This is a story about life and death and love. Peter Hass and Bill Goggins both had generous and loving hearts that stopped beating way too early. And it is about running, the thrill, the addiction, the risk. And, in a way, it is about me, because I am a runner.
By PER SKOVKJÆR SAND
Peter Hass died on February 6, 2011, 36 year old, in Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon. Photo from guest book on legacy.com.
Bill Goggins died in San Francisco Marathon July 2006, 43 years old. Photo from billspeak.com.
I was sitting in my kitchen. Sunbeams pierced the windows and were absorbed in the oak table in front of me. It was unusually hot for the beginning of February. A headline in The San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye. The story was about a 36-year old father from Orinda who had dropped dead on the finish line in a half marathon the day before. I am a runner myself, and the story stuck. It started to form questions. Why do apparently healthy runners drop dead just like that? I would later learn that this story repeats itself a thousand times every year in the US.
Three weeks later I meet 34-year old D’Andre Lopez at Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Fremont near San Francisco. A white bear is printed on his shirt. His body is strong and short, shaped in his youth as a wrestler. Now the wrestler is running instead. Three weeks ago he saw a man die.
The wrestler woke up at 4.30 a.m. February 6 2011 and had breakfast. The sun was starting to come up a little, and the sky was purple, as he climbed out of the car. The air was mild and he took off one layer of clothes.
Kickstart My Heart was the first song on the wrestler’s playlist. The guitar of the Modley Crüe song went wrooooooommmmm.
One thousand american runners drop dead every year in the US - during exercise or races. Photo from US Half Marathon 2011, San Francisco, by: Per Skovkjær Sand
The crowd looked like a parade of running shoes and hats. Somewhere 36-year old Peter Hass was preparing for the race, too. His wife, Eden, and their two year old son, Gavin, were at home. Peter Hass’ favorite phrase was “today is the best day of my life”. And indeed Peter Hass’ had good reasons to be happy. In Eden’s belly the little heart of his unborn child was beating.
Twenty-one year old Carly Bliss was preparing for the race too. Unlike the wrestler, she had no music in her ears. She did not want Rihanna to distance her from the experience of running a half marathon for the first time. She looked at the other runners chatting at the starting line. Some were running in groups. Adrenalin burst through her veins when the race started. Her anxiousness had become excitement.
The 10,000 runners shuffled their feet. The wrestler was in the back and had thousands of people in front of him. On one of the first hills he caught a glimpse of them. They looked like an army of ants.
Peter Hass most likely was one of the ants running in front of the wrestler. He had been a runner for a long time, and he had trained at least six weeks for this race. He met his wife, Eden, at the University of California Berkeley, where he studied Environmental Science. A friend from the youth recalls how much of a team Peter Hass and Eden were as a couple. They both appeared to be very much in love. Peter Hass loved dogs, and before graduating he and Eden had started their own business. They sold pet toys, and it turned into a big company. You would often find Peter Hass in the kitchen preparing a meal, and he would greet his friends with a smile and a pat on the back.
Carly Bliss had the feeling of mentally blacking out. She would run for miles not thinking of anything. It was just like fishing, standing on the river for hours, not producing anything, not hearing anything. She had a mysterious and cool feeling of being connected to all the people around her.
A refreshing breeze from the Pacific Ocean ran through the wrestler’s hair. At mile eight he started thinking of his legs. He had forgotten the salt packages that should prevent him from cramping. Around mile 11 he felt twitches in his leg.
Carly Bliss could not believe that it was so hot in the beginning of February. She felt like she was in the warm Santa Ana winds of Southern California. She ran faster and faster. Maybe Peter Hass was behind her all the time, or maybe she passed him by somewhere. Actually their finishing times are so close that it is hard to determine whether Peter Hass finished right before Carly Bliss, without her noticing it, or right after her.
Carly Bliss at the place in Golden Gate Park where Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon ended and Peter Hass collapsed at the finish line. Photo: Per Skovkjær Sand
She turned around the corner to the finish line. 1 hour 59 minutes and 30 seconds the clock said. “Gogogogogo” yelled the man on the microphone. Another girl was running next to her. They started sprinting, and at 1 hour 59 minutes and 59 seconds she finished. She threw her hands in the air and entered a scene, where the happiness of the unknowing was about to encounter the horror of a man dying. She felt happy and lonely at the same time. Everybody was embracing, runners were tackled by friends and family, saying “Im so proud of you” and “You did so good.” Some were crying. She had no one there to embrace.
Peter Hass crossed the finish line and collapsed face down. Someone rolled him over, and he had gashes on his forehead and was foaming at the mouth. Other runners gave him CPR.
Hobbling, the wrestler saw a man in front of him. The man was 60, maybe 70 years old. A competitive fire started to burn deep inside the wrestler, where there has been a defiant flame since that day in high school when he lost a wrestling match by two points to a guy whom he should have beaten. His coach was yelling at him in the bus, and he wanted to quit wrestling. But the next morning he put his wrestling clothes in the backpack and went to practice, where he was met by the trainer saying: “Don’t put your foot here until you’ve got something to prove.”
At the next tournament the wrestler was beating everybody. The trainer’s words are still printed deep inside the wrestler’s mind, and on the last mile of the half marathon they gave him that extra fuel to the fire he needed in order to beat the old guy. His calf cramped right at the moment he hit the finish line. But the cramps stopped immediately when he saw a pair of white running shoes pointing to the air.
“I’ve got the defibrillator, I’ve got the defibrillator,” a man in a yellow jacket yelled. “Get out of the way.” Other runners were kneeling on the asphalt beneath Peter Hass. The man on the microphone urged people to keep on moving on the narrow road. A woman ran so close by Peter Hass that she saw the blood in his face. Maybe he had a head injury, she thought, wondering why he was not moved away from the finish line.
