Questions remain about Half Marathon death

Questions remain about Half Marathon death
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

What happened in the moments between the May 17 collapse of a 31-year-old Williamsburg man near the Brooklyn Half Marathon finish line and his death later that day remains murky.

Our photographer was on the scene when John Mahaffey fell to the Coney Island Boardwalk at the end of the 13.1-mile race. She said that in the at-least three minutes that elapsed before run staffers transported him away on a golf cart, those attending to him stroked his arm and reassured him but did not perform CPR or make use of defibrillators, the devices that send a jolt to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat. That delay could have had deadly consequences, an expert said.

“Most people who die suddenly at marathons die from sudden cardiac arrest from ventricular fibrillation,” said Adam Singer, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University. “For every one minute delay in starting CPR in cardiac arrest the survival drops by about 10 percent.”

Here is what we know. Mahaffey completed the road race at 8:48 am, our lenswoman observed him convulsing on the ground before 8:55, and photo time stamps show him being carted away at 8:58. No one on hand contacted emergency dispatchers until 9:08 am, an ambulance picked Mahaffey up at 9:09 am for transport to Coney Island Hospital, and he died there later that day of cardiac arrest, according to Fire Department officials.

Here is the explanation offered. A spokesman for race organizer New York Road Runners said that Mahaffey was being treated by medical staff at an on-site care center during the gap between the golf-cart retrieval and the call for help.

“The runner who passed away was immediately attended to just past the finish line and transferred to an on-site field treatment station along the Boardwalk where he continued to be treated by the NYRR medical team with FDNY on site and then transported to the hospital,” said Road Runners spokesman Chris Weiller.

But the clarity ends there.

Weiller declined to elaborate on specifically what care Mahaffey received or who was on hand to administer it, but insisted everything was done properly.

“Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we are not sharing any of the details you are asking about publicly,” Weiller said. “He was provided with immediate and appropriate care.”

When asked to explain the safety precautions and medical staffing levels at the race, Weiller said that healthcare workers were placed throughout the race course and that they had “appropriate medical equipment, including automated external defibrillators,” but refused to provide the number of staff members.

He also would not say what type of medical personnel responded to Mahaffey, but said that the medical staff on hand for the race “consists of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, [emergency medical technicians], paramedics and other trained medical personnel.” He explained further that the Road Runners staffing system was devised with input from FDNY, and said that department personnel were on hand at the race medical area where Mahaffey was taken.

We were not able to get the answers we sought, but we did learn how comparable races are run in California.

The Surf City Marathon and Half Marathon in Huntington Beach, California saw 21,000 runners this year. The medical staff included 120 medical staff members — sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, emergency room nurses and doctors, and emergency medical technicians, an organizer for the race said. Three ambulances and four medical treatment tents were placed along the course and 18 bike riders patrolled the course throughout the race looking for runners in trouble, according to the organizer. The result of all those precautions is that there are few safer places in the world to have a life-threatening medical problem than at an organized run, she said.

“If a runner collapses during the race, they’ll get help a lot quicker than if they were somewhere else,” said Kathy Kinane, who has been helping plan races since 1990.

Still not clear is what rules in New York City govern big organized running events like the Brooklyn Half Marathon. The Police Department issues permits for them, but does not have specific requirements for medical staff, a rep said. The mayor’s office “coordinates” such big events, according to the police officer, but the mayor’s office would not say what it requires in the way of medical staffing.

The medical examiner’s office has not completed an autopsy of Mahaffey. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology states that most marathon deaths happen because of pre-existing heart conditions runners don’t know they have and that one in 50,000 runners are at risk of sudden death while on the road.

There is one other thing we know.

Mahaffey, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as owner of a real estate investment company, was a strong runner. He finished the endurance course in 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 46 seconds, putting him in 2,511th place in a pack of 25,644.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Long road: More than 25,000 runners tackled the 13.1-mile course during the May 17 Brooklyn Half Marathon.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham