AN EXTRAORDINARY DEATH
The world of running was beset by tragedy last week. In addition to the apparent suicide attempt of North Carolina State junior Kathy Ormsby at the NCAA track and field championships in Indianapolis (page 18), there was the sudden death in Eugene, Ore., on Monday of Jeff Drenth, 24, who had represented the U.S. in the last three world cross-country meets and had lived in Eugene since early 1985. Writes SI's Kenny Moore:
Jeff Drenth was a runner of diligence and boyish charm, and his death shocked his community. "He collected friends like leaves," said Scott Pengelly, sports psychologist of Drenth's club, Athletics West.
Drenth, a native of Charlevoix, Mich., had taken a morning run on Monday, done his laundry and received a massage at Athletics West headquarters. He told masseur Rich Phaigh that he felt good and joked about his subpar performance in the 3,000 meters in the Bruce Jenner track meet two days earlier in San Jose. A moment later, Drenth stepped into the rest room, collapsed and died.
An autopsy showed that Drenth's brain, lungs and heart were in perfect health. His heart was large and had been capable of sustaining 215 beats per minute, remarkable even among distance runners. Its stark absence of damage seemed to suggest an electrical malfunction, which leaves no telltale clot or ruptured vessel. For now, the Lane County medical examiner, Dr. Ed Wilson, is listing the cause of death as a heart rhythm disturbance, a judgment supported by Drenth's history of arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.
Runners of all abilities deluged the Athletics West offices with their regrets and fears. There are hundreds of kinds of arrhythmia, and it is not unusual for top athletes as well as the unathletic to have episodes of irregular heart pattern. These are usually of insignificant risk.
Drenth had had several electrocardiograms in the past, but none had caused his doctors concern. To find the cause of the electrical disturbance that led to Drenth's death, Athletics West has commissioned extensive blood and tissue studies, but these may not yield much more than is known at present, which is that Drenth's heart simply stopped.
News stories saying Drenth died "following a run" seem to imply that somehow his exercise brought on an "attack." The secretion of adrenaline during exercise can, in theory, provoke the flow of electrical current among cells, says New York cardiologist Dr. Philip Weintraub, but to assume this happened in Drenth's case is "highly speculative, impossible to prove." "Jeff would have hated his death's leading to fear of running," says a friend, collegiate mile-record holder Leann Warren. "There just was no connection. If there had been, he'd have died after the effort and exhaustion of the world cross-country race in Switzerland [in which he finished 87th last March]."
In the wake of Drenth's passing, athletes are reminded that their natural gifts come with no firm guarantee. And they will proceed with increased regard for how the best among them seem to enjoy a precarious tenure.