We talk a lot about the risks in our sport, both here and on our Reader Forum. What we don’t talk about – have never talked about to my recollection – is the converse: the risk of not being a triathlete. Now, wait, you might say. If you’re talking about physical activity, I can do that without being a triathlete! Yes, you can. But will you? We’ll get to that in a moment.
I write this with fresh memories of Karen McKeachie. I was in her USA Triathlon Hall of Fame induction class in 2015 and she was hit and killed by a motorist a year later while riding her bike. One month prior to Karen’s death Dale Basescu, a pro triathlete from the sport’s early days making an impressive age group comeback at age-60, died of a heart attack during a swim set in the pool. This was just 3 weeks after I fit him to his triathlon bicycle in service to his comeback. These people aren’t just statistics, or stories, or wars or rumors of wars. These people were friends of mine, and join Barbara Warren, George Wright and others I know who left us too early.
Triathlon experienced a spike in deaths in competition between 2011 and 2013, prompting a well-publicized article by Bonnie Ford in ESPN, Trouble Beneath The Surface. You are probably aware of that article. Were you aware of Ms. Ford’s follow-up piece, last year, U.S. Triathlon Deaths Halved After Three-Year Spike? No, I didn’t think you were.
USA Triathlon’s death rate, in sanctioned competitions, is about 1 in 76,000, which is about the same as marathon running, or at least it was before the more recent drop in death rates at races. However, that doesn’t take into consideration deaths like the two I mention above, which didn’t happen in competition. Of course, marathon runners likewise die outside of competition.
I've written article after article after on how to enhance safety on the bike, as well as interviews with authors on swim leg deaths, an entire series on how to limit your own risk in the water, and many other standalone articles. I won’t stop writing these.
Just, nobody ever writes about the many lives triathlon saves, or perfects, because I can’t prove why I’m still alive. But I think I can provide some pretty good evidence.
Prescription Drug Use
We just took a poll of Slowtwitchers. I asked you all whether you take a prescription drug and if so how many. Seventy-six percent said zero. Only 10 percent of you take more than 1 prescription drug. Of the 24 percent of you who take prescription drugs, only 2 percent of you take 4 or more.
Let’s contrast that to the rest of American society. A whopping 53 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, according to an article in Consumer Reports published a year ago. And, while the average Slowtwitcher who’s on a prescription drug takes 1.75 prescription drugs, the typical American prescription drug user takes 4!
The CDC reported that 49 percent of Americans used at least one prescription drug during a 30-day period, and that 23 percent were on at least 3 medications. That data reflects the use during 2011-2014, and reported that 3.7 billion prescriptions had been ordered. By 2016, according to Consumer Reports, that number had gone up to 4.5 billion, which explains the jump from 49 to 53 percent in the CDC’s report to the Consumer Reports study.
Our readers’ median age is 5 to 10 years older than the median American, who is about 38 years old. The incidence of prescription drug use gets much higher, of course, as you age. Of Americans 65 years and older, 5 in 6 are on at least one prescription med, and half take at least 3.
There’s no sin in taking a prescription drug. I’m quite willing to take one! And in the future I might find myself in this cohort but, at current, I’m like most of you: I haven’t the need.
Do your reading, I think you’ll find that reducing your blood pressure is an imperative, both for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health (we’ll get to dementia in a moment). Just under half of American adults (46 percent) are hypertensive under the recently adjusted guidelines (130/80). In a poll just taken of Slowtwitchers, the self-reported number of those of you who are 130/80 or higher is about 28 percent when counting those with a systolic reading of at least 130mmHg plus those on a medication.
I’ve heard, anecdotally, that the lower pulse and higher stroke volumes of highly trained endurance athletes might render a 130 reading normal and healthy, but I’ll leave that to the experts. About a third of all American adults have a BP of 140/90, while only 8 percent of Slowtwitchers fall into this category.
Anecdotally, I find that my BP is highly susceptible to even a moderate lapse in fitness. My BP now, at 170lb, is 110/70. I find (again, very anecdotally) that my own systolic and diastolic pressure goes up about 1mmHg for every pound I gain.
In Carl Reiner’s uplifting HBO documentary of nonagenarians (people over 90) last year, I noticed two recurring themes beyond the mental and attitudinal elements. One is mobility. Person after person highlighted was active. Yoga, dancing, and then all those inspiring 100+ competitors in track & field.
The other was morphology. Most of the nonagenarians were quite trim, and their trim morphologies both enabled their mobility, and was a result of their mobility. If you want to live a long time, keep moving. This isn’t simply my prescription, it’s what person after person in that documentary said (and they ought to know, as they were all in their 90s or 100s).
About 40 percent of Americans are obese according to the CDC. What about triathletes? About 800 of you responded to a poll back in 2014, and 28 percent of you said you’re at or near your target weight. Another 37 percent of you said you’re within 10 pounds of it. How much would you have to weigh to be considered obese? Taking me for example, I consider myself in that 5 to 10 pound overweight category, yet my Body Mass Index is squarely in the normal range. I’d have to gain 65 pounds for the CDC to consider me obese! Only 1 in 10 Slowtwitchers consider themselves even 20 pounds overweight.
