Syracuse Online

Death on the Run

Grace for the Long Run

Published January 6, 2003 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

As I sat in the doctor's waiting room, my eyes caught a familiar face in the newspaper. I recognized Wayne Hicks, my former banker and a fellow runner. As I wondered what got him the publicity, the chilling reality that he made the obituaries gripped me. Runners are not supposed to die at age 38.

I took a deep breath, and called the bank. The manager confirmed that Wayne had collapsed and died during a road race. I felt numb, as I awaited tests to reassure me of good health. I contemplated the irony of Wayne's obituary.

Wayne's death brought home the distant stories of marathon deaths at far-away places, like that of Jim Landstrom at the Reggae Marathon in Jamaica. The 59-year-old runner from Boston collapsed within minutes of receiving his finisher's medal.

I turned to the literature for evidence linking running to dying. I found more opinions than I bargained for. A 1997 study published in the British Medical Journal found that the likelihood of middle-aged men dying from a sudden heart attack is greater during a marathon. Sudden deaths during 14 London and 25 New York City marathons showed a death rate about 50 times greater than the general population.

An article published in the American Journal of Cardiology in October 2001 similarly reported an increased risk of heart attacks among marathon running middle-aged physicians. Over a five-year period, researchers took blood samples before and after the Boston Marathon from 82 healthy physicians. The post-race samples showed increased levels of creatine kinase-MB and C-reactive protein, indicators of muscle injury and clotting.

Dr. Arthur Siegel, the author of the study, also found that the chemical changes in the muscles and blood caused by running marathons in turn increased the risk of heart attacks. The clotting necessary for muscle repair could turn fatal in cardiac vessels. Siegel concluded that marathon running may indeed be too much of a good thing.

Cardiac failure is not the only cause of sudden death among runners. Brain aneurysms, heat strokes, hypothermia, hyponutrimia (water intoxication) and accidents have all been documented as causes of runner deaths.

Armed with this newfound wisdom, I donned a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes and went for a long run in memory of Wayne. Indeed, happy is the man who reaches the finish line on his run. For it is only through the grace of God that he escapes disease and suffering, and rejoins the Creator in wholeness of body and soul.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at

PS: "Wayne was an avid supporter of the American Heart Association for many years and especially of the American Heart Walk/Run. He was not only a past participant but also volunteered on the planning committee for several years. He is greatly missed here at the AHA. The current planning committee for the 19th Annual American Heart Walk/Run (March 22, 2003, NYS Fairgrounds) decided to dedicate this year's 5 mile run in memory of Wayne. Wayne's wife Jennifer and her sons have decided to form a Friends & Family Team and dedicate their fundraising efforts to him."

Kim Seymour
American Heart Association