We like to think we are invincible. Actually, as ultrarunners, we like ‘knowing’ we are invincible. Running for hours – sometimes days – on end defies logic… And if one can defy logic, can’t one defy anything? Injury, sickness, death?
Of course, the answer is no. Sadly, one of the competitors in RacingThePlanet’s Gobi March died last week from heatstroke during the race. According to the other competitors, Nick Kruse collapsed during Stage 4 when temperatures soared to +40 degrees Celsius. Nick was rushed to the hospital where he spent the next three days in a coma before passing away on Saturday afternoon.
From reading the blogs of many of the competitors, I can sense much sadness, but also some frustration and confusion. Perhaps bewilderment is a better word. How can something like this happen? What went wrong? How could this have been prevented?
We forget that when we enter an ultra, we ARE signing up for an extreme event and that comes with significant risks. I am personally guilty of this. I am always looking for a longer race, a harder race, a race that seems impossible to complete. Y’know, the type of race that if you were to try to explain it to a non-ultrarunner, you would just sound insane (and you do). In fact, I really have to admit, that is one of the things that I really love about this sport. If I’m truly honest, it feeds my inner superpower desires…I like sounding a bit extreme or off-the-wall. (It’s hard for lawyers to get street cred, so I look for it where I can). 250 km across the Namibian desert with 25 pounds on my back? Wicked. 100 miles in one day? Sounds cool. 330 km over mountains non-stop? That’s on my list.
I’m not saying that everyone is like this, but I know that I certainly don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the risks of these types of races. I focus on how amazing it will feel to finish, or how much I’ll learn if I fail. Never do I actually think that my failing could end up being catastrophic. I mean, it is only running, right?
As Nick’s death reminds us, to call ultrarunning only running is misleading. It is an extreme sport with real risks and unfortunately, sometimes real consequences. One of the main attractions to the sport is that it affords one the opportunity to test limits, and we as ultrarunners are notoriously bad at knowing when to pull back. As I have often said, it is hard to know when you’ve crossed the ‘stupid line’ until you are on the other side.
However, at the same time, we also have to recognize that there are inherent risks in any sport. We need to put this horrible tragedy into context. After all, deaths occur in regular road marathons. Admittedly they are rare, but they do happen (one 2007 study looking at marathons over a span of 30 years showed that fewer than 1 in 100,000 died in the race). In Marathon des Sables, a couple of competitors have died over recent years. In some ways, it is perhaps with a bit of luck that there have been no deaths in a RacingThePlanet event up until now.
Nick’s death has reminded me that we ARE limited and we have to go into these types of events with both eyes open. To be successful in ultrarunning and to be SAFE in this sport, you have to know what you are getting into and take care of yourself as best as you can – that means putting in the hours in training and keeping your head on straight in competition. Unfortunately though, sometimes all the precautions in the world can’t stop bad stuff from happening…
I don’t know what happened out on that course or what events led up to Nick’s collapse and eventual death… but my heart goes out to Nick’s family, the other competitors, and the RacingThePlanet team, who treats the racers more like family than like clients. The next time we lace up our running shoes, let’s all give a few miles to Nick and the memories he has left behind.