So, basically, while 2 in 5 Americans are obese, if you do triathlons ardently you either aren’t obese or you’re on the pathway toward moving out of that category. And, look, I’m not trying to fat shame here! I’m simply writing the long overdue counter-argument to the constant drumbeat of the dangers of hiking your leg over your bike’s top tube, or jumping into the water. Everyone is free to live however he or she wants, just, if you want to live a long, mobile and cognizant life, then morphology, mobility and blood pressure are key indicators. Over my 40 multisport years triathlon is observably associated with these.
Respect Your Elders
We all have our lamentations about the society in which we live – those bygone practices or conditions that served us well, but exist no longer. For me, one of these is the way we treat the eldest among us. It’s a double shame, because we lose a resource (the archived wealth of knowledge and experience) and we remove from the most experienced among us a life imperative: If you’re bypassed, unnecessary, worthless, you wither and die.
But not in the world of triathlon! If you do this sport you’ll find out – if you do it long enough to age into the golden categories – that you aren’t discarded, ignored or irrelevant. You’re honored. In fact, the older you get the more famous you get.
I raced a triathlon in the South Bay of Los Angeles earlier this summer and the star of the race – the person who got the most attention and the loudest applause – was Dr. Wayne Fong. Dr. Fong is 86 years old, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear he’s in Cleveland, Ohio as I write this, racing USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals.
According to the Azheimers Association 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimers or another dementia. That number is only going up because, quite frankly, we’re curing the diseases that would’ve killed you before Alzheimers. Therefore, deaths from Alzheimers have increased 123 percent between 2000 and 2015. In my state, California, the increase in Alzheimer’s deaths was 241 percent since 2000, and while it’s the 6th leading cause of death nationally it ranks #3 in California.
Because two-thirds of Alzheimers patients are women, to me this is the critical reason to recruit women out of sedentary and into fairly high level endurance activity. Black people are twice as likely to contract Alzheimer’s. My wife is both female and black, and her mother has Alzheimers. The math on that is not good for her. She has two options: Likely dementia, or…
...train like a mutha! A growing body of evidence suggests that reasonably stiff and regular aerobic exercise delays the onset of dementia, and decreases its incidence. An eye popping longitudinal study of Swedish women released earlier this year concluded that “women with high physical fitness at middle age were nearly 90 percent less likely to develop dementia decades later, compared to women who were moderately fit.” Read that again. Moderate fitness isn’t enough.
So, as a layman, simply reading the literature, moderate aerobic fitness is enough to add years to your life, but perhaps not life to your years, if cognitive health is the goal.
If that doesn’t persuade you, just last week we read that, "driving down patients’ systolic blood pressure readings to a new lower target level reduced their risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, by close to 20%."
No, not the ability to reach down and your toes. The ability to reach out and do another activity. Me? I can’t run with the same regularity as I used to. If I run 3 times in a week, that’s good. What allows me to even do that much is my overall fitness, which is abetted by the swimming and cycling I do. Yes, it’s hard to keep all those balls in the air, and if triathletes have a problem it’s in their lack of sustainability. Triathletes are horrible at moderation. We, in our sport, don’t have a throttle. We only have an on/off switch. That’s a problem.
But if you can crack the sustainability code – if you can level at a cruising altitude, and settle in for the long haul – you’ll find the ability to perform more than 1 sport will hold you in good stead. I get together every July with a few hundred oldsters who were all competitive high school runners in the 1960s and the 1970s. All of them love running. But very few of them run today, though they would if they could. I’d likely be one of them, part of the sedentary population, a sedentary statistic, were it not for the capacity to bike and swim when I’m unable to run.
Beyond this, the ability to swim, bike, run, nordic ski, and the capacity through cycling to migrate to off-road and gravel, gives me the tools to explore the world, and I mean to really explore it. Multisporters are the 007s of the athletic world. If secret agents can kill with toothpicks or helicopters, you are an aerobic ninja, and can explore the world in ways most others can’t, and you do it in ways deeply embedded in your DNA. Go ahead, buy the 23-and-me kit, we’ll see if you’re from Zimbabwe or Latvia. I don’t know where your ancestors hail from, but I know for certain that what sits on your DNA is the capacity – perhaps even the need – to roam and explore the earth under human powered locomotion.
The Sport On Balance
My first 3-sport race was in 1977. That means I’m into my 5th decade. Yes, I could’ve been struck by a car. Or died of a heart attack in the water. I may still. I deal with a heart arrhythmia that I might not have gotten were I sedentary or a light exerciser.
But there's a flip side. I see no reason why I wouldn’t squarely fit into all those statistics above from the CDC. My father, and all 4 of my grandparents, are dead, variously from from heart disease, aneurisms or diabetes. I am 2 years shy of their average lifespans of 63.
Do triathlons or don't. I'm not here to proselytize. I know myself well enough to say that if I wasn't a multisporter I'd be in the general population cohorts in the data above.
So, while we rightly continue to explore ways to inoculate ourselves and our fellows from tragedy, can we remember the alternative? Triathlon also giveth.