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November 20, 2007

Calculated Risks

“If you should ask, then maybe they’d tell you what I would say … “
- U2, “Bad” (on sidebar)

I have a few administrative notes to introduce today’s post … but I feel a little distracted after last night’s
Bachelor debacle - and I find myself wondering if there’s any rule preventing Brad from calling up Sheena one more time. From my living room, she just seemed like the one that got away.

But I’m already digressing. Today’s post is an advance preview of my Monterey Herald column that will run on Thanksgiving Day, which was inspired in part by two bloggers.

When I wrote a brief post on Ryan Shay this month,
Momo asked a very pointed question about what I would decide if I were in the situation of having a known, significant risk of catastrophe from the activity I love the most. I started to reply to her, but my answer quickly became very long-winded and contemplative – I know, this shocks you – and I decided to tinker a bit and turn it into a newspaper column as well.

Writing the article, one of
Michelle's comments to that same post echoed through my head: life isn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. That pretty much summed up everything I was trying to say, so I had to include it somewhere in the text. (Incidentally, the fact that she said in nine words what took me 900 probably says something about our respective personalities – but I don’t think I want to know what.)

In light of those factors, the above song quote seems fitting, and I found myself humming “Bad” more than a few times while writing this post. The sidebar mp3 might be a nice contemplative accompaniment as you read the subject matter at hand – but really, it just gives me an excuse to play some old school U2, which never feels like a wrong move.

(Also, just for the record, I hate Garth Brooks. His song quote in the article was completely Mike’s idea, over my protests. Feel free to send me hate e-mail about including it, and I’ll be happy to forward it to him.)

Finally – I know the last several entries have drifted into the introspective, brooding regions of this little outpost, and today’s article is similar. But the mood will lighten up around here soon, I promise. In fact, the next post is guaranteed to be 100% non-serious, or I’ll offer a full refund.

But that’s for next time. Today, here’s my Herald column with guest blogger assistance. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and I'll be back next week.


Running Life 11/22/07 "Calculated Risks"

“If you knew there was a possibility that something terrible might someday happen, would you stop doing something you loved?”

That question popped into our inbox this month, shortly after marathons made front page news for the worst possible reason: the deaths of competitors at separate events in October and November. Honestly, we’re still not sure what the correct answer should be.

In October, a 35-year-old man collapsed and died during the Chicago Marathon on a day of record heat and humidity in the Midwest. Four weeks later, 28-year old elite runner Ryan Shay suffered heart failure during mile 6 of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died before the race was finished.

Sadly, deaths in marathons are not unheard of, and shorter races also see their share of tragedy. Furthermore, such events appear unrelated to weather, geographic location or to the victim’s level of fitness. Our local community has even been impacted; two runners have died in the 22-year history of the Big Sur Marathon, and one runner suffered cardiac arrest (and was revived) during a 5K in Salinas this year.

Runner deaths are the shark attack stories of the endurance sports community: although they are exceedingly rare, they absolutely (and justifiably) terrify everybody to the point of rethinking their rationale for doing the activity in the first place.

That was the implied basis of the question in our inbox: Is running dangerous? And if so, why do we continue to do it? Why do we push our bodies to extremes of performance that could someday prove fatal?

All runners engage in a sort of internal decision-making process in response to that question. Like everything else in life, running comes with its share of risks. The question we all answer is whether the benefits we get from running and racing outweigh the potential risk.

With any activity, if the risk/benefit ratio is favorable, the activity appears acceptable. However, we all have different definitions of “favorable” (which helps to explain the existence of sports like BASE jumping or bull riding), and reasonable people will disagree about recommending certain activities.

People might tell us that runners have died in marathons. We’ll reply that nearly all of those people – as was the case in October and November – had preexisting heart conditions that were either undiagnosed or untreated. There is a good chance that those individuals might still have died very early deaths if they were sedentary.

Others might say we’re risking death by training and racing. We’d respond that our odds of dying in a car accident are about 200 times greater, but that doesn’t stop us from driving. In fact, the odds of dying while running are 6 times lower than drowning in the bathtub, and lower than dying from small animal bite. In other words, everything is risky.

Some may recommend that we take up another activity – but to us, that is simply non-negotiable. The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits we gain from running are far more than we are willing to give up for a vague suggestion of greater security.

