The often-forgotten dangers…

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.

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14 Comments »

  1. Stumbled across your blog trying to find more about Nick’s tragedy. There are many unanswered questions here but i would be curious to know how Nick prepared for this event. Also what other competitors observed days before he collapsed. Was he taking enough electrolytes? What was his hydration strategy? Did others both competitors and volunteers see him in trouble? I find some people are not taking the objective dangers seriously at these events and this should be a wake-up call.

    As fellow athletes racing/surviving in a harsh life threatening environments, we should reach out to those who may be having trouble and impart some knowledge and experience. What they do with it is their business. I shared a few things with some runners at RTP Australia with appreciative and favorable results.

    Hope this resonates with caution and respect for the conditions at future events.

    BTW… how are the gaiters from Oz holding up?

    • Hi Howard – I’ve been trying to piece things together myself. From scouring the blogs, here’s what I’ve been able to find from the other competitors:

      From a tentmate early in the race:
      “Nick is an American living in Shangai and is a trooper. He is one of these guys who heard about the event and wanted to give it a try. So he has spent 15 hours out in the hot sun with more clothes on then I have in my winter wardrobe, walking sticks in hand, having a grande time. Nick is the IT guru/Jeopardy Champ who can provide technical input on generally any topic discussed in the tent, from drug components to GPS tracking code. We’re all cheering for him as this is new territory and he is definitely working close to his limits. (He’s also the guy who slept in this morning with all of us packing, eating and making plenty of noise and got out a little late).”

      From a fellow competitor mid-race:
      “On day four I stopped before the canyon, but Nick wanted to push on despite the heat and his total fatigue. Unfourtunately [sic] Nick past out in the Canyon and it took time to get him out”

      As you know, I wasn’t there… but I too wonder what happened. It seems that he was inexperienced – like many beginners at RacingThePlanet events – and eager to participate. Perhaps he didn’t hydrate properly. Perhaps he didn’t know how. Maybe he pushed himself too far. Maybe he ignored the warning signs. Maybe he didn’t know them? It is hard to say really. I know some are blaming RacingThePlanet for (a) not getting to him in time and (b) for not being able to treat him adequately because of overloaded medical staff… But I would have a very difficult time putting the fault on the event organizers here. I would have a difficult time putting fault on ANYONE here. It is just a crappy situation all around. In my personal opinion (which could very well be wrong!), the logistics of these events are impossible. RacingThePlanet does its best to ensure that the competitors are taken care of, but really, there IS only so much they can do I think. If they were to make the races completely foolproof, well, the races wouldn’t exist at all… They are remote, they are difficult, and sometimes bad stuff just happens.

      The gaiters are staring at my forlornly from my wonderful box of gear – with this foot surgery, I’ve been out of commission for almost 6 weeks and it will probably be another 6 before I can hit the trails! But rest assured, I’ll be wearing some dirty girl gaiters when I do!

  2. OK… some nice words, and for many of you “utlrarunners” I can understand and agree with what you are saying… but here is the deal. Nick was NOT an ultrarunner. He was an office worker who trained for a while before the event. Where are the safety checks and balances for the inexperienced people?

    • Hi there – I’m so, so sorry for your loss. It must be so difficult to wrap your brain around this one. It is for me, and I didn’t even know your friend. All I can say is that RacingThePlanet is probably the best organized race series I know and they take the medical side of things very seriously. We each have to submit a form listing our medical history and training prior to the event and on the first day we are vetted by the medical team. The medical team is experienced in these types of races, which really requires a special type of training (in my opinion)… but they are limited in what they can do I think. They are overloaded and can often only react to the bad stuff – it is up to the competitors to prevent. Competitors are reminded about hydration – sometimes every morning – and it has often been the case in the races I’ve done that competitors who can’t finish certain stages are prevented from completing others (due to concerns about their inexperience). Given the remote nature of these events, if you pass out on the trail, it is really up to the competitors behind you to find you and then alert the staff at the next checkpoint. This means that there is an inevitable delay – sometimes a significant one – before a competitor in trouble receives help…. But unfortunately I think that is just an accepted risk of the race. I’m not sure how this could be avoided, barring equipping each racer with some kind of alarm and GPS tracking device, which is logistically and practically almost impossible. The staff monitor the runners where possible by driving up and down the course and the medical team do what they can… but a lot is up to the runners. This isn’t any comfort to you, I know. Perhaps it would be better if RacingThePlanet marketed its events as ‘extreme’ rather than ‘tough races that anyone can finish’? But then again, I DO think that anyone can finish with the right training. I don’t have any good answers for you – only sympathy and deepest condolences.

