August 7, 2011
Death During Swim Renews Questions About Event’s Safety
By FREDERICK DREIER
A 64-year-old man died of cardiac arrest during Sunday’s New York City Triathlon while swimming in the Hudson River, race officials said. A 40-year-old woman also had a heart attack during the 1-mile swim, and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.
Michael Kudryk, 64, of Freehold, N.J., who was competing as part of a three-person relay team, was spotted unconscious in the water about a half-mile into the swim, according to the race’s director Bill Burke. The swim portion of the competition began at a wharf parallel to 96th Street and finished near the 79th Street boat basin. Race officials got Kudryk onto a fire rescue boat operated by the New York City Police Department, and then into an ambulance at 79th Street, and took him to Roosevelt Hospital.
“Nobody goes into this event expecting this type of tragedy,” Burke said. “It’s one of those unforeseen life events that happens when you get this many people to participate in physical activity.”
No additional details on the female triathlete were available.
The death is the second in the 11-year history of the race, which incorporates a 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6.1-mile run, but it raises questions about the safety of the open-water swimming leg of triathlons. In 2008, the 32-year old Esteban Neira of Argentina, died while swimming in the Hudson. Neira’s death was linked to a condition involving high blood pressure. But his death occurred during a year in which at least eight people died during the swim portion of a triathlon. In May of this year, Dr. Michael Wiggins, a 42-year-old who had an irregular heart beat, died while swimming in the Pelican Fest Triathlon in Fort Collins, Colo.
In 2010 The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study assessing the risk of sudden death during triathlons. The study said that between 2006 and 2008, 14 people died while participating in triathlons, 13 while swimming. The report said that seven of the nine of that group that had an autopsy had died from cardiovascular abnormalities.
But the study said the challenges caused by open water swims hampered life saving attempts.
“Because triathlons begin with chaotic, highly dense mass starts, there is opportunity for bodily contact and exposure to cold turbulent water,” the report said. “Triathlons also pose inherent obstacles to identifying distressed athletes and initiating timely resuscitation on open water.”
Namgyal Galden, a 27-year-old triathlete from Boston, said choppy water in the Hudson was an added challenge this year. But Galden said the race’s decision to allow only 20 athletes to dive into the water at a time — instead of hundreds — cut down on the usual roughness of a mass-participant swim start.
“It was very easy, you usually get kicked or whacked, and that didn’t happen to me,” Galden said. “I think it’s better than the old system.”
Burke said the race had 53 kayakers, 32 lifeguards, four police boats, three fire department boats, two jet skis and two launch boats patrolling the one-mile swim. He said each of the boats had paramedic or rescue divers aboard.
“It’s a flotilla of support,” he said.
The swim was not the only portion of the race in which rescue crews were needed. A number of cyclists in the 3,900 participants were sent tumbling on rain-slicked roads. And as temperatures rose into the low 90s on a humid day, athletes suffering from dehydration limped into medical tents.
Ben Collins, who won the men’s race in 1 hour, 48 minutes, 11 seconds, spent an hour and a half receiving intravenous fluids and cooling down in an ice bath after finishing. Collins broke away from the men’s pro field during the bicycle leg, distancing himself from the prerace favorite Greg Bennett, a four-time New York City Triathlon winner. As Collins walked across the finish line in Central Park, he slunk to his knees and muttered a “Go Lions” in supports of Columbia University, where he was a 2005 graduate.
Rebeccah Wassner won the women’s race, her third straight New York City Triathlon, finishing it in 2:03.19.
Jasmine Oeinck, a professional triathlete from Boulder, Colo. , required doctor’s attention after crashing on her bicycle. Oeinck was the first professional woman to exit the water, and rode alongside Wassner. While cycling on a rain-drenched stretch of the West Side Highway near 150th street, Oeinck struck a pothole and cartwheeled over her bicycle, sustaining deep scrapes on her back and legs, and a gash on her right elbow. She was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center where she received nine stitches in her arm.
“I thought it was just a puddle, turns out it was a pothole,” Oeinck said.
Oeinck, who holds ambitions of qualifying for the London Olympics, said she had heard the news of two competitors having heart attacks. She said that she felt said that the triathlon’s increase in popularity has attracted a wider range of athletes to the sport.
“It’s now become a common trend is for people to use triathlon as a way to lose weight,” Oeinck said. “But you go to races and look around, and you start to ask yourself, ‘Is this race too much for that person?’ ”
More people entering the Tri world likely means more deaths; same occurrence in marathons. Poularity and unrealistic expectations of some; others - just freak occurrence.