As Carly Bliss walked slowly home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, she saw firetrucks and ambulances coming in the opposite direction. Across the street from where she lives, there is a pastel yellow house with white frames around the windows and around the carport. In the carport there is a pastel yellow car. And next to that car, Carly Bliss’ neighbor usually sits watching the world passing bye on 25th Avenue.
There he sat this morning waving to her. She pointed to the beeper that had measured her time at the race. The neighbor gave her a thumbs up. Finally somebody knew what she had done. She wanted the whole world to know. She did not know that one of her fellow runners was dying until she talked to a friend that night. She pictured everyone around him going “ohhh” as they saw him fall. She thought about who was taking care of him.
The wrestler looked at the faces of the spectators at the finish line. Some people where covering their mouths with their hands. They had seen what he just saw. He felt that something was wrong. The scary thing was that it was almost as if nothing had happened. You would only know if you looked at that exact spot where two runners kneeled over Peter Hass and two white running shoes pointed hopelessly to the air. Peter Hass’ heart had stopped beating.
The coroner’s report has not come out yet, but he probably died from cardiac arrest, R. J. Waldsmith tells me two months later.
Waldsmith is the attorney for Peter Hass’ family. Friends and family to Peter Hass have forwarded my emails to the attorney. His job is to find some answers.
A story told a thousand times
Dr. Paul D. Thomson. Photo from Heartford Hospital.
For several decades Dr. Paul D. Thompson has tried to find the answers to why runners drop dead. Thompson has completed the last 11 Boston Marathons. In 1976 he finished 16th in it. He is also a professor and director of the Division of Cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. He has researched hearts since he ran the Bay To Breakers in San Francisco in the end of the 1970s. A runner died in this run, which is a 12K. At that time, Thompson was a fellow at Stanford University and together with one of his colleagues he started to gather information about sudden death during exercise.
Since then, he has published more than 200 scientific articles on topics that include effects of exercise, heart diseases and sudden death during exercise. In 1992 and 1993, he commented on the NYC Marathon while running it himself. He knows running from high above and from inside the very heart of it.
Thompson’s studies show that one in 15,000 previously healthy runners drop dead per year. Sixteen million americans went for a run 100 times or more in 2009, according to the most recent statistics from Running USA, a non-profit organization for the running industry. When you divide 16 million American runners by 15,000, you realize that more than 1000 U.S. runners drop dead each year.
Sudden Cardiac Death or SCD is the definition for what we usually just know as people dying from heart attacks. The phenomenon is also referred to as a “cardiac event.”
“In any race in any distance there are people who drop dead. Most of them are cardiac events,” Thompson says.
Women are taking over half marathons. 58 percent of the american half marathon finishers in 2010 were women. In 2004 the number was 49 percent. Source: Running USA. Photo: Per Skovkjær Sand
Cardiac Arrest is another term to describe what is going on in the heart when it is not able to pump blood around the body anymore. Sudden Cardiac Arrest can cause Sudden Cardiac Death.
Different things lead to cardiac arrest. When it happens to young people under 30 it is usually because of an inherited problem in the heart. But when we grow older cholesterol builds up in the arteries, Thompson explains.
“You can have cholesterol in the arteries in a very young age. Each case is different, but I have seen people at 35 drop dead from cholesterol in their arteries,” he says.
Thompson describes the arteries as rubber hoses. If a rubber hose lays in the sun, it becomes hard. The same thing happens to arteries if there is cholesterol in them. If you try to bend that rubber hose, it will crack and start leaking. That will form a blood clot, which gives you a blockage and causes a heart attack.
The problem is that it happens very quickly. There is no sign of danger until the rubber hose cracks, and then it might be too late. Thompson uses another picture to illustrate, what happens: Imagine that the blood cells are cars driving along a highway. If they knew that there was going to be construction ahead, they would take a detour in to the city. They would use what is called a collateral artery to get to the heart. But the blood cells do not know because the rubber hose cracks suddenly.
“It happens very quickly before the heart can adapt and make bypasses,” Thompson says.
That somehow explains how runners are able to run perfectly fine for the whole race, without feeling that anything should be wrong, and then suddenly drop dead at the finish line. Actually that is often the case.
“There seem to be an inappropriate high number of (cardiac) events at the finish lines. If you look at deaths during marathons a lot of them occur at the finish line,” Thompson says. ” That may be because people push themselves especially hard in the last period of the race.”
This last power output might cause the rubber hose to crack. Another reason for the many deaths at the finish line could be the fact that you stop running. Then the big leg muscles stop squeezing blood back toward the heart, and all the blood pools in the legs. But the exact answer is yet to be found.
Thompson says, “There is an increased risk of cardiac arrest at the finish line, but nobody knows why.”
Cynical in Sweden
I am a runner myself, and I remember last year climbing the hills of Gothenburg in Sweden in a half marathon. It was the second largest half marathon in the world in 2010. The Swedish online newspaper Epoch Times reported that it was the warmest day of the year so far. 80,4 Fahrenheit.
We were running at the harbor. I was in one of the last groups of the 38,459 runners who finished the race. When I left the starting gate runners were finishing at the same time. We were one sweaty snake of muscles and hearts contracting and pumping to push us forward, forward, forward. I felt good, I had music in my ears, and I got into the rhythm. I tried to run as smooth and easy as possible, not pushing the fibers too much. I followed a white line on the pavement, I crossed other runners, I enjoyed the music. But then my iPod froze. I tried to restart it, but it was impossible, I slowed down pushing all the buttons. It was dead. Pixels no longer responding to my command. All I had was my breath, the sound of hundreds of people moving, and the rhythm of my heart beating. Tack-tack, tack-tack.
