Alcatraz Race Director Urges Triathletes to Have Medical Exams

The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon race director, who has witnessed the deaths of six competitors in the last five years at events he has organized, is urging participants to get proper prerace medical examinations.

Bill Burke, director of the San Francisco event since 2009 and the New York City Triathlon since 2001, said preparing for the endurance sport involves more than practicing swimming, biking and running.

“People need to understand this is not a road race,” Burke, 57, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “When things go bad in the water, they go bad rather quickly. You’ve got to know what’s going on in your system. I get frustrated because I think a lot of these things are avoidable. Sadly, and I hate to say this, I’ve become numb to it. It’s unfortunate.”

Ross Ehlinger, a 46-year-old man from Austin, Texas, died during the swim portion of the San Francisco race three days ago, the first fatality in the event’s 33-year history.

Burke said he has organized road running races and triathlons for 34 years, including the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004, 2008 and 2012. He said he had five athletes die in the first 29 years he was involved in endurance sports, one fewer than in the past five years.

The recent rise, he said, probably is due to athletes not undergoing proper medical tests as the sport’s popularity increases.

‘Cardiac Event’

Based on personal experience and information he received from first responders on the scene, Burke said Ehlinger probably suffered a “massive cardiac event” soon after he started the 1 1/2-mile (2.4-kilometer) swim in San Francisco Bay off Alcatraz Island. The water temperature was about 51 degrees Fahrenheit (10.5 degrees Celsius).

“It’s Alcatraz,” Burke said. “It’s not to be taken lightly. This is a difficult race.”

Burke said another competitor told him afterward that Ehlinger was nervous before jumping into the water.

“Based on what I’ve heard, he was very apprehensive and sweating bullets while on the boat,” Burke said. “That’s not a good sign.”

More than 2,000 amateur and professional athletes from 13 to 80 years old competed in the triathlon, which included an 18-mile bike ride and an eight-mile run through San Francisco following the swim in the choppy currents off Alcatraz Island.

Ironman Death

Ehlinger’s death came less than seven months after a 43-year-old man died during New York’s first Ironman-length race. In 2011, two competitors died during the swim portion of the Olympic-distance New York City triathlon, which Burke organizes.

USA Triathlon released a study in October 2012 that found 30 of 43 athlete fatalities in triathlons from 2003 through 2011 happened during the swim portion. The study found most triathlon-related deaths were caused by sudden cardiac incidents and that course conditions didn’t play a role.

With the increase in triathlon deaths, Burke said, he has implemented a variety of safety measures at races he puts on, including requiring competitors to agree to completing an open-water swim for the New York race and attending mandatory prerace safety briefings. He has canceled the swim portion of the New Orleans 70.3-mile half Ironman race the past two years due to rough water conditions.

He said he recommends that all competitors get examined by a sports-specific cardiologist and undergo a race-simulation stress test. He said privacy laws forbid him from requiring competitors to bring notes from physicians showing they passed those tests.

Spend Wisely

“People are spending $5,000-$10,000 on a high-end triathlon bike, but they’re not spending the $300 to get checked out physically to find out if they’re physically capable of completing the event,” Burke said. “That’s the most important expense that people can have.”

For the Alcatraz race, Burke said, there were more than 100 boats, kayaks, lifeguards and emergency personnel in the water near the start area. Less than 10 competitors asked to be pulled from the water due to the cold temperatures, he said.

“Unfortunately, what I came to realize a long time ago, no matter how prepared you are, sometimes things are out of your control,” Burke said. “In athletic events, as in life, things just happen.”