Triathletes Nervous About New York Hudson Swim After 2011 Deaths

Timothy Fallon
Timothy Fallon, running with his daughter, Kyle, in the NYC Half Marathon on March 18, 2012. Source: Timothy Fallon via Bloomberg

Even after competing in about 75 triathlons, including the past seven New York City Triathlons, Timothy Fallon said he gets nervous before jumping in the water.

“You have to realize you’re going to get bumped and kicked,” Fallon, a 36-year-old mortgage trader at Merrill Lynch & Co., said in a telephone interview. “Nobody means you any harm, but it’s going to happen.”

Fallon and 4,000 others will stand on a wharf in the Hudson River on July 8 near Manhattan’s 96th street for the start of the NYC Triathlon, one year after two competitors died during the swim portion of the event. Race organizer John Korff, president of Korff Enterprises Inc., implemented changes this year in an attempt to ease concerns.

Korff, whose company has staged the race since 2000, made all entrants commit to completing an open-water swim of at least a half mile within 18 months of the event in an effort to better prepare them for what they will encounter in the river.

Korff said he received notes from many competitors after completing the practice swim.

“It seems like it was a stress-buster for a lot of people,” Korff said. “It gave them a comfort level. If you have a case of the yips, we’d rather you do it in a practice swim than during the race.”

In addition to the open-water swim requirement, the start of the swim portion this year will be more spread out to avoid congestion in the river, Korff said.

About 15-20 swimmers will start every 20 seconds, an increase from last year’s 10-second intervals. Spreading the participants out may ease the concerns of nervous swimmers, Korff said.

“There will be a more continuous flow,” he said. “It sounds small, but when you’re in the water it’s not.”

Panic Attacks

Emily Aldridge, a 27-year-old judicial court clerk in Manhattan who will be competing in the race for the first time, counts herself among the nervous.

“Just getting in is kind of daunting,” Aldridge said. “Getting past that is the first big challenge of the race.”

After suffering what she called panic attacks in her first two triathlons in 2009, Aldridge said she eased her concerns by competing in a sprint-distance triathlon, with a swim leg of 750 meters (820 yards), last month on Long Island. Sunday’s race will be her sixth triathlon.

New York’s Olympic-distance race includes a 1.5-kilometer swim, followed by a 40-kilometer bicycle leg along the Henry Hudson Parkway and then a run of 10 kilometers, finishing in Central Park. Ben Collins won the men’s race last year in 1 hour, 48 minutes and 11 seconds. Rebeccah Wassner won the women’s title in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 19 seconds.

Nervous Issue

While preparing for the race with open-water practice swims can help, veteran triathletes said nerves are always an issue, especially in a race that draws many first-time competitors, such as the New York event.

“It’s totally different than swimming in a pool,” Fallon said. “There’s an element of staying calm.”

Michael Kudryk, a 64-year-old from Freehold, New Jersey, and Amy Martich, a 40-year-old investment analyst from the Chicago area, died last year after suffering heart attacks while in the Hudson River. The swim is monitored by race personnel in boats, kayaks, jet skis and about three dozen lifeguards, Korff said.

“There’s not much more we can do,” Korff said. “We more than meet the safety standards.”

Dan Arnett, owner and head coach with Atlanta-based Endurance Concepts triathlon training program, said race directors can increase safety by creating a “novice swimmer” category. Those swimmers would go out last in their own group, preventing them from having to fight for water space with more experienced racers.

Novice Swimmers

“With the novice swimmers, they would know they need to be uber-vigilant,” Arnett, 37, said in a telephone interview. “It will also let these people be comfortable around each other. The biggest fear factor is the swim. If you stop in the swim, bad things happen.”

According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the sudden-death rate for triathlon competitors was twice as high as the rate for marathon runners.

Between 2006 and 2008, 14 people died during triathlons, equating to a sudden-death rate of 1.5 per 100,000 competitors, the study found. The rate for sudden deaths in marathons over a 30-year period was 0.8, according to the study. Of the triathlon deaths, 13 occurred during the swim portion -- one in a river, with six in ocean swims. Seven of nine athletes autopsied were shown to have cardiovascular abnormalities, according to the study.

Crowd Swim

“With the growth of the sport there probably are people that get into it that aren’t really familiar with what it’s like to swim with a lot of people around you,” Kevin Harris, a cardiologist with the Minneapolis Heart Institute who helped conduct the study, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a tough place to discover that in the midst of competition.”

The triathlon, which began in Southern California in the 1970s, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. Membership in USA Triathlon has grown to about 150,000 in 2012, compared with about 1,500 in 1982.

Because of that growth, the risk to inexperienced competitors increases, Fallon said. The best advice is for entrants to realize the nature of the race and to prepare themselves physically and mentally for it.

“This is not something you sign up for because you think it’s cool and you just want to do it,” Fallon said. “You have to take it seriously. You’re entering a triathlon, you probably should have done the work.”

Bloomberg Businessweek, whose parent company Bloomberg LP owns Bloomberg News, is one of the sponsors of the New York City Triathlon.

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