Wrap-Up from USAT RD Symposium 2013

I spent the past couple days at the 2013 USAT Race Director Symposium in Colorado Springs.  I had the chance to attend last year’s meeting and I’m thankful to the USAT folks for the opportunity to return to this year’s Symposium.  Let me share some of the safety-related highlights:

A Common Problem

The Symposium was held at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs and the Resort offered van service from the airport.  The USAT Symposium was not the only meeting at the hotel, and I shared the van with a woman who was attending a different meeting.  We exchanged travel stories and talked about each other’s meetings.  When she learned that I’d be speaking about athlete fatalities, she shared that she had a daughter who was a runner and recalled a story about a local athlete who had died during a running race.

The issue of race-related fatalities is obviously not confined to the sport of triathlon.

CPR Class

The Symposium began on Thursday afternoon and included a 2-hour class in CPR.  This was an outstanding addition to the program.  I took note last year that the organizers of the Boston Marathon, in conjunction with the American Heart Association and American Red Cross, offered a short CPR class for runners, family members, and other supporters at their 2012 event.  We all benefit from a high prevalence of bystanders who know CPR.  In a comprehensive study of sudden cardiac arrest at half marathon and marathon running events, Dr. Jonathan Kim and his colleagues last year reported that the survival rate was nearly 30%, due entirely to the availability of prompt bystander CPR and prompt defibrillation.  This is in sharp contrast to the rather dismal survival rates of ~10% that are typically reported for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

Growth in Triathlon

On Friday morning Rob Urbach, USAT CEO, reported on the growth in the sport of triathlon–growth that is represented in the number of participants, annual members, and events.  As it turns out, the assembled group of Race Directors represented more than 60% of last year’s races nationally–accounting for more than 350,000 finishers.  The growth in our sport is both an opportunity and a challenge.  With this growth, we’ll need an ever-increasing commitment to the issue of race safety.

John Korff

Friday morning’s keynote speaker was John Korff, owner and organizer of the New York City Triathlon.  He’s a terrific story-teller.  And with more than a decade of experience with that event as well as with last year’s Ironman New York race, he had a lot of stories to tell.  And while most of those stories were amusing (in a New York sort of way), he also shared a little bit about the personal side of having athlete fatalities in those events.

Race-related fatalities have certainly captured the public’s attention–particularly in large media markets like New York.  It’s that attention, particularly after athlete deaths in 2011 that prompted USAT’s recent review of race-related fatalities.

My Talk

I was invited to share with the Race Directors the USAT final report on athelte fatalities during 2003-2011.  I’ve written previously about this issue here at the blog and also in a column at Endurance Corner.

I’d call your attention to the final report which is available in its entirety at the USAT website.  This is, by far, the most comprehensive look at the issue of event-related fatalities in triathlon.  And while there may well be questions that still deserve our investigation, there is a bunch of useful information to help guide us as we try to improve in the area of race safety.  It’s useful reading for athletes, race directors, and virtually anbody involved in the sport.

The last 2 pages of the final report outline a vision of Shared Responsibility for Race Safety, where athletes, event organizers, and USAT all have a role.  For each of these groups, there is a concise set of recommendations that may help to reduce the fatality rate going forward.  I truly believe that all of the viable strategies that are likely to have a favorable impact are included in that short list.

Safety Planning

We heard from Andy Emberton, Operations Manager, Communications Director, and Risk Manager for World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the folks that own the Ironman series of races.  Andy offered very practical advice for incident management (including fatalities among others) and explained in detail how careful event and safety planning were essential.  An ounce of prevention!  It’s clear that WTC has placed an emphasis on race safety and has gained tremendous experience over the years with large, long-distance triathlon events in a large number of venues throughout the world.

Bill Burke

The Saturday program included a great talk by Bill Burke, the owner of Premier Event Management in New Orleans.  Bill has had the opportunity to serve as race director for a bunch of large, high profile races including the New Orleans 70.3, Nation’s Triathlon, Hy-Vee Triathlon, Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, New York City Triathlon, Ironman New York, and the Olympic Trials for 2004 and 2008, among others.

He also has a unique history of having dealt with 10 athlete fatalities at his races over the years.  When I’ve talked with groups about the issue of race-related fatalities, I’ve often worried that the discussion of statistics often removes the human side of this issue.  Bill did a terrific job of describing the very human aspects of these tragic events.  He told the individual stories of 8 of those athletes, sharing a little bit about their athletic and personal history together with the details of how their race-day deaths unfolded.  You couldn’t help but have a tear in your eyes.  For the assembled Race Directors, he shared his insights about careful event and safety planning as well as interacting with surviving family members after the incidents.

A Few Thoughts

All organized sports, and particularly the endurance sports, will continue to need to address the issue of event-related fatalities.  Organizations such as the International Marathon Medical Directors Association and USA Swimminghave issued reports on this topic.  As the scientific community continues to learn about the causes–and opportunities to prevent–sports-related sudden cardiac arrest, we should work to incorporate these findings in our efforts to improve race safety.


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