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NYC triathlon raises question: Are triathlons dangerous?

August 9, 2011 |  7:44 am

TriathlonAre triathlons dangerous to your health?

Couch potatoes and other non-athletes assume this kind of impressive physical exertion improves lives, rather than takes them.

But in New York City last weekend, two competitors died from heart attacks after diving into the Hudson River during the swim-bike-run race. A 64-year-old man from New Jersey and a 40-year-old woman from Illinois each lost consciousness in the Hudson during the swim portion of the Nautica New York City Triathlon and later died from heart failure.

“New Yorkers signed up for a triathlon -– not a game of Russian roulette,” said Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President who on Monday called for a full review of requirements for participation and precautions. “With triathlons increasing in popularity,” he noted in a statement on his website, “we must do everything we can do to ensure the safety of all participants.”

He offered that the deaths might have been caused either by the extreme heat and humidity Sunday or the choppy waters and strong currents of the Hudson due to a heavy rain Saturday.

But race organizers said that neither the weather nor the water conditions was a problem.

Still, race director Bill Burke told the Associated Press that in the future he would like participants to provide a health certificate or proof that they have participated in another triathlon. He said the organizers of this 11th annual event, which drew 3,000 participants, make an effort to encourage participants to train and prepare properly by asking questions such as: "Have you done an open-water swim? Have you participated in another triathlon? How much training have you put into this?"

The New York competition involves athletes swimming a mile in the Hudson, biking 25 miles and running 6 miles in the city.

In expressing concern, Stringer cited a 2009 study by the Minneapolis Heart Institute that found that athletes participating in triathlons have twice the risk of sudden death. He also referred to the Journal of the American Medical Assn., which recently published a study saying that from 2006 to 2008, 14 people died while participating in triathlons, 13 while swimming. Temperatures exceeded 90 degrees in New York’s 2008 race, when a 32-year old Buenos Aires man died and 26 people were hospitalized for conditions related to heat exhaustion.

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 -- Geraldine Baum

Photo: Triathlons aren't exactly a casual workout, as New York City deaths prove. Here, competitors swim in the Seine River during the Paris Triathlon in July. Credit: Associated Press

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