The woman also died, later on.
The swim has a fast current and the water looked to be very choppy. Much rougher than what you see, for example, in the Potomac River for our local races. The mid-August race date could be a problem too, even though it's "only" an Olympic-distance race. I was surprised to read that the overall winner had overheating issues too.
Someone posted a video of a participant using a pool noodle to stay afloat during the swim. She didn't appear to have any idea of how to swim at all. She had the noodle under her torso while she doggy-paddled with her arms. She should have been removed from the water and disqualified. She was using an unauthorized flotation device, and clearly she had no business being in the water if she didn't know how to swim.
I think the weather was largely to blame yesterday. But it's troubling that some people are entering Olympic-distance tris without even a basic level of competence on the swim.
I didn't see anyone using pool noodles at the Washington DC Tri sprint race in June, though I did see a lot of people floundering around in the water. They didn't seem to be in trouble. They just didn't seem to know how to move forward in open water.
I stayed on after the race to watch the pros finish at WDC. A couple age-groupers finished at about the same time, even though they started two hours before the pros. One woman complained that race officials asked her if she wanted to quit, 50 meters into the swim. Apparently she hadn't been moving at all in the water. She was quite angry about it. Her time had to have been in the 4-hour range. If that was for the sprint race, I have to question whether she trained at all for the race.
While it's good that people get motivated to be active, participants should have at least some basic swimming skills. We don't need to be fast. (I sure ain't fast on the swim.) But we should be able to cover the swim distance easily, without needing help from rescue personnel. Accidents can happen. But going into the race completely unprepared is an entirely different situation.
A follow-up article in NYT this morning:
August 14, 2011
Preparing Triathletes for the Chaos of Open Water
By JEFF Z. KLEIN
The deaths of two athletes stricken by cardiac arrest in the Hudson River during the New York City Triathlon on Aug. 7 have focused attention on the dangers of the open-water portion of such events.
Officials at USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body in the United States, said Friday that heightened safety measures were continuing “to be discussed and evaluated,” but that no changes were imminent.
Nevertheless, the dangers, mostly related to the stresses of breathing in open water amid a mass of swimmers, have long been known to triathlon coaches. And their training of triathletes incorporates ways to cope with an environment not found in the neat confines of a pool.
“What do you do if you hyperventilate?” said Neil Cook, the head multisport coach with Asphalt Green Triathlon Club at the Asphalt Green amateur sports center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “What do you do if your goggles come off? If you bump into a boat? If someone swims over you? If any of these things happen in the open water and you’re not prepared for it, you can panic and can get into real trouble.”
A 2010 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 13 of the 14 deaths in triathlons from 2006 to 2008 took place during the swim legs. Autopsies on nine of the victims found that seven had heart abnormalities, which researchers think were exacerbated by the stress of swimming in open water.
The risk of sudden death in a triathlon is 1.5 deaths per 100,000 participants compared with 0.8 deaths per 100,000 participants in a marathon.
“So many things can go wrong in an open-water swim,” Dr. Stuart Weiss, the New York City Triathlon medical director, said last week. “There’s some combination of water, adrenaline, pushing yourself hard, and all these things somehow work together to put people into an abnormal heart rhythm.”
Autopsies were inconclusive on the man and the woman who died after being pulled from the 1,500-meter swim, the first leg of the New York City Triathlon.
Organizers of the race said last week that they were considering requiring open-water swim certifications for 2012 entrants, as well as certification of a recent medical checkup showing a clean bill of health. But a spokesman indicated that USA Triathlon was less far along on such considerations.
“The topics of athlete certification, as well as its feasibility, and the current requirements for swim starts continue to be discussed and evaluated, and we will consider all options moving forward,” the spokesman, Chuck Menke, said.
Cook said that swim certification was necessary.
“You need some form of certification that says this person can swim in open water for, say, one hour,” he said. “If they don’t pass it, they shouldn’t be let in the race.”
The rising numbers of untrained first-time triathletes comes as part of the sport’s phenomenal growth in recent years. USA Triathlon had fewer than 16,000 members in 1993; over the next seven years, that number grew steadily, but unspectacularly, to a little more than 21,000.
But since 2000, membership has skyrocketed, hitting 58,000 by 2005 and 140,000 in 2010. In those same 10 years, the number of triathlon clubs in the United States grew to 869 from 50, and the number of officially certified coaches rose to 1,800 from 229.
The surge reflects a change in perception. Not long ago, the notion of doing a long-distance swim, followed immediately by long-distance cycling and running, seemed impossible for all but the most elite endurance athletes.
But now triathlons are often seen as the province of weekend warriors, albeit especially fit ones. That in turn has attracted first-time triathletes who often lack specific training. The number of one-day memberships in USA Triathlon, which one needs to compete in its sanctioned events, rose to 326,732 in 2010 from 100,000 in 2000.
Cook teaches a 10-session class for triathletes. In one session, he removes the lane dividers from an Olympic-size pool and has the class — about 20 students — swim together in a circle for two 20-minute periods. That results in numerous collisions, kicks in the face and other unpleasantness.
“Some people get out of the water and say, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Cook said. “But I talk to them, and they get back in for another 20-minute swim, and they’re fine. That’s because now they’ve experienced the chaos and are better able to deal with it.”
Another session takes place in the water off Brighton Beach, so students can learn to handle “not being able to see the bottom and having to sight without walls,” Cook said.
Such acclimatizing is important for newcomers, said Melissa Mantak, USA Triathlon’s coach of the year for 2010.
“Unfortunately, yes, I see a lot of people inadequately prepared for open-water swimming,” said Mantak, who has coached triathletes at all levels since 1998 and who said she paid special attention to swimming. “They don’t know how challenging it can be. I’ve seen fantastically gifted swimmers get into open water and freak out.”
Triathlon organizers are also aware of the dangers, typically assigning more lifeguards than the USA Triathlon minimum of one per 50 participants (one per 30 for ocean swims). They also are moving away from the especially chaotic mass starts. At the New York race, swimmers started in groups of 20 every few seconds, although that change was made because of choppy water.
“USA Triathlon-sanctioned events must meet the requirement of a minimum of three minutes between start waves and no more than 150 athletes per wave,” said Kathy Matejka, the event services director of USA Triathlon. “Time-trial starts, which include fewer than 20 athletes starting at shorter intervals, also are permitted.”
Open water swim certification is an interesting idea. But how would they administer it? With only USAT-certified coaches? Are there going to be enough coaches with enough time to handle all of the swim tests before large races? Any "coach"? Some people (not here) call themselves certified coaches and yet they don't seem to know many of the basics of exercise, nutrition and health.
Time trial starts are a good idea for sprints and Olympic races, which usually have a lot of beginners/first-timers. But obviously the TT format didn't help the two swimmers at the NYC Tri.
Apart from these ideas, race organizers could put more of an emphasis on open water swim abilities. They don't need to scare off beginners but they can include cautionary notes that new triathletes should respect the challenges of an open water swim race. There could be a brief statement in the main page of the race websites. Organizers could include a similar statement in emails to registrants. Maybe in the confirmation email sent immediately after someone registers. That's easy enough to do, with no added cost, once the language of the statement is finalized.
Many beginners enter half marathons and even marathons unprepared for the race. At least in those races, they can walk or quit. In an OWS triathlon, it's not so easy to take a break or to quit if a swimmer is far away from the kayaks. While many people take the challenge of OWS seriously, I see some that do not. Others think that they are preparing adequately but when you hear about their training, they are not. I read about one person training for an OWS sprint tri who started swimming almost 6 months ago. With less than a month to go before the race, he still can't swim more than 50 yds. freestyle nonstop. He said that he was putting in the work. Then he revealed that he spends more than 80% of his time on breaststroke, and backstroke. My guess is that he only adds 50 yds. of freestyle on the end of each session. He's going to be out there much longer doing breaststroke. I'm not so confident that he will be comfortable with the race distance.
Since the two people who died at NYC were on relay teams, I'm wondering if they were life-long pool swimmers who could cover 1500m easily in the pool but did very little OWS training.
I also wonder if swim warm-ups can help to avoid problems with some people. In some races, there is no way to do a swim warm-up, especially in larger races with wave starts. So people jump into the water cold. The sudden physical exertion of the swim might cause more problems than if the athletes had a chance to warm up properly. Sometimes the shock comes from cooler water hitting the face of the swimmers. Maybe race organizers can set up large water tubs near the swim start. Athletes could use the water to splash their faces before the start of the race. This might help them deal with the transition of going from land to water. It's simple enough and relatively low cost (I think).