“You’ll see. Within the first hundred yards or so, a couple people will swim right to the shore. They’ll be freaked out. The race will be over for them.”
In a minute, we were standing in water so dark you couldn’t see anything a foot below the surface. The bottom was squishy underfoot. It was not yet 8 o’clock in the morning. The wet suit, which I’d put on only a few times before, was tight around my chest and cold as the water seeped in.
The starting horn screeched.
Fifty or 60 of us, all wearing identical swim caps whose color denoted the age and sex of our starting group, began to swim. We collided and had our faces bumped and kicked as we made our way into open water. Within a few minutes my heart was racing, I was breathing fast and I was scared to death, although I wasn’t exactly sure why.
I rolled onto my back to calm down and let the pack move on. As I sculled slowly, I looked to the shore. Two men were climbing out on all fours.
Something in the water?
I think of that day each time I hear that someone has died in a triathlon.
This past summer, at least nine people in the United States died, a number that appears to be a record in a sport experiencing a boom similar to what occurred with running in the 1970s. More than 243,000 people competed in 2,500 triathlons in 2010. USA Triathlon, an organization of competitors, race directors and coaches, has 150,000 members; in 2000 it had 21,300.
Whether nine is a complete count of fatalities isn’t known. USA Triathlon, which keeps track of deaths in the 2,500 races it sanctions, won’t provide the numbers. It has, however, recently appointed a panel of three physicians and two race directors to look into them.
All but one of the nine deaths occurred in the swim portion of the races. The one exception was a 59-year-old Arlington man, John Park, who collapsed shortly after starting the bike event in the Nation’s Triathlon, which was held in the District on Sept. 11. A similar preponderance was seen in the only rigorous analysis of triathlon deaths, which appeared last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found 14 deaths from 2006 through 2008. Thirteen occurred in the water.
In most of those cases, as in this year’s, drowning was the official cause of death. In about half, some minor heart abnormality was found and cited as a possible contributor. The most common was thickening of the heart muscle, which can be a normal consequence of training, and atherosclerosis, which is present in virtually all adults.