Worst-Case Scenarios: How to Handle Them

To lessen the likelihood of attracting sharks, avoid splashing and wearing bright colors or jewelry; sharks see contrast particularly well.

Besides freakish yet enviable genes, part of the makeup of elite athletes is a flagrant disregard for certain laws of nature. Don't mountain climbers, on some level, presume they're less susceptible than the rest of us to the tug of gravity? Don't Ironman contenders expect their legs and lungs to hold out longer than conventional wisdom would allow?

One thing hinders elite and non-elite athletes alike, though, and that's Murphy's Law. If anything can go wrong, it will--sometimes calamitously, sometimes comically. On account of Murphy's Law, we've all been up a creek without a paddle, sometimes literally.

But what if you're up a creek without a paddle, a swordfish punches a hole in the boat, and you're headed for falls that make Niagara look like a backyard landscape feature?

When Murphy's Law leads to the worst-case scenario, some swift, serious action--not just praying or cursing or carving a will into your thigh with a Swiss Army knife--is called for.

Here are some disastrous situations and expert advice on how to survive them.

How Not to Bait a Shark

If you saw Open Water, the independent film about a pair of divers who become shark snacks after their excursion boat leaves them behind, you might have thwarted an in-theater freak-out by thinking, "It's only a movie. This would never happen in real life."

Wrong. The movie is based on the unfortunate experience--and imagined fate--of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, an American couple who were left behind by their dive boat in the waters off Australia's Great Barrier Reef and never heard from again.

What should a stranded diver do to discourage shark attacks? George H. Burgess, director of the shark research program at the Florida Museum of Natural History, suggests the following:

  • Sharks see contrast particularly well, so avoid uneven tanning and brightly colored dive gear. "I personally prefer to use dark blue or black fins, mask, tank and wetsuit and make a point of wearing my dive watch under the cuff of my wetsuit," Burgess said. Jewelry is a no-no: Shiny metals look like tasty fish scales to sharks.
  • Avoid excessive splashing. If necessary, use whatever equipment you have on hand to fend off a shark. Your best bet is to hit it on the tip of its nose. If a shark seizes you in its mouth, "be as aggressively defensive as you are able," Burgess advised. "Playing dead does not work." Aim for the eyes and gill openings.

How to Turn Water Into Whine

What do beer-chugging fraternity pledges and water-swilling endurance athletes have in common? On account of their greedy guzzling, both could end up vomiting and passing out--or worse.

Drinking large quantities of water to ward off dehydration can lead to a life-threatening condition called hyponatremia. Over an extended period, excessive water intake dilutes sodium levels in the bloodstream, which can lead to organ shutdown and death.

Hyponatremia is "usually only seen in events lasting longer than four hours," such as ultramarathons, Ironman competitions, and long-distance hiking and cycling, said Susan Walker, who teaches kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, home to the Human Performance Laboratory. Marathon runners with slower finishing times also are at risk.

Symptoms include changes in mental state (disorientation, confusion, slurred speech, and combative or otherwise inappropriate behavior, for example), headache, nausea, vomiting, physical exhaustion, muscular twitching and cramps. Severe cases can lead to seizures, cardiac or respiratory arrest, coma and death.

Preventive measures include eating salty foods during and after exercise; drinking electrolyte-rich sports drinks in addition to pure water; and avoiding non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin and ibuprofen) close to race time.

Athletes should weigh themselves before and after a long training session. If they weigh more afterward, they're retaining water and should drink less.

Although an estimated 30 percent of Hawaii Ironman finishers are hyponatremic, Walker said athletes exhibiting symptoms should not even think of continuing, as the mortality rate is 67 percent. "Stop drinking," she advised, "and seek medical help immediately."

How to Outsmart an Avalanche

If you are skiing in the backcountry and you trigger an avalanche (humans, not Mother Nature, are most often to blame), "in the first couple of seconds you might be able to get off it by skiing off to the side," said Karl Birkeland, a National Avalanche Center scientist. If you start to go down, though, you should make swimming motions to stay nearer to the surface.

When you feel yourself coming to a stop (assuming you've survived the fall), briskly wave one hand back and forth in front of your mouth and nose to create an air pocket. Punch the other hand up to where you think the surface might be. "You'll be easier to rescue if there's part of you sticking out of the snow," Birkeland pointed out.

Once the snow comes to a complete stop, compaction occurs. "It's like being encased in concrete," said Ed Adams, an avalanche expert in Montana State University's civil engineering department. "You cannot wiggle a toe, let alone dig yourself out."

Hopefully, your ski mates--properly equipped with transceivers, probes and shovel--will pick up signals from the beacon strapped to your body and attempt to free you.

"The most important thing you can bring into avalanche territory is a knowledge of avalanches," Birkeland said. Read Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper and Snow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler. Check www.avalanche.org for snow conditions.

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