There was water every half kilometer, and every time I took some and poured it over my head and my shirt, and it kept me cool for some time. I ran zig-zag between people pushing myself. Forward, forward.
The longer I run the more cynical I become. The instincts are taking over I guess. I recklessly overtake people on the inside or wherever there is a free space.
I looked desperately for the kilometer signs all the time, looked at my watch, tried to follow a very athletic looking man in front of me. On the pavement there were sponges that people had thrown away after using them to get water in their faces. I turned left. Now the road went up. I looked for the kilometer signs again. There were so many people – almost claustrophobic. Suddenly my family was there cheering at the side of the road among the sounds of others cheering. I speeded up for some meters but had to slow down again. My thoughts were hunting me. Why am I doing this? I tried to convince my legs to move on step by step. Now I knew the area. Just one kilometer to go.
I ran up the last hill in the burning sun and got in to the last part before the stadium, where I had seen a guy from Kenya finishing in 1 hour 1 minute and 10 seconds hours ago as the winner. I had been out there for little more than one and a half hours.
Finally I crossed the finish line, I got a medal, a banana and a chocolate cookie. It stuck in my dry throat, and it was worth four months of training in the coldest winter in years.
Sixty-three runners were hospitalized that day, the Swedish online newspaper gt.expressen.se reported. Two of them were in a critical condition. They were both men between 35 and 40 years old – just like Peter Hass. They stayed at the hospital for a day before they went home.
But why do we push ourselves so badly that we might loose everything? Why do we provoke our weaknesses so much that it might cause a blood clot and leave our heart like a frozen pixel on an iPod?
“Running for life”
It is Sunday morning 10 a.m. in San Francisco. Exactly three weeks after Peter Hass died in Golden Gate Park just a few miles away. Twenty-something runners from the Golden Gate Running Club are gathered at the water’s edge near Golden Gate Bridge.
Tracy Warner is running the six mile today toward Fort Mason and back again. Last year she ran her first and only half marathon – the same in which Peter Hass died this year.
She is fit with thin but strong muscles in the legs and the arms. Her hair is golden. She is 36 years old, and for the last 10 years she has been working as a teacher. She talks over her breath while running. She heard about Peter Hass, but she did not know his age.
“Was he young? 36, oh my God that’s awful. His family… So this has happened before,” she asks.
“Yeah, it happened in San Jose two years ago,” I respond.
Brandon Whitehurst, 35, from Antioch and 34-year old Rose Lo from South San Francisco died in Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in San Jose in 2009, sfgate.com reported. They both collapsed near the end of the 13.1 mile race.
Tracy Warner knows what it is like to push herself to the limit. She did that last year while running the half marathon. She had had a cold, so she was not able to prepare properly for the race. She started training two weeks before. The difficult point came after 10 miles with three to go.
“I felt like I could not go on. I felt like shit,” she says and laughs.
The sun lights up the green grass on Crissy Field to our right. Small waves move on the surface of San Francisco Bay to our left like a calm breath.
“I was exhausted and ready to throw myself on the road. My friend kept me going. I don’t like to fail. I would not start to walk while she was there. It was my desire to do well,” she says.
Before the finish line a thought echoed in her head: I can’t make it, I can’t make it. But I have to!
At the finish line everything changed.
“I felt so great after it, psychologically. I felt happy.”
The death of Peter Hass does not make her think twice about running.
“I think that it can’t happen to me, so it doesn’t scare me. It’s not gonna stop me from racing,” she says.
Thirty-one year old Alex Strehl is part of our group too. We have turned around after three miles and are now on the way back. He is a tall guy. He is very calm and runs like a strong machine. He likes to race up the hills. He has always been an athlete, and a couple of years ago he started to run.
One day he was bored at the office and he asked his colleagues if they wanted to run the stairs with him.
“No. Ask Dan,” they said.
And so Alex Strehl did. Dan beat the hell out of him. But then Dan told Alex Strehl that he was an amateur stair climber and invited Alex Strehl to a stair climbing competition in Chicago.
“You just walk up the fastest you can. On the 80’th floor, I could not breathe anymore. It is very hard on the lungs, especially when you have asthma like I do. My lungs were burning and I was coughing for 30 minutes after I finished.”
We are back at Crissy Field.
“I’m gonna speed up for the end,” Alex Strehl says and increases the pace.
“Do you understand how people can push themselves so much that they die,” I ask him.
“Well they don’t know they are going to die. You have to go against what your body tells you. It’s important to be careful not over stressing the body. Some people do it, but it’s fairly rare. It’s not something I’m worried about,” he says as we turn a little to the right and set in the final kick towards the meeting point. We are both coughing and breathing heavily.
“Hundred meters,” I say.
” Yeah, I’m beginning to slow down. I don’t want to stress my heart too much,” Alex Strehl says with a little smile.
“The good thing is that in the long run it is good for your heart to run,” I reply. “Runners actually have a lower mortality rate than others. I’m not gonna stop.”
“Me neither. Running is for life.”
You are seven times more likely to get a heart attack while running than at rest, the running expert, Thompson, tells me on the phone from Connecticut.
“While you are actually running it is seven times more dangerous. But that is just one piece of the puzzle. You have to look at the whole picture to understand it. We think that exercise overall reduces your chances of having a cardiac event, but while you are actually doing it your risk goes up,” he says.
I ask him if we should be afraid of running.
It depends on whether you like to do it or not, Thompson says. “I have always been running marathons, not for my health, but because I like running marathons. If you want to do things for your health there are a lot of other things that are just as helpful. But if you want to race marathons, you don’t have much choice but to race marathons.”
