Most of humanity, for most of human history, lived lives of toil and misery, interspersed with moments of sublimity. The miracle of sleep grants us a reprieve from the toil. But upon awaking, disoriented, it takes us a brief moment only to gain our bearings; we remember where we are; and in what condition. We, in America—most of us—don’t live lives of misery. We live in relative luxury if not opulence. But we are not immune to loss. We are not inoculated from devastation, and some in our cohort awoke today, got their bearings, and immediately felt on their shoulders a crushing weight. We lost one of our own yesterday.
I’m angry. I understand ineptitude. I acknowledge laziness. I get that not everybody is going attach the same importance, and the attention to detail, to bike fitting, or bike design, or any of the pet subjects that I get particularly bitchy about. That irks me. It disappoints me. But it doesn’t anger me.
What angers me is that a family awoke today to the crushing weight that their son, brother, husband, father was alive day before yesterday and is not alive now. I am angry not because there is anything specifically that could have been done to save the live of Ross Ehlinger, of Austin, Texas, who by accounts was in distress shortly after jumping from the ferry into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay yesterday morning.
I’m bothered because if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. I do not see any of us doing one thing differently today than we did 26 swim deaths ago, and that takes us back only two years. And that’s only in the United States, which means I’m not counting the two who died a few months ago in SpecSavers Ironman 70.3 in South Africa, along with those who’ve died around the world in the swim leg during a triathlon over the past 2 years.
There are things we can do. I wrote about some of these things. Many of you commented, “Yes, yes, good stuff all.” But did any of it change your behavior? Did it Dare You to Move? Has your trajectory been bent in any way? If not, then, that’s fine, if you are doing what you need to do to reasonably guard yourself and those in your care against a death in the water. And that probably describes 80 percent of you. But for the other 20 percent of you: any movement yet?
Yes, I’m talking to you the end user, the consumer of the experience. I’ll get to you later. First, I’m talking to you the governing bodies of triathlon, and I’m talking to you the race director who produces the event. To you the producers, and the husbanders of the experience, you have done what? I ask because here is the final paragraph of an installment here a few weeks back. This installment specifically focused on what race directors can do to make their races safer. Here is how I ended that article:
Finally, I think we miss an opportunity when we don’t start to talking to our athletes weeks and months out. Not everyone who participates in a triathlon will read Slowtwitch prior to their races this season. Not by a longshot. What will they read? What can they read? You have their email addresses, because these folks registered online for your races. They’ll read whatever you send them. We have committed, here on Slowtwitch, to write a series of articles that you may use at your discretion, no charge, and these will be how-to articles that will prepare your athletes better for the swim than they might otherwise have been. Your race, in its formation, is not a one-day execution. It starts out many months in advance. Likewise the preparation by the athletes who race in it. Your communication to them should not be only during race week, and only about registration and parking. It should be a weeks-long process. Let us use that time wisely, so that your athletes enter the water well equipped.
As many Slowtwitchers know, my heroes on the sport are the race directors. Without RDs there is no sport. Without RDs putting themselves on the line, we do not have a sport. Yet, after I wrote the above, and taking into consideration that 1200 race directors are on my mailing list, getting our weekly newsletter, and so have no particular excuse for not having received this, I received precisely one request for the series I reference in the paragraph above. It was from Jack Caress, producer of the Los Angeles Triathlon, other triathlons around the United States, including the Newport Beach triathlon, where a man died in the water last year.
So, to the race directors out there, I ask the following: If not the series we will write, then, what are you sending out to your athletes in the weeks prior to your event, to make sure they are safe and equipped prior to the race you produce? Pardon if this sound harsh, but a failure to form some sort of answer, at least to yourself, strikes of that laziness about which I wrote above. What I’m asking you do to is easy. It can only be a profound plodding indifference that causes an RD not to consider what his reasonable efforts are toward athlete safety.
Further, the anecdotal evidence becomes yet stronger—I’m happy to have that debate with anyone who disagrees with me—that the lack of a warm up prior to the swim is linked to peril during the swim. What are you, as an RD, doing to encourage warm ups prior the start of the swim? It further seems to me obvious that swimmers begin their triathlons at an effort and pace beyond reasonable. What are you doing to encourage a more sober start pace? What are you doing to encourage open water swimming exercises, and the use of the wetsuit, in the weeks prior to the race rather than the day of the race?
To USA Triathlon: Your study has been concluded on sudden cardiac death in triathlon, and I have the following question: How has that study bent your trajectory, as a sanctioning organization? Yes, I saw your bullet points. Beyond that, what will you be doing differently going forward? Did you learn anything in that study you commissioned that will make its way into policy or action?