  3. Well said, Stephanie. It is an extreme sport and anyone signing up for one should be well-prepared, ultrarunner or office worker.

    • I have heard enough blame and finger-pointing on RTP, so much so that I don’t want to repeat them here. Of course there is still no excuse that the protocols in place (if there were any in the first place!) weren’t enough to save Nick’s life.

      That said, I know that the person who last saw Nick said that he was lucid when they parted. He might have been a little tired. Whatever the situation is, the time between Nick collapsing and when he was discovered by another competitor might have been too long for him to be saved. Whether a camel or medivac was available, it might have been too late? When he was found by another competitor it was reported that he had no pulse… Heatstroke can very quickly lead to multi-organ failure.

      I bet RTP is totally gutted with the news and will be doing everything they can to make sure that the next event will be as safe as it can be.

      Yes, shit happens and sometimes it needs to happens for us to realize that certain things need to be done.

  4. Friends of Nick, you ask a very good question. “Where are the safety checks and balances for the inexperienced people?”

    In these RTP events there are limited checks and balances pre-race, unlike other events like many of the 100 mile runs in the states (Western States requires a qualifying 50 mile time, Hard Rock 100 requires completing a previous 100 miler of significant elevation gain, Coyote Two Moon requires a 50 miler to name a few). Ultra Trail Mount Blanc in France instituted a point system that categorizes races on difficulty and requires a minimum amount of points over the past 3 years from the races to qualify.
    These events require the applicant to submit proof of completing an event that has significant difficulties. Also the race organization is very clear about exposing the objective dangers that can be encountered during the event. Not to say that competitors entering these events are truly prepared, but it does set the bar a bit higher to lessen the odds of something catastrophic from happening.

    I have participated in 60 plus ultra marathons including a number of multi-day events including 3 Racing the Planet events. I have found the difficulty of the RTP events to be on the severe end of the scale for all these events. The remoteness of the location, severity of the climate, and the potential to have adverse cumulative effects of a multi day endurance challenge all add to the risk of the event, especially for the novice endurance athlete. A novice approaching an RTP event may get a false sense of security by looking over the past events blogs and photos but not having direct experience with the difficult conditions will definitely be a liability going into the race.

    I would suggest some of the following safety checks for competitors and the race organization:

    -Competitors must provide at lease one qualifying endurance event prior registration. I think a 50 mile endurance run or equivalent endurance challenge would be a good start. Also a combination of marathon finishes below a certain standard may also be used.

    -All checkpoints should have experienced medical staff to be able to see the signs of “accidents waiting to happen”. Some events even weigh competitors to see how much weight they have gained of lost as another piece of information to add to an informed medical decision. Alternatively they should be staffed with experience competitors that “have been there done that” to help the competitor self manage and make the right decisions.

    -Institute interim safety sweeps (runner assigned by race management to check on competitors) between check points during the event to ensure that competitors continue to move through the course. This could identify someone having difficulty and address issues before they get more severe. Optimally safety sweeps should have some medical training or at least have basic first aid and endurance event experience. This is in addition to the final sweep after the last competitor.

    -Strictly enforce cutoffs between checkpoints. IF competitors are moving too slow then the race management should pull the plug because the competitor is a danger themselves and potentially others (in case a rescue is needed).

    -Communication between checkpoints or to a central command post should be established to ensure competitors can be tracked throughout the course, check point to check point. This helps to identify overdue runners due to fatigue or getting lost.

    From the sidelines these are easy things to suggest and RTP does some of these but not all. Implementing these controls in a remote corner of the world, under difficult conditions, with limited staff and technology is much more difficult. The price is high for failure and I would encourage more suggestions by others as a way to improve the safety of this and similar events.

  5. As a family member I both cheer and fear from the sidelines. I marvel at what the ultrarunners accomplish but the risk involved is a constant worry. I think H’ard Cohen, atacamagirl and DC Atacama all make valid points that merit consideration. My deepest condolences to Nick’s family and friends in their tragic loss.