I am writing this sentence with exuding blisters on my feet, blisters that made me scream in the shower. The coffee rippled in my stomach as I stumbled through the Presidio with a heartburn. At Golden Gate Bridge I felt the blisters. But I had to cross it, that was my goal for the day. Like all great constructions, the dimensions of Golden Gate Bridge are hard to measure with the human eye. Red wires continuously entered the right side of my vision and left behind me. But the pylon did not seem to come any closer. The inner side of my shoe had started to eat my skin under the soccer socks. Like a little piranha it was digging into my flesh. Finally I reached the other side of the bridge. I was half way through.
My feet hurt, but I realized that if I stopped, I would never make it back home. I had to keep on going. I thought of love. I considered if I should run that half marathon in 14 days. At one point the blisters stung so badly that I had to stop. I felt like running on pillows of liquid pain. But at this time I guess the pillows had been cut open. The skin had started to peel, leaving my raw flesh naked and vulnerable in front of the hungry piranha. So I started running again. Back home I rolled down my soccer socks. The skin curled in small heaps. I think I am going to run that half marathon.
Attorney investigates death of Peter Hass
The death of Peter Hass was controversial. Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, told the San Francisco Chronicle that, the firefighters were “appalled” that the event had no medical staff or basic equipment available near the finish line.
“Everybody who assisted on the resuscitation effort identified themselves. Not one person identified themselves as being part of the event medical team at any point. Our members were left reeling from the experience,” Talmadge said.
This statement was contradicted by Dave Rhody, founder and president of RhodyCo Productions, who produced the race. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rhody said that emergency medical technicians based at two tents near the finish line were on the scene trying to help Hass within five minutes.
Spectators tell another version of the story. Many people commented on news articles on the internet the following days and on Facebook. A large number of people say that it took more than 20 minutes for the help to arrive. The day after the race Bill Smart wrote this on Facebook: “I stood there with my father in law watching in horror. This was (in my estimation) the most egregious, negligent thing I have ever witnessed. This poor gentlemen may have been dead the minute he hit the ground but I can tell you he was not given a fighting chance. He laid their for 31 minutes (I counted) without true medical support.”
Late response affects the chances of surviving, Thompson, the heart and running expert, says:
“If it takes half an hour the chances of survival are very poor, but you can keep someone going for half an hour with good CPR,” Thompson says.
In the days after Peter Hass died his friends and family searched for answers among the people who witnessed him die at the finish line. Peter Hass’ brother, Michael, responded publicly to a person who had commented on a news story about Peter Hass: “I am Peter Hass’s brother can you please contact me and tell me what you saw at the half marathon on Sunday. No family members or close friends were at this event with my little brother when he died. We just do not understand how this horrible thing happened. Please contact me.”
Friends and family have forwarded my emails to their attorney, Waldsmith, who contacted me. Waldsmith is now the one searching for answers. He is investigating what happened that sunny Sunday when Peter Hass died. He can not discuss details in the case until he knows if there is going to be a trial.
“Now I am just investigating. Once I find out what happened, we will decide what to do. The statistics tell me, that this case is going to be settled, but I prepare for trial,” he says.
Waldsmith is getting information from public records that he has requested from the City and County of San Francisco.
“I am trying to find out what the plan was for medical service at the race,” he says.
The cherries were blooming, a ship was gliding in on the bay deep down below, and the nerve neurons in the arch of my foot felt like angry electricity in a power line just longing to become sparks, make fire and destroy everything. Thats how I felt running on the stairs today. Before I went running I was reading Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. I learned that the foot contains a bunch of nerves. Actually the foot is just as sensitive as the tongue, he says. Three days ago I just ripped the skin of my foot exposing the flesh and all the nerves. No wonder it hurt. I feel stupid. How can you train for a half marathon in two weeks?
Department investigates itself
The controversy surrounding the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon and the death of Peter Hass leads back to two different institutions in San Francisco. The Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation (ISCOTT) gives the permit whenever there is a big event in San Francisco such as the Chinese New Years parade or a race. ISCOTT issued a permit to Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon. Private organizers of races are required to provide their own medical staff, and part of ISCOTT’s job is to approve the medical plan. (You can see the medical plan here: 2011 Kaiser SF HM EMS Plan.) This is where another institution comes in to the picture: The Department of Emergency Management. Department of Emergency Management helps ISCOTT review the medical plan.
Laura Adleman is the press spokesperson with Department of Emergency Management. She explains the role of Department of Emergency Management, when medical plans are approved:
“The medical plan generally goes through us. We review the medical plan. You could say that we advise the committee,” Adleman says.
The day after the race deputy director with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management Rob Dudgeon was quoted on sfweekly.com. He told that an investigation had been started to find out whether the emergency plan was fully implemented by the organizers of the race.
“We had a death at a race, and we had the city’s 911 system pulled in to provide medical assistance,” Dudgeon said. “So I’d say that the assets dedicated to the race were insufficient. We are investigating.”
The Department of Emergency Management, who advised ISCOTT approving the plan in the first place, is now investigating the very same plan.
A little more than two months after Peter Hass died I called Laura Adleman the first time. Department of Emergency Management was still working on the report, she said.
“I don’t have an exact date. It is still in progress, but I think it will come within the next couple of weeks,” Adleman said.
The investigation, that officers from Department of Emergency Management are doing, is called an after action report. Usually Department of Emergency Management do after action reports after big events that involve the whole city. After New Years evening and after the World Series Parade last fall the department decided to do after action reports as well.
“This is a slightly different situation, because it was a race. The reason we do the report is that the race had to draw upon 911. These types of events are required to provide their own medical resources. 911 is a fallback,” Adleman explained.
“Did your department have any comments to the emergency plan for the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon, when you reviewed it for ISCOTT?”
“I can’t really go in to specifics before the report comes.”
“Did the race organizers follow the plan?”
“I can’t answer that now.”
Although 911 is a fallback it is still supposed to come when people are in need. Different sources report that it took the fire department more than 20 minutes to arrive to Peter Hass after he collapsed.
