Kalgin Koch 07-19-09

Young runner collapses during race, can't be revived
KNOYA RIDGE: Kalgin Koch dies near race's conclusion.

By LISA DEMER, ldemer@adn.com, Published: July 19th, 2009 01:47

A notable 22-year-old runner died Sunday morning in a mountain race on the outskirts of Anchorage, race organizers said.

Kalgin Koch collapsed near the finish line before 11 a.m. He was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later after nurses and a doctor in the race couldn't revive him, said Marianne Pedersen, one of the race organizers.

While initial reports were that Koch had a preexisting heart condition, his father, Barry Koch, said that wasn't correct. It's not yet known why he died.

Kalgin Koch had been making a name for himself in Anchorage's running community and was an experienced mountain runner.

"He was this great kid who loved to run, he loved to play, and people were pretty important in his life," said Barry Koch, distraught but able to talk for a few minutes about his son.

Kalgin Koch ran in Alaska's famously grueling mountain race, Mount Marathon, multiple times including this year and was a top 20 finisher at least twice.

A 2005 East High graduate, he placed second in the state track and field championship in the 800-meter race in 2004.

This summer, he worked at Skinny Raven Sports while on break from the University of Arizona, where he played Ultimate Frisbee and was returning in the fall as a senior. He was majoring in geography and planned to do a stint with the community service group Up With People before graduate school and a career in an environmental field, his father said.

On Saturday, he played Frisbee and then went to a friend's wedding.

Then on Sunday, he set his eyes on the Knoya Ridge Hill Climb race: a small event in its third year that attracted 38 runners this time. The route, on the edge of Fort Richardson, is not as strenuous as Mount Marathon, but there's an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet. It's been estimated at various lengths from three-plus miles to nearly five.

"I drove him up there and said 'Hey Kal, have a great race' and he turned around and gave me that Kalgin smile and said 'I love you, Dad,' and off he went," Barry Koch said.

Then he got a call from the race about his son's collapse, maybe 300 yards from the finish on the last little hill.

Kalgin Koch was running with the leaders but struggled at times on the way up, Pedersen said she was told later. Then he kicked into another gear and passed people, she said.

The race starts on military land that is accessed through the Chugach Foothills neighborhood, at the Tudor-Muldoon curve.

Runners go for a short way on the Tank Trail, take a trail that follows the north fork of Campbell Creek up to a ridge, climb up what is known as the Dome, go down a saddle and then up the next little hill. They finish on military land, about 2 1/2 miles from Stuckagain Heights. They then walk or run back out to Chugach Foothills.

The runner behind Koch saw him fall and asked if he was OK, but didn't think too much about it until he didn't make it to the finish within the next couple of minutes, said Bill Spencer, another of the race organizers and an eight-time Mount Marathon winner.

"I participated. I was coming up from behind (maybe 10 minutes behind the leaders). When I topped the dome, I could see ahead of me there were a bunch of people clustered around someone on the ground," Spencer said.

The race is rather informal -- runners don't wear bibs. So it took a little while to identify the fallen runner, Spencer said.

Three racers with medical credentials -- a registered nurse, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, and an emergency room doctor -- all tried to revive Koch. But he never woke up.

Before coming home for the summer, Koch passed out competing in a swim-run duathlon in Tucson, Ariz., according to what he told his father.

"He said, 'Dad, I did the swim and I got up to do the run and ... boy, the next thing I know is I woke up and there was people all around.' " He wasn't sure what hit him, maybe the abrupt shift from a swim to a run in 90-degree heat.

It's rare for young athletes to suddenly collapse and die, said Anchorage cardiologist Peter Sapin.

"It's a terrible thing when it happens because they are people in the prime of life and are looked at as being the healthiest of the healthy," said Sapin, reached at his home Sunday evening.

For young athletes, the most likely cause is a genetic disease that causes abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, the doctor said. The tissue is degraded and may be scarred, and those abnormalities can cause abnormal heart rhythms.

In another rare genetic heart condition, the muscle of the right ventricle is replaced by fat and fibrosis, which also causes abnormal heart rhythms. It's to blame for one-fifth of the cardiac arrest deaths of people under 35, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Koch was born in Anchorage and grew up here. His father was a PE teacher. His mother, who has died, was a family physician. The couple used to fish a setnet site in Cook Inlet on Kalgin Island, which is how their son got his name.

"Let's say he started life on Kalgin Island," Barry Koch said.

Michael Besh, a family friend who was Kalgin's PE teacher at Scenic Park Elementary School, was volunteering at Sunday's race. He said everyone is torn up about the young man's death.

"Basically he came from a very happy family, very outgoing, somebody you'd be proud of," Besh said.

The race benefits a scholarship fund for young skiers and runners in memory of Besh's brother, Tom Besh, the late University of Alaska Anchorage ski coach.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.