Alcatraz Race Director Urges Triathletes To Have Medical Exams

Bill Burke says he has witnessed the deaths of six competitors in the last five years at events he has organized.

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Bill Burke says he’s become numb to the tragic deaths at triathlons.

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 pre-race 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.

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