“Will the report include the fire departments role in this event?”
“Yes, I think it will look at all aspects of the plan,” Adleman said.
I call Adleman back in the beginning of May – a little more than two weeks later.
“No, it’s unfortunately not completed yet. It is still in progress. Maybe if you call me back in a week or so,” she says.
I ask her who is working on the report.
“It goes through a couple of people in the office who come with their inputs.”
After talking to Adleman the first time I checked the after action reports on the Department of Emergency Service’s website. One of the links does not work. The three links, which actually do work, lead to the after action reports of Cosco Butan oil spill November 7th 2007, New Years storm January 3-6th 2008 and Dubai Star oil spill October 30th-31st 2009. By looking at the release dates of the after action reports you can determine, that it took the Department of Emergency Services 4 moths and 5 days to do the after action report on Cosco Butan, 2 moths and 8 days for the New Years storm and 3 months and 5 days to do the report on Dubai Star.
The World Series Parade was on November 3rd 2010. It has now been 6 months. New Years evening was a little more than 4 months ago.
“I just looked at your home page, and I could not find the after action report from the New Years Parade,” I say to Laura Adleman talking to her the second time.
“That one is also not completed yet. We are still working on it,” Adleman says.
“And the World Series Parade.”
“It’s also not there. They are coming, but they are still in progress. Once they are completed they will be there. It’s just a matter of work load. We don’t have any specific deadline. Unfortunately I am not able to give you any more specific information.”
“But if I call you back in a week?”
“I can’t say for sure it will be done by then. I probably won’t have any more specific information for you,” Adleman says.
Laura Adleman later specified in an email, that the department was not being evasive: “These reports take considerable time to research, compile, and properly vet. The report on the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon is in the final stages and will be available soon, based on current workload estimates.”
Eric Mar is the supervisor of Richmond District, which includes Golden Gate Park. On February 18 the SF Examiner reported that Mar had called for a hearing for the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee in order to find out why the Department of Emergency Management approved the medical plan in the first place, if it thought the response was insufficient and if the San Francisco Fire Department should have acted differently during the race.
I have written several emails to Eric Mar and his staff and talked on the phone to people working for him. I would have liked to hear, if he has discussed these issues with the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee and if not, when he is planning to do so.
But Eric Mar never called or emailed me back.
When my foot hit the ground I could feel the swung being pushed toward the pavement by the weight of my whole body, deforming and stretching the skin. The center of the wound does not seem to heal. It is like these small holes, that the ducks keep open, when the lakes freeze at winter. When I take my shoes of at night, I can see how the little piranhas in my sock have been feeding on the wound.
The music was blending together with the silent bay and the lights on the other shore. I was aiming for Fillmore to get back home. But in an intersection I turned left instead of right. The pain remained constant. Maybe it was even a little less now, because the wound was getting soaked in sweat and its own liquids and had easier to stretch with the bouncing swung. I ran to the crooked part of Lombart Street. Running is also about adventure. Exploring. I always have a craving to run, when I move to a new place. I ran up Lombart. Knowing that I was running on this beautiful scene with San Francisco’s skyline in my back made me go faster. Running is also about aesthetics. Restless winds blew on the stairs on Fillmore Street. They were chill and dragged my hair. I pushed my body through them. At Jackson I turned right. Alta Plaza Park smelled like newly cut grass and dew.
The man behind the numbers
Ryan Lamppa has worked on a database of runners in the US for nearly 20 years now. He studied history at college and worked as a teacher for four years. Then, in the beginning of the 1990’s, one of his friends was about to leave town. “I think you should take my job,” the friend said. The job was for the USA Track & Field, which controlled the database at that time. Running USA emerged from USA Track & Field in 1999, and Ryan Lamppa continued to control the database. He is now researcher and media director for Running USA, which is a non-profit organization representing the running industry. Ryan Lamppa is a runner, he loves numbers, and he loves teaching. So the job is ideal for him. He always has an answer or knows how to find it. He only recalls being stump twice for the last two decades. One of the times was when he got an obscure question about the mile. After talking to two different experts on the mile, he had to give up. He cares for the numbers in his database.
“I am not aware of any other database like this, and I have connections in almost every part of the world,” Lamppa says.
On March 16th 2011 he published the latest numbers. They show that the running sport is booming. The number of runners finishing a half marathon race increased by 24 percent from 1.1 to nearly 1.4 million Americans in 2010. Since 2000 the number of half marathon finishers has nearly tripled.
Ryan Lamppa says that his database gets numbers from around 90 percent of all half marathons in the US and more than 95 percent of the full marathons.
“Our numbers come from timing companies and events. The numbers are almost spot on because our universe is nearly complete,” Lamppa says.
507,000 runners finished a full marathon in the US in 2010, which was new record too.
Running USA has other companies doing surveys that estimate the total number of runners in the US. You have to be much more carefull with these numbers, Lamppa says.
“You have to take them with a lick of salt.”
These numbers have not come out for 2010 yet, so the most recent ones are from 2009. They show that 16.4 million americans ran 100 times or more that year. Even with a lick of salt this number can be a guide line to understanding how many people drop dead from running every year. This is the number that, combined with the knowledge from the running expert, Thompson, leads to a total of 1000 runners dying from heart attacks in the US every year.
I have not been able to talk to any of Peter Hass’ close friends or family. But I wonder how these thousands of families deal with such a tragedy. How do you make sense out of something that seems to make no sense at all? How do you keep on breathing when someone you loved has been taken away from you? I search the internet and find a new page describing the death of Peter Hass. It also mentions another runner. Bill Goggins. He died, 43-years old, in the San Francisco Marathon July 2006.