  6. It is so sad about Nic but as you said Claire, it is surprising that it hasn’t happened sooner. I have raced in the sahara and the gobi and had the time of my life in both. The 2009 Gobi march was an amazing experience for me. I loved the interaction with the people and pushing myself to do as best I could.

    In my limited experience, I have noticed that the top 25% of the runner which I have been a part of have the best time concerning health and care. You’re in before it gets terribly hot or we’re out of the heat sooner. Slower runners and walkers need to take more electrolytes and hydrate. I’m always surprised that people in the races don’t monitor these things better.

    I’m headed to the Atacama desert in ’11 and with Nic’s passing I am only reminded to be more prepared than I was for the last race.

    I only assume that there has been no response from RTP as they consult with the family and no offense Claire – with their lawyers. However, it does diappoint me that they are so slow to acknowledge him on their site.

    Thanks Claire for this great blog. Hope to meet you in a race some day.

    Cheers.

    Blain

    • Thanks for the comment, Blain. I hope to meet you too! I think there is a lot of truth in many of the comments posted today and I’m glad this blog is providing a forum for people to share their thoughts and frustrations….
      One quick note though – my name is Steph! 🙂 Not sure where the Claire part came from but maybe I have an alter ego…

  7. Thanks so much for your comment. I can’t imagine the pain and frustration you must feel! I think the safety aspects of the races needs to be reviewed and Howard/atacamagirl made some valid points. I didn’t mean to suggest by my post title that it was Nick who had ‘forgotten’ the dangers… Certainly not. As you say, it was his first race. Rather, it is me and many other ultrarunners who forget. The more races I do, the less I think about the risks, and Nick’s death has reminded me that I can’t take these events lightly. Sometimes it is the new runners who are the best prepared because they are the most nervous… I know I was when I entered my first ultra. My heart goes out to you. Hopefully we can all learn from this…

  8. I’m very sorry for your loss. Nick was a great guy and in the short space of time I met him he had made me laugh.

    I myself was a first-timer into an ultra, just like Nick. I had no idea what would happen and how tough the race could be. I just knew it would be very very tough. I’m sure Nick knew that too. But I sure didn’t want to enter this race to have to go in pairs. Part of the attraction of a desert race is the solitude that one experiences in the vast landscape.

    I’m not saying that RTP is without blame. However by signing up for a race as extreme as this we know there is some element of danger. How can the organizers be held accountable for every risk? Yes we can put GPS tracking devices on every competitor and have land rovers to constantly sweep the trail but I would have hated that…. I don’t want to be running along a stunning canyon only to have a land rover drive up next to me and constantly ask me if I am alright.

    I personally feel that RTP could have 1. have medivac available (but whether it could have saved Nick is another matter) 2. conduct survival talks and instructions on how to recognize heatstroke / heat exhaustion. They didn’t have either, so shame on them.

    Again, I am very sorry for your loss. Big hugs xx

  9. There is alot of debate and emotion around this accident. I have not done a RTP event yet, but I have done a multi-day desert race and I believe that in general people should realise the extreme difficulty of these types of races without needing the organiser to lecture them on it. I am sure any beginner telling his friends and family what he/she signed up for will immediately get the reaction of “that’s crazy” – as Steph pointed out in her blog. An ultramarathon is an extreme proposition and desert survival multipies that several fold. A grown adult should be aware of the consequences of puting themselves in such a situation.

    That said, the organisers should not market these events to beginners, make them believe against their better judgement that they can do it. A beginner has no idea what level training is required to complete the race and no experience in knowing how his/her body will react to such extreme fatigue and physical stress. For example, I would not let my son (who is a beginner snowboarder) snowboard down an icy double black diamond run even though he might think he can do it – I know better. Similarly, RTP should know better than to allow improperly prepared beginners to compete in its extreme events.

    One last point, which I make with cautiously because it was mentioned by Nick’s friends, being an office worker and an ultrarunner are not mutually exclusive. Most of the competitors in RTP events are “suits”. Many are bankers, lawyers (like ultrarunnergirl), doctors and entrepreneurs. In my opinion, being an office worker has no bearing on being prepared for a ultramarathon (other than lack of time). After all, one’s occupation does not and should not define a person.

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