It's a bit disturbing to watch, but anybody who has watched an endurance event has seen similar situations. Of course one difference is that at amateur events, there's not even a paycheck waiting at the end. Potentially major medical issues are risked with the result of gettign one's name on a webpage of finishers. Even ignoring the all-too-frequent stories of death-by-car on brevets, there are plenty of anecdotes of participants at endurance events suffering severe medical consequences, or even dying.
I've never seen serious issues first-hand, but I've seen plenty that could have been serious. A few that I recall:
- Years ago I was volunteering at a 1200K (the exact event and participant to remain nameless, of course). One of the entrants was a fellow who had the willpower of Tyler Hamilton but, unfortunately, not the engine to match. From the first day he was hitting the controls right at the cutoff, a sure recipe for disaster on a 1200 where you need to bank time early. After two completely sleepless nights and riding through 100+ degree days he arrived at a control, again at the cutoff, clearly out of his gourd but unwilling to withdraw. I'm not sure what the official obligations of a rando ride organizer are but I think that for various reasons they aren't supposed to "pull" a rider. I'll leave the details a bit murky here, but the organizer had a volunteer feed and re-hydrate the rider while the organizer, shall we say, sabotaged the bicycle to ensure that the rider would opt to drop out of the ride.
- While volunteering at an ultra event, the rider I was supporting reached a state of complete delirium. The best parallel I can draw is the stage that Jure Robic's team described in Bicycle Dreams, where he was imagining mailboxes as soldiers trying to attack him. In my rider's case, on a course he'd ridden many times before, he simply refused to believe that we were going the right way. Several times he stopped riding, and refused to go further. Despite this, however, he was able to continue riding his bike at a reasonable clip, and he finished the ride without a problem. Interestingly after a short rest after evening, he was more lucid than the rest of us the following morning.
- Max and I were riding paceline on the BWR 1200K when a mischievous rock found its way in front of Max' front wheel. My recollection of what followed is a series of snapshots. In the first his front wheel is turned nearly 90 degrees sideways. In the second, his front wheel is ejecting from the fork. In the third I'm endo-ing over him. He wound up with a concussion but neither of us had any broken bones. Presumably it would have been possible, though highly unadvisable, for him to continue the ride. I certainly could have, but we both opted to abandon.
In fact, I can think of very few > 600K events where I haven't seen something happen that, on a different day or slightly different circumstance, could have been a medical emergency. This seems utterly insane. There's no glory in these events. You pay a bunch of money to participate, you suffer for a prolonged period of time, and then at the end nobody really cares what you've done but you.
But that aside, more interesting to me is how few of these potential medical issues result in real medical issues. For every story like the first above where the rider clearly needed to be pulled, there are 10 stories of riders who complete a 1200K or longer with single-digit hours of sleep. Yes, at the end they are incoherent. But they finish.
My rider in the ultra event finished safely. On the BWR, despite what could have been a serious mishap Max was, after a few days of rest, fine. If we usually survive weaving down a highway at 20 MPH (OK 14 MPH), sleep deprived, with heavy semi-traffic it makes it apparent how large of a safety buffer we have in our daily routines when we operate on a full night's sleep. Most of the time that we feel like we need to quit an event, it's because we're experiencing mild discomfort, not because there is any real danger.
The appeal of the amateur ultra events is seeing what your limits are, and seeing if you can push your own boundaries. Honestly for anyone in decent physical condition, the events are (far) more mental than physical. We've all seen riders who would be considered obese to the casual observer finish 1200s or marathons.
But what obligation do we have, as volunteers or spectators, when things start to go sideways? Once you start to intervene it's a slippery slope. If your rider is is clearly in dire straits, do you pull him? Or perhaps adopt a more neutral stance and let him decide? What if he's ready to drop; do you encourage him to keep riding? What if you do, and he weaves into oncoming traffic? Any supported event is a team effort, but it's a fine line between the support crew providing needed encouragement or pushing a rider beyond where they should go.
The video at the top is of course a completely different situation. The runner is a professional who, based on his race number is probably quite accomplished. The dangers a professional runner faces in a 2 hour marathon is are completely different than what an amateur endurance cyclist faces in a 2-3 day ultra event. But you can see the same dilemma facing the vounteers. Do you encourage him to keep running (as his agent, allegedly the guy yelling in the video, was doing)? Should the EMTs have pulled him as soon as he was clearly having major issues? It would be a real shame if his collapse had been followed by death, with EMTs jogging alongside him immediately prior.
Since I really don't have a point I'll stop writing. I'm signed up as crew for two ultra events this year, and these are the things that run through my head, at 3 in the morning.