Ironman deaths and the risks we take

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Two men died following an Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Madison, Wisconsin, the Madison Fire Department said. Todd Mahoney, 38, an apparatus engineer with the fire department, and Michael McCulloch, 61, of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, both died during the swimming portion of the race.

Posted: Jun 12, 2019 5:50 PM
Updated: Jun 12, 2019 5:50 PM

Every death is a tragedy, but it somehow feels worse when people die just when they seem most vital.

The deaths of two men during the swim leg of the Ironman 70.3 competition this past weekend in Madison, Wisconsin, particularly sting because both Todd Mahoney, 38, and Michael McCullouch, 61, seemed to be in the best shape of their lives and doing something they loved.

Tragedies like this force us to ask ourselves tough questions about what risks are worth taking.

There is no doubt that getting oneself into the physical condition required for an endurance event like the Ironman makes a person healthier in almost every way. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise is among the most effective ways to live healthier, longer and happier. But while participating in endurance contests provides long-term health benefits, it can also increase a healthy middle-aged person's risk of heart attack.

Every endurance athlete knows these events carry risk. The Ironman swim in particular has been recognized for some time as the riskiest part of the race.

In the early years, competitors all treaded water waiting for the gun to go, then literally swam over each other to get ahead. The scrum was intoxicating but also a little frightening. This mass start was very stressful for a lot of people, a small number of whom would hyperventilate.

Because there was so much happening in the water, an already unforgiving space, the first swim deaths led to changes in how the race is organized. In recent years, the swim start has become tiered, with different groups of people starting at different times, and all competitors have been given briefings of how to compete more safely.

More can and should always be done to ensure the safety of competitors. If the rate of these tragic accidents comes to significantly outweigh the risk of something terrible happening from just being out in the world, which does not appear to be the case at the moment, we should take a serious look at each Ironman activity and discuss if it should be discouraged or curtailed.

But we also need to recognize that living a life in full also comes with a level of risk we can never totally eliminate. Most of us would give anything to have Todd and Mike and the other people who have died in these competitions lining up with us at the start of our next race. In their honor, we must continue to work to make endurance events like the Ironman as safe as they can possibly be.

Nevertheless, we would be doing everyone a disservice if that was the only lesson we took from this. Anyone who strives to reach a seemingly impossible goal -- whether summiting a mountain completing an Ironman, or anything else -- is often reaching beyond what they once thought possible to open for themselves a new set of possibilities.

So today we mourn Todd and Mike, tomorrow we take a hard look at the risks associated with every aspect our endurance sports, and then we strive.

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