Country star Garth Brooks sings, “Yes, my life is better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.” Life wasn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. We’d rather be in the game, facing all of the risks and all the rewards, than sitting out with fear of catastrophe.

We realize that to some people, that might sound reckless – and that’s why there’s no correct answer to the question posed at the top of the column. The two of us consider the risk of running to be incredibly small. However, if a cardiologist told us we had a heart condition that could kill us if we continued to run, perhaps our answer would be different. But the decision would be a lot harder than you’d think.

All we know for sure, above all else, is how thankful we are for the gifts that running has provided us. We’re thankful for the ability to do the activities we love, to whatever degree we desire, in the beautiful surroundings that we’re lucky enough to call home.

We also understand that nothing is promised, and there’s a slight possibility that each day’s run could be our last. However, if it were all taken away tomorrow, we still wouldn’t do it any other way. We’ve each been fortunate to experience so many wonderful things from running and racing that we would still be forever grateful.

So today, we’re giving thanks for the sport that means so much to us, for the opportunities and experiences it has provided, and for all of the miles in life we’ve covered so far. We can only hope that we’ll continue to be blessed with many more in the future.


Robb 11/20/07, 12:21 PM  

Bravo Donald! I appreciate your words...and Garth's lyric does fit. Trust me, I'm not a huge fan either but I do admire his marketing savy.

Laurie 11/20/07, 1:18 PM  

Great post. I always enjoy your introspective posts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Anne 11/20/07, 1:47 PM  

Personally, I think the biggest calculation is the impact the risk has on others, not yourself. It seems selfish to me to risk dying doing something you "love" if the end result may be leaving the ones you love. I'm not sure my parents, husband and children would remember me so favorably if I chose to continue doing something dangerous and knowing the possible dire consequences. Yes, we might die in a car crash or bath tub, but chances are we weren't in the car or tub solely to engage in a recreational sport, though dying running versus naked does sound a tad more appealing.

a.maria 11/20/07, 1:48 PM  

seriously? sheena? SHEENA!!?!?

um, no. her mother was nuts.

i'm just excited for tonight's "after the rose" ceremony. i'm hoping for high drama. HIGH!

(and yup. i read the first few sentences and came straight to comment w/o reading the rest. cuz thats how i roll!)

Backofpack 11/20/07, 5:00 PM  

Okay, first I love Garth Brooks. Sappy, yep. Can't help it, still love him. Wait, let's rephrase that - I love his music, not him.

Second, I have a heart condition. Doctors don't think it will impact me, but they don't know for sure. It's not the same as knowing that it will kill me and continuing to run, but there is a certain risk in my persistance. As I said before, I can't explain why I run the risk. I understand what Anne is saying in the comments above, but at the same time, running enriches my life and enhances who I am. My family (my husband and sons) understand this and accept it. I'm pretty sure the rest of my family (parents, brothers, sisters) don't get it at all and would rather I gave it up. I have a bit of that Pollyanna attitude going on - expecting the best instead of the worst, thinking the risk is small and it won't happen to me. Like I said, I can't explain it, and if I'm not careful, I'll not only lapse into Garth quotes, but will go over the 900 word limit!

Backofpack 11/20/07, 5:30 PM  

I feel compelled to add - I run with caution, following cardiologists advice about heart rate and using run/walk. I am careful!

robtherunner 11/20/07, 7:34 PM  

I enjoyed the article even though it had a Garth quote and not one from a hot young female superstar, with pictures of course. Enjoy your holiday!

Cliff Tam 11/20/07, 7:38 PM  


Your words and thoughts are always inspiring and intriguing.

I am a bit curious by your title, calculated risk. In a way, it is impossible to calculate risk. I guess we try to do it to realize we have some security in our lives.

I ain't to say security false. I do not see how knowing that there is 1 in x chance I will struck by lightning/get in a car accident will improve or reduce my risk of being in those circumstances.

The probability is just a number. The number cannot be applicable to life b/c as we see it, it is all chance.

Inherently, I know I am more 'reckless' than the norm. At the same time, I tend to see myself being on the conservative side. I eat healthy, wear proper equipment when i train (helmet etc.) I don't drink and drive.