Evan Ratliff had fallen a sleep on the couch, when a car key landed on his stomach. He woke up and walked to the open window. His friend Bill Goggins was standing down below with a huge grin on his face. Bill could not believe, that he had made the perfect shot.
This huge grin is one of the images that comes to mind when Evan thinks of his friend Bill. Later that year Bill got a heart attack and dropped dead two miles before finishing the San Francisco Marathon.
Bill was a journalist and worked at Wired Magazine, when Evan met him. Evan was applying for an internship at the magazine.
Bill was busy. Incredibly busy. That was the first impression Evan got. He did not get any response on his application for the internship. But after several phone calls where Bill would say “I call you back next week” Bill one day said “why don’t we meet up for drinks?”.
“My interview was over five manhattans in North Beach,” 36-year old Evan Ratliff says on the phone from New York where he lives and works as a journalist.
The breaks where uneasy spaces in which I could not find a place to fit in, so I just tried to blend in with the wall paper. I felt there was something that all the other kids had in common, that I was missing. So I had to show them. And so I did. I became an 11-year old running maniac. There was another guy from the school, who was running too. We teamed up. My stomach was hurting from anxiety when I knew I had to run after class. And we did not run for fun. We raced the same 4 kilometers, every time a couple of seconds faster than the last time. I also stopped eating. I only brought a tiny piece of bread to school. I was always hungry. I remember my mother coming home. She had bought chocolate. She just wanted me to eat something. I could tell that she was worried. But I could not afford to gain weight. I wanted to become the world champion one day and beat everybody. I won the national championship on my birthday, but I was not really happy. And then it slowly worn out. I was tired of running and a year later I quitted. But now I knew my boundaries. Once in a while I push myself a little towards them.
The mayor of North Beach
A pregnant woman and a man steps in to a bar on Market Street in San Francisco. Blackbird is like a perfectly edited magazine. Straight lines and figures form the room. A red sofa stretches along the wall opposite to the bar. Lights hang over the bar in cables in different lengths. The floor is formed by squared stones in black and discrete red. A pleasant smell of food blends with the mild air. People are laughing. It is a cool place. I meet the woman’s eyes and say “hi”. She seems kind and mild, and we exchange a couple of words before she asks me:
“Are you the journalist?”
“Yes, I am.”
On the phone Paul Donald had told me that his wife Janeen was pregnant, so I was pretty sure those where the people, I was supposed to meet, when I saw them entering.
I say hi to Paul. He has the same kindness to him. Bright grey hairs are taking over his beard. He is 41, but he looks like a young man when he smiles. There is something innocent and authentic about his face.
Paul met Bill in 1995 – a couple of years before Evan did. Paul worked as a designer on Wired Magazine. He was at the race with Bill’s sister and her boyfriend, when Bill died. They cheered him on a few miles before he collapsed.
We go to the bar. Janeen and Paul tell me, that they are having their child in two months. Paul orders a beer and pulls up some money. I take my card and say that I will get it. But it is cash only, so I rush to the ATM in the back of the room a bit embarrassed. Paul and Janeen are already at the red sofa when I come back.
“We got it,” Paul say.
On the phone from New York Evan tells me that Bill was called “the mayor of North Beach”. He loved this part of San Francisco where he lived for many years. North Beach is the neighborhood where Little Italy is, where red lights blink over Broadway, where Washington Square breaths like a green lung of joy, and where you can still smell the excitement of the beat generation and their howling writings and hearts.
“It was almost like he had a romantic view of San Francisco,” Evan says.
A woman that Bill lived with in North Beach describes it like this: “We would slipper around the apartment with our ratty old newspapers and candy bars, reading or watching television, laughing at ourselves all the way. We created our own melodious language that no one else appreciated.”
Paul sit at the edge of the red sofa leaning towards me. I move the chair closer to him. Janeen sits to Paul’s right. She is looking at him while he talks. Their hands are folded on her thigh. They met three years ago.
“We made things happen fast,” Paul says.
“I never met him,” Janeen says.
“Janeen never met Bill, but she knows his family, and she knows a lot about Bill because I talk about him all the time,” Paul says.
I ask Janeen what her impression of Bill is, based on the things she has heard from Paul.
“My first impression of Paul and Bill was that Paul loved Bill very, very much, Janeen says. “Even three years ago – it had already been two years since Bill died – the loss still felt very acute. I get the sense that Bill was so warm and magnanimous as a person. Enormous heart, enormous mind, included everybody …”
“… generous,” Paul continues. “Yeah magnanimous it’s a great word. It accomplishes a lot of things, but I think it is probably one of the best words to describe Bill.”
“Bill seemed to be tremendously cool in all the ways you wanna be cool,” Janeen says.
Bill grew up in Mill Valley near San Francisco. His mother was an art teacher. Bill’s father has got some of the same rare energy, that characterized Bill. Bill had two sisters, and he was very close to his family.
Paul is from the Midwest. He had just moved to San Francisco when he met Bill at Wired Magazine. When Paul was not able to go back home to his family for holidays he was always invited to the family celebration in Mill Valley. So Paul came close to everybody in Bill’s family.
Bill payed sincere attention to everything and everybody around him. Most of the other employees at Wired Magazine didn’t notice the guy working in the mail room. But the mayor of North Beach walked in and talked to him. When Bill found out that a friend or relative to the mail room employee had his art opening, he drove 20 minutes with the buss (Bill did not have a car) across San Francisco to be there at the opening, Paul recalls:
“And he shows up to support this person that he has never even met who is like some friend or the cousin or whatever of the mail room employee. Like that! That makes you feel good, when someone is as amazing as Bill and does that.”