Finally, triathletes, consumers, end users, let’s talk. I took a poll last month. I asked, “Would you avail yourself of screening in your area by a cardiologist if a day was provided, for triathletes only, at a greatly discounted cash price of $175 or less, which includes an EKG, health history and face-to-face exam.” You responded in droves, and 35 percent of you answered, “Absolutely.” Another 25 percent said, “Probably.” That project came to fruition, as a pilot program, in the West Los Angeles area. How many of you have availed yourself of it? Three, as of this writing. Here’s your second bite at that apple.
If you husband a mailing list of athletes in the West L.A. area, whether your list is comprised of members of a club, a retail store, a race, a registration engine, or a governing body membership, I will help you reach out to your athletes, apprising them of this offer. In fact, I have made that offer to one of you already, and I got nothing in return. (You know who you are.)
If you, as an end user, are worried that you will trigger a positive that will disqualify you from life insurance, here’s my solution. Go get your life insurance policy now. Which will require an EKG! (Some irony in this.) Nevertheless, look, at 52 years old I went out and applied for life insurance, $1 million face value, a level 15-year policy, after having a bout of atrial fibrillation 4 years prior, and I was accepted, and it costs me $2,150 a year. I’m covered through the age of 67 or to place this more in focus, it’s my family that is covered if I die. If you are worried about a life insurance policy—especially if you are over 40—go get it now. Get it now. You need it anyway, so, get it now. Then, after you’re approved, your family is covered, and you are now free to go see a cardiologist.
Are you warming up before your races? Are you getting to the race in time for your warm up? Do you have your wetsuit? Have you put it on this year? Is it overtight? Have you been swimming in open water, in the wetsuit? If the answer is “no” to the above, what are your concrete plans for this? I’m not asking for anything out of the ordinary. This is how you professionally approach your sport. These are the sorts of things I do. Nobody in my cohort, from my era, fails to do these things. This is mostly why—in my view—we didn’t die for the sport’s first 20 years.
It’s going to be embarrassing as hell if I die of a heart attack sometime this year, after all I’ve been writing. Especially in competition or training. However, it will be an embarrassment I don’t have to suffer, because I won’t be here. I therefore can write all the above with some sense of impunity. Folks, during the first 20 years of triathlon we did not die. We did all the same races, and we did them both before and after the advent of wetsuits. We just did not die. Not because we were all fit, rather, because we were so unsure of what we were doing we covered all the bases. Heck, when I first did the Hawaiian Ironman we were weighed, 5 times, during the race, by the organization, because they didn’t know, and we didn’t know, what could happen to you during the race. I think the reason we lived is because we respected the risk. We swam in open water. We swam in our wetsuit. We made sure our wetsuits fit. No race director ever forbade us a warm up. We availed ourselves of that warm up.
Pardon my tantrum. But I’m your elder. Guys like Mark Montgomery (Monty on our reader forum) and I were racing triathlons when most of you were doing other things, if you were even born yet. And we didn’t die. None of us died. So I submit our bona fides and ask that you pay attention to the collective wisdom of those who raced in an era that had a more enviable "loss ratio".
This is not to say that there is an inoculant to deaths in triathlon. One of us oldies from my era is Dave Horning, who produces Envirosports events, including Escape from the Rock, and in this analog to yesterday’s Alcatraz race a person died. This, in 2008. In the very same waters. And this is how it happened, according to contemporaneous accounts in SFGate.com from that man’s family, who participated in the race with him:
Philip Coulston “...went out doing exactly what he wanted to do," said his daughter, Erin Williams. Williams' husband, Joel, saw that something was wrong just at the end, she said. "My dad had rolled over to rest, and had just stopped breathing." Coulston - who swam in the Junior Olympics and in college - had again taken up swimming eight months ago. He had just won first place in a race in Livermore. "He was trained, ready to go, he felt fabulous during the day," said Williams. "He was so happy to be there, he was so excited." Coulston had no history of heart problems, she said.
Sometimes people die. As someone on our reader forum pointed out recently, the death rate is 1-per-1. We all die of something. In a way, Mr. Coulston’s death is understandable, absorbable, and even enviable. I have no quarrel with this kind of death. Maybe I’m angry because I’m just frustrated. Maybe if we do everything I recommend that our sport’s death rate will remain as it is. But my sense tells me no, there are savable lives. Maybe we just will live out one race to die in another. I don’t know. But I’m frustrated by the lack of urgency. Our urgency does not match our grief. If I’m going to die in a race, I’ve got no quarrel with that. Just, if I’m going to die in the heat of battle I want it to be from the last bullet of the last battle of the last war and, to the best of my ability, not before.