Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2 dead at Philadelphia Marathon

I've started this entry more times than I can count, but nothing seems to properly convey how I feel about the deaths of two runners this past Sunday at the Philadelphia Marathon.

The facts: G. Chris Gleason, a 40-year-old experienced triathlete, and Jeffrey Lee, a 21-year-old Penn senior, died at the finish line.  Gleason died just short of the finish line of the full marathon in the midst of an attempt to break three hours, while Lee died after finishing the half marathon in 1:58.  Both were in good shape and had no known medical conditions that could have precipitated their deaths.

One theory for these and other deaths at marathons around the country is many runners' penchant for speeding up once the finish line is in sight, overexerting the body when it can least handle it. Another is ingesting too much caffeine in the form of energy gels during the race.  A third theory poses the idea that most, if not all of these runners, actually did have heart conditions that went unnoticed over the years, and the physical stress of race day exacerbated the conditions to the point of death.

I can't stop thinking of my own mortality, thinking of how horrible it must be to die within sight of the finish line, to come up short on a goal in the worst way possible.  I can't imagine how unfair it must seem when running is supposed to extend your life, not take it, and I can't stop pondering the confusion and resentment of the families involved.

Imagine the horror, then, should any of them come across this disgusting excuse for writing in today's Philadelphia Inquirer: 

Frank Fitzpatrick's article starts off with a fair question: "Two competitors died in the Philadelphia long distance races Sunday, and perhaps it's time to raise this serious question about marathons: why?"  The problem is, Fitzpatrick never bothers to offer a possible answer, most likely because he's just another out-of-shape schlub who can't begin to fathom what goes into training for and completing a marathon, and his journalistic curiosity does not extend to finding out.

The article then makes the ridiculous assertion that "after all, human beings were not built to go 26.2 miles at a clip," and only goes downhill from there.  In essence, Fitzpatrick uses the death of these two men as a launching point for lame jokes at the marathon's expense, including what Pheidippides would have tweeted had the technology existed in ancient Greece.  Seriously.  I'm all for a fair and balanced look at the marathon and possible reforms with the idea of making it safer, Mr Fitzpatrick, but let's save the comedy for your local Chuckle Hut, shall we?  In the end, the only thing your article proves is how much non-runners love to hate on the sport.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Barbara Laker's excellent and touching tribute to Lee and Gleason and the sport of running itself:

A runner herself, Laker discusses her own relationship to the sport while mourning the loss of two men taken before their time.  The closing paragraph captures everything I'm feeling in this moment:

"Every marathon has moments you never forget.  And last night, I couldn't stop thinking of the two men who died running down a dream.  I imagined the deep pain that their relatives and friends must feel.  Last night was supposed to be a time to celebrate, not mourn.  I don't know exactly why or how they died.  But I understood why they were out there."


  1. I, too, was disappointed in Frank Fitzpatrick's column. I don't know Frank but generally like his stuff (except he doesn't like soccer). His sarcasm is at time funny and he has done some good historical pieces. But I had the same reaction you did when I read this column.

  2. Thanks for this Scott - very interesting and sad. Barbara Laker's final paragraph was perfect.


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