The man who collapsed at the finish line of the Brooklyn Half Marathon and died last May had a heart condition and had amphetamines in his system at the time, according to the recently released results of an autopsy.
On May 17, John Mahaffey, the 31-year-old Williamsburg runner, laid on the ground for at least three minutes without receiving medical attention before race medical staff drove him away in a golf cart. Paramedics did not pick him up in an ambulance for another 11 minutes, according to the Fire Department, calling into question the medical response of the race’s organizer, New York Road Runners, which refuses to release the details of Mahaffey’s treatment, citing family privacy. The revelation that Mahaffey’s heart was stressed by drugs, hypertension, and disease that restricted his arteries makes it less likely that negligence played a factor in his death, but doesn’t entirely rule it out, according to an expert.
“It probably is harder to save with amphetamines aboard but not impossible,” said Adam Singer, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University, speaking generally and not based on Mahaffey’s medical records. “Running and amphetamines are not a good mix for the heart.”
Mahaffey died later that day at Coney Island Hospital, FDNY officials said. The cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, caused by the heart problems and exacerbated by “acute amphetamine intoxication,” according to the autopsy. Amphetamines can be counteracted with another class of drugs called benzodiazepines — Valium is one type — but Singer said these are usually administered at a hospital, not by emergency medical responders.
A spokesman for the Road Runners, which organizes the annual 13.1-mile run, would not say if race medical staff is equipped with medications that counteract amphetamines, but said the event’s staff is always ready for a host of potential medical problems.
“Medical team personnel are stationed throughout our race courses and have access to appropriate equipment and medications to treat a variety of medical conditions,” Chris Weiller said.
Amphetamines are a type of stimulant that includes a number of different drugs used for a range of reasons. The attention deficit disorder medication Aderall is an amphetamine, and some athletic supplements contain them.
The autopsy did not reveal what type of amphetamine was in Mahaffey’s system, but there is a history of athletes using stimulants as performance enhancers because they can stave off fatigue. This effect sometimes has disastrous results because feelings of dehydration are also diminished, and dehydration could help cause a heart arrhythmia like the one that killed Mahaffey, another expert said.
“The stimulant could be masking the signals that your body sends out to slow you down,” said Jonathan Geiger, a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
The issue shot to the forefront of public attention in 1967, when 29-year-old cyclist Tommy Simpson died after collapsing during the Tour de France, and investigators discovered that he had been using amphetamines during the race. Amateur athletes have also died in similar circumstances, notably Claire Squires, a 30-year-old who died running a marathon in London in 2012. Squires reportedly had no idea that the supplement she took contained amphetamines.
Mahaffey’s heart condition would have made using amphetamines even more dangerous, Geiger said. But he stressed that amphetamines are dangerous for all athletes.
“The combination of intense exercise with the use of an amphetamine is a really bad idea,” Geiger said.
Weiller declined to address questions about what measures the Road Runners takes to deter runners from using performance-enhancing drugs during its races, but said the organization tells runners to view the medical guidelines on the group’s website. The guidelines make no mention of drugs or medication.
This year’s Brooklyn Half, scheduled for May 16, has already sold out. Some of Mahaffey’s friends and family members are planning to run the race in his memory.