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Triathlon Deaths: By the Numbers 

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013

On the morning of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, Ross Ehlinger was a husband, father, and athlete. By the end of the day he was a statistic.

Ehlinger, a 46-year-old Austin, Texas, attorney, was pulled from the bay's frigid water shortly after leaping in for the 1.5-mile swim; he died shortly thereafter of an apparent heart attack.

USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport, subsequently published a write-up of the event, listing the top American finishers. It did not, however, deign to mention the man who did not finish the race.

The governing body, however, has meticulously analyzed the death toll of its grueling sport: A 2012 paper it produced is straightforwardly titled "USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study."

Sadly, Ehlinger is far from the only person to die during a USA Triathlon-sanctioned event. Per the study, 45 fatalities occurred at triathlons between 2003 and 2011 (43 were athletes dying during or just after a race; the others were a fan who was hit by a bicycle and a swimmer who died during a training clinic).

Of those 43 fatalities, 38 died non-traumatically; 35 were men; and 30 died during the swimming portion of the event. The largest plurality of this unfortunate list were athletes aged 40 to 49. Ehlinger's death corresponds in every category.

Forty-three dead athletes sounds like a lot — because it is. USA Triathlon's study notes, however, that participation in the sport has exploded of late. In 2006, 276,458 participants ran, swam, and biked in sanctioned triathlons. By 2011, that number had doubled to 537,317. More racers doesn't necessarily translate into more deaths; three participants died in '06, and three died in 2010 — despite the latter year featuring nearly a quarter of a million more athletes. (On the other hand, in 2011, 12 athletes died.)

Between 2006 and 2011, one of every 76,000 triathletes died. Whether that's a lot depends on how you look at things. The USA Triathlon study cites a 2010 tally of London Marathon deaths claiming one fatality for every 67,414 runners. It quotes a similar study of the Twin Cities and Marine Corps marathons pegging the fatality rate at 1-in-75,000.

Venturing outside the world of athletics, the ever-reliable — and morbid — National Safety Council estimates your odds of death following "contact with hornets, wasps, and bees" at 1-in-79,842 — a likelihood only slightly lower than a triathlon fatality.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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