On Sunday September 25, 24,000 runners participated in the Montreal marathon, half-marathon, and ten kilometre runs. One of these runners, Jean-Francis Presseau, died tragically after running over 20 kilometres, only one kilometre away from the half-marathon finish line. This death – along with the four other deaths that have occurred in the Toronto marathons between 2002 and 2006 – has sparked serious debates regarding the health risks associated with long-distance running.
With almost every major city in the world now hosting a marathon, the races have become somewhat of a trend. While there is a professional and competitive side to the sport, its popularity comes principally from the personal euphoria and sense of accomplishment achieved after completing a 42 kilometre run.
Mya Sherman, a U3 McGill Environmental Sciences and Latin American and Caribbean Studies student, who ran the Montreal half-marathon last month, explains that it was the surroundings and atmosphere which allowed her to complete the race. She says, “The entertainment on the road really pumped you up. I also definitely pretended that everyone on the sidelines was cheering specifically for me. Adrenaline really gets you going on race day.”
“I think overall it was a great experience and finishing was fantastic, I had such a runner’s high,” she continues.
It is no secret that exercise yields plenty of health benefits. It lowers the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels. Dennis Barrett, McGill’s Cross Country and Track and Field coach, confirms, “Running releases a lot of good hormones and makes you feel good about yourself, and it’s a terrific way to bring down the costs of our health services.”
But is 26-miles too far? The death of Jean-Francis Presseau garnered a lot of media attention, and Dennis Barrett admits, “I am not a big proponent of the marathon, it’s not something I recommend to people, I think it’s excessive, just because of the impact on the body.”
Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a professor at University of Toronto, ran a study that looked into 26 American marathons in the past thirty years. It found that only 5 per cent of deaths occurred in the first half, whilst 50 per cent occurred in the last 1.6 kilometres.
Dennis Barrett explains, “What I’ve looked at in the past years is that marathon runners don’t last that long.” However, he also admitted that it may just be his philosophy since he suffered from bad shin splints when he started running.
However, the health consequences which occur after long-distance running are usually linked to personal previous medical conditions that the runner was unaware of. While the autopsy is yet to reveal the exact cause of his death, it is important to reiterate that Jean-Francis Presseau died during the half-marathon (21 kilometres).
The deaths surrounding marathons have not deterred people from participating in long-distance runs. Tens of thousands of people successfully complete marathons every year. For Christopher Barrett, a U3 Finance student at McGill, who ran the Montreal marathon this year in 4 hours, 1 minute, and 42 seconds, the health fears and recent deaths have not been discouraging. “The marathon was definitely not a one-off for me, I’m planning to run the Montreal and New York City marathons next year,” he says.
Nevertheless, marathons are not for everyone. Dennis Barrett would not expect or encourage his own athletes to compete in marathons until after they have left university. “They need to have enough volume and mileage behind them,” he says.
But, with the right training, cross training, medical advice, and nutrition, these deaths should not deter people from running. The race day alone is not the only achievement. The training is an equal laudable accomplishment. For those looking to run a marathon, you need only look to the thousands of runners who make it through the finish line for inspiration.