Paul was with Bill the day before the marathon. They walked through the Golden Gate Park, and Paul realized that the marathon was a really big deal for Bill. Bill had gone through some tough times. He had been separated from his wife for around six years but they had not gotten the divorce yet. Bill had finally decided to finalize the divorce, which was something that he did not like but really needed to do. He was moving on from another relationship to a woman that he loved, but did not feel he was being met by. Paul had connected Bill with a new woman and Bill and her had just been on a first date. Bill had left Wired Magazine the year before. He was on the merge of making a big decision about what he wanted to do next. Running a marathon was part of this process.
“It was like turning a corner in his life,” Paul says. His voice slows down and he swallows a lump in his throat. Janeen’s right hand holds his hand tight on her thigh, her left hand strokes his back. Paul continues: “Because I realized how important it was to him, I really wanted to be there and support him as he was doing his thing.”
Evan had left Wired Magazine to work freelance, but he still hung out with Bill all the time. They where both bachelors, and they were part of a group of people who had worked or still worked at the magazine. Bill was the center of the social circle. “I’ll rattle your case”. Bill would say that all the time, and he would do it all the time. He would stop by his friends’ houses, bother them a little, have a chat. Like the day he made the perfect shot and hit Evan on the stomach. Often they would hang out at Mad Dog in Lower Haight watching English soccer. It was a big circle, some people joined it, others left. But Bill was always around.
“There was a time when I would call Bill at least every other night and ask what was going on tonight. He always knew,” Evan says.
Paul woke up at seven in the morning on July 30th 2006. The day of the race. He met up with Bill’s sister Aimee and her boyfriend at the corner of Guerrero and 14th Street. This was around mile 21 out of the 26,2 miles that make a marathon. Bill looked great when he passed them by. He didn’t seem to be sweating, and he was happy as can be with a big smile. He looked strong. He was ahead of the time he was aiming for, which would qualify him for the Boston Marathon. He looked like a million bucks, Paul recalls:
“Obviously little did I know, that was the last time I would see him alive.”
After Bill had passed them by on his way down Guerrero Paul, Aimee and her boyfriend considered if they should go home and take a nap. But they decided to go and meet Bill at the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero where the race ended. It was kind of mayhem there. There was so many people everywhere, and they could not find him. It seemed a little odd, because Bill was always very organized, and he would have a way of finding people. But at the same time it was just kind of crazy with all those people around. So they looked for half an hour, did not find him and decided that they would call him later.
Paul went home and took a nap. He was awakened by the phone. It was Bill’s sister Aimee saying: “You know why we didn’t see Bill after the race?”. “No, why?”. “Because he’s dead”. The next week was just a fog.
The second Evan heard Paul’s voice, he knew that something had happened. It was nighttime in Brooklyn. He had moved there a couple of months before. He knew that Bill was running the marathon. Bill had told Evan about his training and how he was gearing up for it. Evan do not remember Paul’s exact words. It was surreal to learn that his friend had died and then being so far away. If he had been in San Francisco, he was sure that he would have been there at the race. Evan was sitting alone in his apartment. He did not know what to do. He was numb.
Bill ran approximately three more miles after passing by Paul, Aimee and her boyfriend. Then he collapsed and died from a heart attack. Another friend of Bill, Joshua Davis, who is also a journalist, wrote a story about Bill. Davis got access to the autopsy report. It determinates that Bill died from a thickened muscle in the heart, which made it difficult for the blood to flow in to his arteries. The condition is called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Davis’ research discovered that one in 500 people have HCM, and that the first symptom often is death.
Paul went for a long walk after talking to Aimee. He walked through Dolores Park, up to Liberty Street and ended up on a tea shop in the Castro. He sat down and started to write everything he remembered of the last 24 hours. He knew he would not remember otherwise. Then he went home. That night he had to call some people. It was a lot of strange conversations. He called Evan in New York. He called the woman that Bill had been dating but was ending the relationship to. She was in New York with her father who was dying. Paul also talked to the girl that Bill had been on a first date with only a few days before.
“I did not know her very well and I had to call her. She came over and we just hung out and drank tea and talked. I saw her a couple of times that week. She was freaked out, and I was freaked out. I remember we shared a ride to the funeral, which was on Friday …,” Paul says adding more to the sentence as the memories come streaming by. His eyes seems to be out of focus while he relives that day in the beginning of August 2006. “… I think she drove.”
Paul went to Mill Valley to visit Bill’s family the day before the funeral. He saw Bill for the last time. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like an old man. Paul felt that the funeral director had done a really bad job with Bill.
“But I also felt that Bill had lived so much in his life, and he finally showed it after he died. He putted on like 15 years.”
Paul was stressed out at the end of that week. He arranged a gathering for Bill’s friends, and the family had asked him to say something at the reception after the funeral. He was nervous about what to say in order to honor Bill.
“I felt I was in charge of a lot of things. I was probably not processing it as much as I should have.”
Paul looks at Janeen and says:
“Janeen actually witnessed, I think, a big moment for me. It was not long after we met.”
The San Francisco Marathon continues to run on the same route. Paul and Janeen where walking by the spot where Paul had cheered Bill on two or three years before. The streets where closed of, runners sucked on sports gel and threw their water cups everywhere, cops guided the traffic, and the city felt unique in the same way it did that morning in 2006 when Bill died. Paul was overwhelmed, and suddenly it all came flooding back. Bill should be here! It’s not … it’s not right. Damn it. Bill should be here, and he is not. He grabbed Janeen and cried at her neck.
“It made a difference that Janeen was there. I felt comfortable sharing that side of myself with her. It was really nice to have somebody there who I cared about.”
“We were happy. We were actually having a really lovely morning. I remember that.”
Paul takes over:
“I think that was a part of it: This is such a great time, Bill would so enjoy this. God damn it, he is not here. And I really… I told you this a million times,” Paul says and looks directly at Janeen. “But I so wish Bill could have met you.”
