Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fitness and Health

Today I received word that Steve Larsen died. At first it was assumed to be the result of a heart attack, but was later determined to be some how associated with a breathing problem he had been having. It’s all still quite vague. Perhaps we’ll know more in a few days.

Although I didn’t know Steve very well, our lives had overlapped a few times. In the 1980s he was an aspiring junior cyclist from Colorado and the same age as my son, Dirk. They used to go to races together. Before either had drivers licenses my wife was their chauffeur. She always said that Steve was a handful at that age.

I next saw Steve at the Sea Otter race in about 1999, I believe. We spoke very briefly. He was racing mountain bike that day but I don’t recall how he did.

Then came July, 2001 when I was the coach of pro triathlete Ryan Bolton. By this time I had been coaching Ryan for four years. Up until then he had been racing ITU World Cup events and been on the 2000 USA Olympic team in triathlon’s inaugural appearance. Following Sydney Ryan decided he wanted to change challenges and win an Ironman. His first would be Ironman Lake Placid. As it turned out, Steve had also decided to become an Ironman athlete after a great career as a roadie and mountain biker. Long story short: Ryan came in second that day to Steve who had an awesome bike leg and then ran a 2:54 on something like 12 miles of running a week (it was the fastest he ever ran). I thought Ryan would be able to run Steve down, but it wasn’t to be. (Ryan went on to win in Lake Placid in 2002).

For the next few years I would occasionally run into Steve at some race. The last time was in Kona. He was always friendly and asked about Dirk and Ryan.

It’s hard to imagine someone so fit and robust dying during a workout. But unfortunately it happens. The last time something of this magnitude happened was in 1984 when Jim Fixx died while out on a run at age 52. I remember it vividly because at the time I owned a running store and the running boom was still in its formative years.

Fixx was the author of The Complete Book of Running which was published by Random House in 1977. Here you see the cover of that book. The legs are the author’s – at the time a 45-year-old man who had run several marathons. The book was the best selling, hard-cover, non-fiction book ever published as of 1977.

In the book Fixx said that if you ran a marathon you would not die from a heart attack. We all believed him. Something else would eventually get us but it wouldn’t be the old ticker stopping. So you can imagine what his death while on a run in Vermont did to the running community. It scared the hell out of a lot of people who decided to give up the sport believing it was too risky.

Later we learned that Fixx’s father and grandfather had also both died of heart disease and at younger ages than him. So more than likely Fixx’s lifestyle bought him a few more years. But being highly fit definitely did not overcome his genetics. Interestingly, that same year he had been offered a free stress test by Dr. Kenneth Cooper at his clinic in the Dallas area. Fixx turned it down believing there was no need to test his health. He was obviously fit. What could be better?

Unfortunately, as both Jim Fixx’s and Steve Larsen’s deaths show, great fitness does not mean you also have great health. While this post is mostly just a time for me to reminisce, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can’t take your health for granted no matter how fit you are. Here's another: Who would have thought that a 25-year-old, World Champion cyclist and Olympian could possibly have cancer in an advanced stage. These things happen even to fit athletes of all ages. You may be fit, but you’re not necessarily healthy. The two are not the same.


At May 20, 2009 11:00 PM , Anonymous John Martinez-San Diego Sports Medicine Doctor said...


Good post about Steve, and such a shock.

I had run across him several times from working medical at the NORBA Nationals (including Lance Armstrong's one appearance in 1999), Lake Placid Ironman in 2001 and then in Kona.

A painful reminder that life is very, very short.

-Doc John

At May 21, 2009 8:04 AM , Anonymous Shane84 said...

When you say that great fitness does not mean you also have great health, does this pertain mostly to eating a good diet, no matter how much running, cycling, etc. workouts you do? I have read the Paleo Diet for Athletes. Would following this diet be the best way to good health along with training?

At May 21, 2009 8:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe -
You are absolutely correct about fitness and health. While training for the Berlin Marathon in 2005 I had managed to drop 10 pounds unexpectedly (boy was I happy - but it was 6% of my weight), I then started feeling sluggish and eventually needing to pee alot. Continued drinking of energy drinks seemed to make it worse rather than better. I eventually discovered I was a late onset type 1 Diabetic and my blood sugar was over 600 (normal people have BS of around 80).

I did not make the Berlin marathon, but will be doing IM Coeur D'Alene in 4 weeks.

At May 21, 2009 9:18 AM , Anonymous Mat Martin said...

Joe, your comments are spot on and I would add one's fitness level doesn't preclude them from contracting acute diseases and infections. In fact, failing to recognize when to back off can put you in the hospital (or worse). I am an example of that.

Last Fall I contracted a mild flu. I wasn't bed-ridden, so I continued light daily workouts, and after a few days went back to a full routine. After a 50 mile bike, followed by a 10-12 mile run the next day, my "mild flu" suddenly turned into pneumonia. This in turn developed into a serious condition called empyema, which are abscessed infections on the outer lining of the lung. I ended up having open lung surgery to correct it, and spent 3 months trying to recover lung function and muscle strength. I am 42 years old. I never NEVER thought a simple case of the flu would end up putting me in the operating room. I thought I was "too fit" for that.

At May 21, 2009 3:11 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Shane84--Health is based on many things including diet but also genetics, emotional stress, and many other lifestyle issues. A diet based primarily on fruits, vegs and lean protein is highly recommended.

At May 23, 2009 5:47 AM , Anonymous David Brown said...


What a shock, I remember Steve coming to the OTC when he was a junior. I spoke last night with one of the Dr's from Bend who new Steve well. What they did know was he had a cardiac virus and they believe that virus attacked his electric stimulus of the heart. They said one of the worst things was doing intervals with this virus. Your article about health and fitness is so spot on. The saddest thing about all this is Steve leaves five very young kids. The oldest is 13, then 11 and down from there.

The one thing this reminds me atleast is it doesn't matter how much we are training and how healthy we think we are, it is important to see our Dr's every year just to make sure that the stress we are putting on our bodies is not doing more damage.

It also brings home how short life is and to enjoy and charish every single day. Thanks Joe.


At May 28, 2009 3:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read at that, they were going to do an autopsy on Steve larrson. It seems that people are already going to be confused on his situation until the results of the autopsy come out. Is it a virus, a breathing problem, or something else?
Has the autopsy been done yet? If so Joe, please, let us know in this blog/comments, the results, if you can. Thanks.

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