swim at the Escape the Cape triathlon in Cape May, NJ. Friends of Dennis McDaniels will tell you he was an exceptional athlete and firefighter without apparent health issues yet he is no longer with us after being found unresponsive shortly before exiting the water in Cape May.

Dennis McDaniels having fun entering the water at Escape the Cape. He would die inexplicably  before the end of the swim.

These incidents are difficult to read about and make the collective triathlon community sad. The comments from non-triathletes on the news stories posted on social media are unreadable and insensitive. The post-event discussions in the triathlon community are, at best, alarming. Usually such posts are filled with conjecture about what happened and what should be done for safety. Most of these comments are made by people who weren’t present. Triathletes are quick to blame the driver and the race organization. Non-triathletes and non-cyclists are quick to blame the cyclist and insist that bicycles no longer belong on the roads under any circumstances. All this conjecture takes places with no eye witness account and no investigation.

While reading various social media pages and popular triathlon forums regarding this latest incident at Ironman Ohio, I happened to stumble across another discussion regarding how many people no longer ride outside . . . ever. For readers that aren’t cyclists or triathletes, the biggest thing in cycling the last few years has been Zwift and “The Peloton”.

The allure of “The Peloton”

Certainly if you watch TV you can’t miss the ads for “The Peloton“. In these ads beautiful, fit people pedal hard on a fancy bike while being led through a workout by a real trainer on a pre-recorded video. All this is done in the comfort and safety of your living room. Zwift is the cycling geek version of this. With the use of a computer and smart trainer*, Zwift allows a cyclist to ride anywhere in the world, with anyone in the world without ever taking a single pedal stroke on the open road. All this is done through the magic of the internet and bluetooth while using your very own bike.

* Just one example of a “Smart Trainer”

The thread about those that have retreated off the roads and inside their house was at times amusing, but mostly distressing and somewhat annoying. I will be the first to admit that today’s drivers are appalling on the roads, but I am not about to be chased inside for the summer. While it seems like we read about deaths of cyclists almost daily, the fact remains that most of us are never going to be involved in a collision with a car and most of us aren’t going to die while cycling. According to statistics gathered by Bicycling Magazine from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s records, a cyclist has a .0012 chance of being hit on any one ride. That’s pretty low-risk. Diving into this a bit further, National Safety Council data shows that we are far more likely to die while driving, eating, or walking than cycling but I don’t think anyone is giving up those things.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 5.12.30 AM
Statistics from the National Safety Council

Statistics aside, one cannot avoid the social media hype when a cyclist dies nor can one avoid the contempt from drivers who constantly make statements like “Cyclists should be on a trail!” or “Cyclists always break the traffic laws!”. (The last one is my pet peeve. I’ll personally call out the next driver I see actually obeying the law but I digress.)

Aside from personal safety, the two other arguments for only ever riding inside were:

  • I can get a focused workout to support my training
  • It’s a time saver

I can personally attest that I have used the trainer for both reasons but do have to wonder about the idea of only ever focusing on a workout while turning the pedals. Gosh I hope I never do that. While getting in a good workout and being prepared to race is certainly important, there is something healthful about being outside, covering distance under your own power, and simply having fun out on the bike. Remember fun? It is, ultimately, the reason we do this stuff!

But let’s talk about the workout part of this for a minute or more appropriately the training part. You see, training for the bike portion is more than just having the physical conditioning and muscle memory to go turn the pedals for x number of miles depending on your event. Bike training also involves learning and practicing bicycling safety and  good bike handling skills.

Triathletes are notorious for poor bike handling skills.

Out on the road during a race you may encounter wind, rough roads, debris, ascents, descents, other riders, and traffic depending on whether the course is open or closed. Even if you formerly were a road rider and have switched to the trainer full time, these skills erode quickly. Heck even after winter I find myself a bit rusty on the first spring ride.

I didn’t witness either recent fatal event and have no idea if weak bike handling skills played a part in them but I do see the calls for Ironman (and other races . . ’cause there are other races besides Ironman) to have closed courses. In other words, close all 112 miles of the bike course to traffic. Really!? Do people expect race directors to pull that off!? Think about it. How many residents do you think are going to welcome a long course triathlon to town if one of the requirements is that people can’t run out for a newspaper and cup of coffee or take their kids to the pool because the roads are closed for a race? Sorry but this ain’t France. Americans like their cars and aren’t going to give them up even for a day so a bunch of MAMILs can go ride their bikes. But I have a suggestion. If everyone is going to do all their training indoors anyhow, perhaps triathlons can use an indoor arena and everyone just bring their trainer for the bike portion. I’m sure this would be much easier for the race directors. I’ll be making my exit from triathlon when this happens.

Is this what the bike portion of triathlon looks like in the future?

As athletes, there isn’t much we can do about mysterious heart-related deaths. Sometimes it’s just your time and none of us are getting out of this life alive but there are things we can do as athletes to be safer out there.

  • First be realistic. If you acknowledge that you are a certified couch potato, start out easy. It is a good idea to see your doctor and make sure you are healthy enough to begin a fairly difficult exercise regimen. Perhaps they’ll recommend an EKG or other tests to be sure. Get those tests done and get the green light from your physician to begin an exercise program.
  • Second, respect the event and the distance. Too often I see people sign up for a long-course event as their first entry into a sport either because they “want to get in shape” or because it sounds prestigious and cool. Trust me when I say it is better to earn your way to that distance. Doing a sprint or a 5K will do wonders for you confidence, you will have more fun, and you have a much better chance for success if you work your way to longer distances. Also, no matter what the distance you’ve signed up for or how much the entry fee cost, if your training didn’t go as planned and you know you aren’t physically ready to race then don’t race.
  • Finally, if you are going to go do an outdoor triathlon that involves swimming, biking, and running outdoors then make sure you train outdoors at least some of the time. Don’t make race day your first day in open water, off a trainer, or not on a treadmill.

Please friends, do everything in your control to stay safe out there!



1 Comment

  1. Always sad when a preventable death happens. However, when someone dies in their sleep or doing something they love to do, you kinda gotta smile and give them a virtual high-five. One never knows when a tree will fall on their head, when they will “wake up dead”, or some unknown genetic malady will “pull the plug” during an event. With any luck, it will have been a life well lived! So, play hard, enjoy life, be kind, and let those around you know how you feel about them and the activities you undertake. Be safe, but don’t let life (or death) scare you away from the things you enjoy!!

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