The absence of Bill makes Paul’s thoughts become existential.
“Something is wrong in the universe. Bill should have been here to enjoy these moments, and he is not here. It is not right, damn it. It’s just a big fucking shame, that Bill isn’t still with us. It’s wrong. It’s just tremendously sad for everybody involved. We all would benefit from him being here still with us.”
“Do you feel angry,” Janeen asks Paul.
“Ehm, only a little, if at all. He was doing what he truly wanted to be doing. There was nothing that he wanted more in that moment than to be running that race, and he was doing that. So what is there to be angry at? His body? Well we all have, you know… no I don’t think I’m angry. I’m sad. It’s a tragedy.”
Bill had trained hard for the marathon with a professional trainer.
“I don’t see how he could have been better prepared except from having this random test, that would have proven that he had this condition. And even then, Bill was such a stubborn sun of a gun, the race was really important to him, I don’t know if he would have said: ‘Well you know something bad could happen, I’m not gonna run this race’. I bed he would have said: ‘No, fuck it!’.”
Evan does not run marathons because he is to lazy, he says and laughs on the phone. But he thinks that it is a great thing.
“There are many ways do die, and some are completely accidental. If people wants to run a marathon they should not sit around not doing something that could change their life,” he says.
Bill’s sudden death made his friends think about their own lives. Especially the fact, that Bill was in the middle of a transition, made Evan think:
“He wanted to start over and he died in the middle of that. That made me think about what I wanted to do with my life,” Evan says.
Evan often think of Bill. Bill learned him a lot about journalism, and he showed him San Francisco. He was a mentor and a friend. Evan often wants to call Bill, talk to him and get his advise or just hang out.
“The pain is not there as much as before. It’s more like an absence,” Evan says.
In the aftermath of Bill’s death Paul felt that Bill gave him a tremendous gift:
“Not in dying itself, but sort of in the wake of his death I realized that he continued to give. And the gift that he gave was this reminder that life is short and you really need to live it fully.”
It is around 9 p.m., and the sound cloud on Blackbird grows as more people enter. It smells like food. Paul looks at Janeen.
“Are you hungry?”
“Okay, I think we need to get the baby fed,” Paul says and prepares to stand up. “Well Evan is coming to town in a few weeks. We’ll definitely be going out and have some drinks so I will let you know. It would be good for you to meet him. He is a good guy.”
“I would love to do that,” I say.
“We’ll rattle your case,” Paul says.
I think to myself: That is Bill speaking.
The half marathon
A woman in her 20’s sits on the asphalt stretching. She is surrounded by a wall of impatient muscles. The gun goes of. I run over the mat, that registers my starting time.
We form a snake as we run along Crissy Field. Cautious sunbeams makes their way from the horizon and split into magic light when they hit a drop of mist in the morning air. We cross the bridge and go back. A man loose his balance down a hill and falls on the asphalt. He gets up again. We come back to the water. I am getting really worried, because my left knee is starting to tighten up and hurt. There is more than three miles to go. I am running with my camera and a recorder, and I want to record the sound of waves splashing on the stones under Golden Gate Bridge. I squat over a chain and steps down on the edge before the big stones. And then I fall. The edge is slippery from algae, and my foot just disappears underneath me. The rest of the race is painful. I have to stop and stretch the knee. I hear a man’s deep voice behind me: “Run”. I think he is talking to someone else. Then it comes again. “Run”. He says it while breathing out, and the shock of his body landing on the feet reverberates through the body and pushes the air out of his lungs. It makes his outburst very sudden. Hwrun! He is talking to himself. I wish I had been training more for this race. I force my legs to keep on going, breath wild and loudly. And then i finish. 1 hour and 55 minutes. That is far from my time last year, which was 1 hour and 34 minutes. But I am just happy that I made it.
After the race I stand on the pier at the end of Van Ness Avenue, which fences Aquatic Park, and look at the water. The color is a mix between green and brown without looking dirty. Sunlight creates small mosaics that constantly change as the water flows. I look at the white foam on the little waves reshaping into new figures on the surface. And I realize that I have been standing their for several minutes not thinking of anything but this water.
I sit at my computer. I scroll down a guest book on the internet, where people who knew Peter Hass have written about him. Peter Hass and his family have been in my mind almost every day since I saw that headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and learned about his death. The last month he has been accompanied by Bill Goggins, who died in 2006. They both seem to have been such wonderful persons. The more I learned about them the more I would have liked to meet them alive. Their deaths seem meaningless. I have tried to find a meaning by talking to experts on hearts, looking in research papers and statistics and interviewing friends. But it doesn’t make sense. Thompson pretty much sums it up:
“You exercise for the long term gain but it is just like the stock market: You could loose everything.”
This is not the stock market. This is about life and death and love. Peter Hass and Bill Goggins both had generous and loving hearts that stopped beating way to early. I was deeply touched when I read about Bill Goggins on billspeak.com, and when I talked to his friends Evan and Paul. I have not talked to any close friends or family of Peter Hass – only the attorney. But I get the same heavy feeling now sitting at my desk the day before I will finish the story.
Forty-nine people have posted words about Peter Hass on legacy.com. I slowly read every entry. At the bottom of page six I read this: “My dear friend Eden – we have been friends for so long we are really family. I love you, Gavin and Peter so much. My heart is aching and my faith rattled. Peter was truly one of a kind, so caring, so giving, so loving and could hold court in any room he entered. The grief and loss I am feeling is devastating so Nenen I can only imagine what you must be going through, but please know I am here for you now tomorrow and always. I will see to it that you are always surrounded by friends and family and that Gavin and baby number two know all about their amazing daddy. I love you Nenen and will be here for you always. Please know that you can count on me for anything. I love you.” The screen in front of me has become blurry and my chest is heavy. I am crying.