February 17, 2024

Accidental Death

The loss of a rising marathoner is a tragic reminder of the toll of motor accidents

On track to make history, Kelvin Kiptum’s story ended too soon

Peter Attia

Read Time 3 minutes

Last Sunday, as many of us were gearing up for America’s biggest sporting event of the year, the larger, global sports community suffered a terrible loss. Kelvin Kiptum, the current world record holder in men’s marathon, tragically passed away at just 24 years of age in a car accident in his home country of Kenya. The somber news has been met with an outpouring of grief throughout Kenya and far beyond, as Kiptum’s humble beginnings and astronomical rise toward greatness had made him both a national hero and a legend in the making in the world of distance running.

I, too, was stunned and deeply saddened by the tragedy, both as an avid follower of the runner’s rise and as a fellow human, struck by the reminder that chronic diseases are not the only major contributors to mortality in the modern world. Accidents and unintentional injuries consistently rank among the top five causes of death in the US. And as Kiptum’s loss makes all too plain, the threat of accidental death – in contrast to other top killers such as heart disease and cancer – shows little discrimination across age groups, striking down those in the prime of life in roughly equal numbers as those in middle and old age.

A bright light extinguished too soon

To those following his career, Kelvin Kiptum seemed destined to rewrite every record in marathon running. He won a half marathon for the first time at age 18, using borrowed shoes due to inability to afford a pair of his own. Four years later, in his first full marathon, he smashed the world record for the fastest marathon debut in history with a finishing time of 2:01:53, making him only the third man ever to complete the 26.2-mile race in under 2 hours and 2 minutes. Kiptum made history again the following year when, in the 2023 Chicago Marathon, he blew past the all-time marathon record (set by his countryman Eliud Kipchoge) by over 30 seconds, finishing in 2:00:35.

But Kiptum had plans to make a more indelible mark on running lore. According to a recent announcement, in April he would try to be the first person ever to run a marathon in under two hours in an official competition, a feat many observers had long believed to be virtually impossible in our lifetime (until his remarkable record last year).

Instead, the rising star’s story was cut short after losing control of his vehicle near his hometown, resulting in a crash that also ended the life of his trainer, 36-year-old Gervais Hakizimana.

The terrible toll of motor accidents

Across the world, the athletics community mourns the loss of this young man, whom so many had believed was certain to achieve once-in-a-generation greatness. But while Kiptum’s running talents might have been exceedingly rare, sadly, his cause of death was not.

As I previously discussed in a 2022 newsletter, traffic fatalities have seen a steep rise in the US over the last decade. Motor vehicle injuries are second only to accidental poisoning in contributing to accident-related fatalities, which collectively were the fourth leading cause of death according to 2021 CDC data, as well as the top cause of death – by far – for all age groups between ages one and 44. Indeed, the most recent data specifically on motor vehicle incidents demonstrate that those between the ages of 25-44 accounted for over a third of all US traffic-related deaths.

This latter fact is, of course, partially why car crashes are so terrifying. They can impact anyone – from infants to young adults to the elderly, and from the sedentary and chronically ill to a world-record marathon runner in peak health.

We are not powerless in preventing traffic fatalities

Humans are fallible, and as long as humans control and drive motor vehicles, the threat of road-related tragedies will continue to exist, and we may continue to experience the terrible shock and horror of losing those in the prime of life.

But while we may not be able to completely prevent traffic accidents, there are certainly steps we can take to reduce our risk of both experiencing crashes and sustaining serious injury or death as a result. While I’ve raised a few strategies in the past, I recently discussed this topic in far greater depth with Mark Rosekind, an expert on transportation safety and a former leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even as my heart breaks for the families of Kelvin Kiptum and Gervais Hakizimana, my hope is that the information Mark shares might help to prevent even one such loss in the future. Because whether a record-breaking athlete on the cusp of history or an anonymous individual on the way home from work, premature death is never anything short of a tragedy.


For a list of all previous weekly emails, click here

podcast | website | ama

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon Pinterest icon Google+ icon YouTube icon LinkedIn icon Contact icon