The death of a well-known ultrarunner, Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco), who'd been lost for four days after going out for a run in a New Mexico wilderness, sent a tremor through some of the social media a few days ago. For millions of Americans, running trails has become a passionate avocation, and the story of Micah True, as recounted in the book Born to Run, has been an inspiration for many. His death recalls the similarly shocking demise of Jim Fixx, author of the bestselling Complete Book of Running, in 1984. Fixx's book had helped promote the belief that distance running is good for one's heart, overall health, and longevity--and his death at age 58 brought a hail of "I-told-you-so" scorn from skeptics who thought that belief was hokum. Micah True, like Jim Fixx, was just 58 when he died.
Since Fixx's death, of course, the skeptics have been resoundingly refuted. Thousands of cardiologists, sportsmedicine physicians, and other doctors are now avid distance runners--many of them ultrarunners like True. The evidence of enhanced cardiovascular health and longevity bestowed by aerobic running has only been strengthened. But with True's death, some of the skeptics are back. And once again, they are wrong. And now, with millions of Americans hitting the trails (Surveys by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association indicate that more than 49 million Americans are active lifestyle runners or joggers), the damage that could be done by misinformed skeptics is much larger.
Here's the problem. Americans have fought a losing battle against obesity, passivity, and sloth over the past half-century--partly because our economic system pours an endless river of money into advertising and marketing junk food, junk science, and pop-culture pursuits of quick gratification. By comparison, only a minuscule amount of funding finds its way to enlightening the population about the kinds of lasting benefits to body, mind, and soul that come from activities like long-distance hiking, swimming, bicycling, mountain climbing, or long-distance running. That makes the public image of endurance sports very vulnerable to media distortion or marginalization. Sports like ultrarunning get no attention from the nightly sportscaster chatter on ESPN or NBC, or newspaper sports pages managed by editors who've never even heard of the Leadville 100-Mile or American River 50.
So, if a bizarre news item like the death of an ultrarunner does come to their attention, the resulting stories give the public a hugely distorted impression of the risks of wilderness trail running. One result might be that the parents of young athletes might prefer to have their kids play football, under the watchful eyes of trained coaches, rather than let them go wandering off into the woods where who knows what might happen. Never mind that statistically, the danger of a concussion and brain injury on the football field are vastly higher than that of serious injury or death on the trail.
Meanwhile, with such distorted impressions being promulgated, who gets hurt? Not we long-distance trail runners, who know perfectly well that the someone dying while out for a run is in fact extremely rare, and who will not be the least deterred. The people who get hurt are the general public, whose culturally inculcated and media-shaped reluctance to engage in physical exercise, not to mention endurance activities, will only be reinforced. The major-media sports reporters, ESPN talking torsos, and gladiator-sport groupies should be ashamed.