Michelle's comment hit the point. As much as I don't like the thought of someone (or anyone) dying from endurance sport, we know it happens.

To justify why I am into endurance sport is impossible in my point of view. I can't put a number to it. I just feels great doing it.

Compare to other risky things in life, i can say endurance activity is pretty harmless. Maybe I just have done too many crazy things in my life time :D

Pokey 11/20/07, 8:19 PM  

Very thought provoking post.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Great job on the Big Sur marathon....I know folks who run that one and I hear it's a real challenge! I just ran the HM and it was MORE than challenging for a rookie like me! :)

jeff 11/21/07, 8:44 AM  

beautifully written, donald. i'm going to print this out and hand it to smsmh any time she balks at my running solo in the mountains or when she brings up my recent "run in" with the mountain.

21stCenturyMom 11/21/07, 11:00 AM  

I struggle with the risk factor of being a multi-sport athlete. Now that I've had my heart fully checked out I don't worry about cardiac arrest so much but I could get hit by a car on my bike. I could get hit head on in the car, too but then I'd be protected by an airbag so it isn't the same. I could quit exercising and gain 50 pounds. I could switch my exercise of choice but I won't. I like what I do so I'm going to keep doing it. Life is full of risks and we don't get to pick which one will do us in so I say carry on!

As for Brad Womack - he is 34 and Sheena is 23. She deserves to be with someone of her own generation. That guy, as he noted last night, has issues. He did all of those women a favor by taking a pass. They are all young (all too young for him) and they will survive.

Dori 11/22/07, 9:14 AM  

Damn, I want to go for a run now! Nice post, Donald. Happy Thanksgiving.

Darrell 11/23/07, 8:02 AM  

OK, this is a shallow comment (and I don't watch the Bachelor) but didnt' Brad finally do the right thing by saying that none of the girls were right for him rather than choosing one for the safe of the show and then breaking up later. I say good for him.

About the risk, I still say I'd rather go while running than while sitting "safely" on couch. There are too many other strange and unforseeable ways that could take us out without warning. Running is low on the totem pole of risk from my perspective.

miki 11/23/07, 6:31 PM  

Thanks for the post Donald. It's seems uncanny that I am finding many posts lately that are helping me to think and put things into perspective a bit. Or maybe it's typical to think of these things at the end of summer.

I have the same issue, but from a slightly different angle. I have recently been diagnosed with fairly serious degenerative disc disease, bulging, rupture, you name it. My current PT believes I can do triaths but mention ultrarunning and his brow furrows and out comes the analogies about someone with emphysema continuing to smoke kind of thing. Now, I haven't quite reached the triathlete phase in my life and running is my first true love. I plan on getting back to it if I can, but I have to think long and hard on how ultras might impact my body in the future, not to mention the stress that it adds to my boyfriend's life. It's a hard decision considering how much joy and peace ultrarunning has brought to my life otherwise.

Anyways, keep healthy everyone.

Deene 11/26/07, 11:20 AM  

very thoughtful post.
if you love it, you do it despite risk level because we are composed of our passions.

Garth also sang "don't cross the river if you can't swim the tide" but he didn't write those lyrics either. (i only sing along during road trips)

olga 11/26/07, 1:04 PM  

I thought I posted a comment this morning...and it's gone. oops.

Nat 11/26/07, 5:17 PM  

Great post, you put things in perspective very well!

Annette 11/26/07, 6:03 PM  

So true. After fighting injuries off and on, I am truly thankful for the gift of running.

momo 11/30/07, 10:30 AM  

ok, so this is what i think, which really has no bearing on anything except my life, but here you go... :-)

i take running and riding and swimming and all the things i CAN do on a daily basis for granted. i know i do. i go out there and i run and i complain about this or that and yet, i rarely think about how i would feel if i couldn't do it, day in and day out.

but then, when i hear of people like ryan - wonderfully gifted runners who do what they do because it is in their blood - all the while knowing that there is a possibility that there will come a day where they won't be able, physically to do it, or that it could be fatal, i am humbled and ashamed at my lack of respect for the blessings i've been given.

being able to do what we do should never be taken for granted, and posts like yours, and tragedies like ryan's prove that day in and day out.

technically i'm a terrible runner, but just like ryan, its something i love and i couldn't imagine not having it in my life. i would take the risk.

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