Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 30 Dec 2006 05:55:37 -0500

Two-Wheel Tragedies


(rerun from December 1998 RC)

We runners all know the benefits of bicycling, even if we haven't bought into the activity ourselves. Biking complements running nicely or substitutes for it well. It's a quiet, clean, efficient and cheap (once you've paid for the bike) way to train and travel.

Having said all that, though, we're left to face the fact that the bicycle can be dangerous even when used as instructed. On a bike, while riding in the direction of traffic, we compete much more directly with cars than we do on the run. We're much nearer to disaster on one- to three-inch wheels than on two feet.

Tragic proof came during a few days of October 1998, when our sport lost a link to its history and part of its future. Beth Bonner, the first woman to break three hours in the marathon, died in New Orleans when her bike was struck by an 18-wheel truck. Chris Severy, a top runner for the University of Colorado, died when he apparently lost control of his bike and crashed.

Runners occasionally die while practicing their own sport, of course. But in nearly all cases this results from their own physical weaknesses and not from accident trauma.

I've lost no friends to runner-auto collisions, though thousands of us have run millions of miles within an arm's length of passing cars. I've lost friends to bike wrecks.

One wasn't a runner. He was my barber, Ron Johnson, who planned to ride from his home on the Monterey Peninsula to his parents' home in Sacramento.

A short distance out of Monterey he was startled by an approaching semi, looked back and veered into the truck's path.

Ed Jerome was a longtime runner on both coasts. He commuted by bicycle. One evening he was run down by an elderly motorist who claimed to have been blinded by the setting sun.

Two other friends were luckier. Len Wallach, onetime director of Bay to Breakers, recovered fully after being found unconscious in a ditch after a crash. John Keston, once the world's fastest 70-plus marathoner, suffered a broken hip suffered when his bike dumped him at a railroad crossing.

I'm sometimes a biker, and have been lucky. My two mishaps could have been bad but caused no serious damage.

I don't remember the first. It happened as a kid, when I was told I'd hit a pothole, sailed over the handlebars and spent the night in a daze. Luckily the bike wasn't taller or the speed faster.

The other accident came during a commute from the old Runner's World offices in California. I rode legally and seemingly safely -- in a bike lane, wearing a helmet, crossing an intersection with the green light -- when a car suddenly right-turned in front of me. The driver slammed on his brakes as I ejected from the bike, slid across his hood and eased down onto the roadway unhurt.

Scott Hubbard took a more dramatic spill dramatic. The Michigan Runner columnist tells his story:

"I was rolling along with the wind at my back at 20 miles per hour when I saw a dog in my peripheral vision. I had about a second to size up the speeding gray dog before we collided. I flipped over the handlebars and landed hard on my back.

"While lying on the ground, I focused on the potential damage and was relieved to at least be able to move my legs and arms. Later I took a close look at my helmet and saw a seven-inch diagonal crack. My 'brain bucket' had done its job really well."

Scott ended with, "If you think I'm going to urge you to wear a helmet, you're damn right. If you're not doing it for yourself, do it for others who care about you."

I can say the same for taking extra care about where and how you ride your bike. Your friends want YOU around, not just the memory of you.
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