OUTRAGE! Only 99.9992% of Marathon Participants Live to Run Another Day! 07Dec09

Marathon Death Pie Chart

Winston Smith, gangly father of three, staggered across the finish line, his breath coming in wisps of labored wheezing. Streaked with grotesque rivulets of dried salt, he struck an image of one who had endured terrible hardship and emerged decidedly worse for the wear. Smith had just miraculously survived the 2009 New York City Marathon.

He was one of the lucky ones.

Death by Marathon
The marathon is a relentless killer, extinguishing the lives of spirited weekend warriors at an ever-alarming rate. Runners expect to achieve glory. Instead, legions meet their sudden demise on the course.

The numbers are sobering. With the savage appetite of a celestial black hole, the marathon devours nearly eight millionths of all participants, a figure containing plenty of zeros. Specifically, .000008 of all marathoners die during this grisly race.

Such exceptionally high numbers give mathematicians pause. According to one concerned set theorist, “It doesn’t take Pythagoras to see that average deaths have reached the 6th significant figure to the right of the decimal. I’m no alarmist, but I calculate the chances of death during the marathon as dangerously far above zero, infinitesimally speaking.”

As shocking as these numbers are, they merely reflect races held in the United States. Worldwide fatalities are surely much higher. Details are sketchy. We literally have no idea how many marathoners have joined the choir invisible under Moldova’s Vladimir Voronin or Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa. We may never know.

One thing is certain, ever more naïve, casual athletes attempt the marathon each year. In 2008, an estimated 425,000 runners (in the U.S. alone) made the fateful decision to entrust their lives to the cold embrace of statistics. In 2009, 465,000 people tempted the grim reaper. If these stunning numbers continue to spiral, the marathon may become one of the deadliest activities known to man, rivaling only encounters with a cow, falling down, and daring to exist during the month of January for sheer morbid lethality.

Fortunately, most runners fall prey to debilitating injuries that prevent them from running the marathon in the first place.

Smith’s Feat Warrants Investigation
The extraordinary Winston Smith somehow avoided injuries, survived training and astonishingly escaped the 2009 New York City Marathon with his life. Were other runners as mysteriously fortunate? How many died in their quest to scratch an item off of the definitive bourgeoisie bucket list?

Available records indicate that, inexplicably, of the 43,741 people who ran the five-borough death trap, precisely none died.

This improbable wellspring of life can only be attributed to gross error, statistical oddity or, more ominously, sinister cover-up. For the sake of all involved, the startling lack of fatality in New York must be investigated immediately.

Given the overwhelming odds against living through the marathon, how could Smith have possibly lived to tell his tale? Does he even exist? What did race officials know, and when did they know it?

The public demand answers.

– Dean

Running USA provides and excellent look at marathon participation statistics.

The most often quoted study for marathon fatalities (Redelmeier and Greenwald – BMJ 2007) concluded that on average, .8 marathoners per 100,000 die during the race. This is apparently the most recent, detailed and oft-quoted study related to marathon mortality. It forms the basis for the figures in this post.

Some feel that 1 of every 50,000 participants die during the marathon. Even if this lower figure is entirely correct, just .00002 of all runners die during the marathon. This is a very low number.

However, neither figure is so low that it escapes the eyes of sensationalists.

Thanks to The Bigger Design for the lovely Pie Chart, and to Mr. Davidson for mathematical fact-checking.

The Jackass Kick 02Jul09

JackassKickIndirectly relevant photo by QuietDelusions courtesy of Flickr.

A burst of speed at the end of a marathon is exceedingly rare, but it happened to me once. Usually, one can’t summon late race heroics from weary muscles. But there I was at the Myrtle Beach Marathon feeling relatively fresh at mile 24. As I passed fading runners, I began to sense an excellent finish. You’ll just have to trust me. This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often.

Positively ebullient, I passed the 26-mile marker, primed for excessive celebration. That’s when I saw her. As I rounded the final corner, twenty yards ahead, mercilessly taunting me by her very presence, was a white haired old woman in Asics and a singlet.

She was going to beat me.

Defiance rose from deep within the arcane recesses of my masculinity. Flush with what I assure you were entirely natural performance enhancing intoxicants, I surged forward, determined to finish before this usurping senior citizen. I remember literally screaming to myself, “No way grandma!”

But then, my practical sense emerged from the biochemical fog. Was I really racing an older woman? To be sure, she was fit and quite capable. A 3:30 marathon is nothing to sneeze at. But let’s face it, she could collect social security and something had to be done about that.

As we jostled for position, I heard two distinct sounds rising from the crowd. Wild cheering overflowed for the white haired woman. Malevolent boos and derisive insults were hurled at me. No amount of hormones could save me now.

Consider the unmanageable difficulty of my situation.

Anyone who would pass an old woman in sight of a marathon finish is, by definition, a jackass. There’s just no way around this. However, anyone beaten by an old woman in an endurance race must be hopelessly feeble. This horrible realization makes one want to pass old women in the first place. To pass or not to pass; both options are wholly untenable. Worse, the consequence of one choice makes the other choice totally necessary, so there’s simply no way to win. It’s Heller’s Catch-22 for runners.


I had only a split second to make my choice. Like any red-blooded, hyper-competitive marathoner within sight of the immortal finish line, I bolted. Grandma ate my testosterone-laced dust.

In Chariot’s of Fire, Eric Liddell ran and felt God’s pleasure. That must have been nice. As I dashed forward, I could feel the mordant stares and quiet disgust of outraged spectators. As I crossed the finish line, the enormity of my blunder became clear. I had blatantly, unashamedly run down kindly Carole Findley, 66 of Raleigh, North Carolina. I felt like the devil incarnate.

Carole of course, finished to thunderous applause despite struggling through the final hundred yards (I suspect she may have been playing to the crowd, but I can’t prove this.) In the finisher’s chute, I sheepishly received my ill-gotten medal. I finished the marathon with rare strength and couldn’t enjoy it, even slightly. Avoiding eye contact with the masses, I skulked away.

Since then, I’ve cultivated a healthy grasp of competitive etiquette. I wish I had shown greater maturity at Myrtle, particularly in light of one painfully salient fact: Carole ran the half rather than the full marathon that day. Had I known this at the time, her 3:30 would have seemed a tad less threateningly impressive and the whole day might have gone differently. As it stood, I beat down an older woman who ran 16-minute miles (probably a personal best) in an entirely different race. And I had to kick into high gear to pass her. Even my act of strength revealed weakness.

So Carole, I apologize for my callow buffoonery. I’d like to make it up to you someday; perhaps we can meet for dinner at the Piccadilly Cafeteria and enjoy Bingo afterward… my treat.

– Dean


2007 Myrtle Beach Half Marathon
Carole Findley – Age 66 (Really, not old at all)

2007 Myrtle Beach Marathon
Dean Schuster – Age 36
3:28:52 (PR at the time)

Sylvia Collins – Age 65
3:31:21 (Whew, I’m glad I beat the amazing Sylvia.)