Going the Distance in Sports Medicine
Last fall’s Twin Cities Marathon was a record-setter: It was the hottest race in the event’s 26-year history.
The heat—74 degrees with 87 percent relative humidity at the race’s 8 a.m. start—contributed to several other records as well, says William (Bill) O. Roberts, M.D., M.S., a Medical School alumnus (Class of ‘78) and the marathon’s medical director.
About 900 people dropped out during the race this year—nine times the typical number who don’t make it to the finish line, Roberts says—shattering the previous record of about 300.
The heat was also a factor in an increased number of ambulance transports (80) and a record number of people needing medical assistance at the finish line (292).
“We worked a little harder this year,” Roberts says.
But he doesn’t mind that at all. “The runners are fun to take care of,” he says. “They’re so motivated. We see a lot of smiles.”
Being involved in the Twin Cities Marathon is just one of Roberts’s many extracurricular activities. By day, Roberts is a professor in the University’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, and in July, he became program director of the St. John’s Hospital family medicine residency program. He’s also a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, founding member of the American Road Race Medical Society, chair of the sports medicine advisory committee for the Minnesota State High School League, and member of the USA Soccer Cup advisory committee.
A well-known expert on sports medicine nationally, Roberts enjoys writing and presenting on sports medicine topics at professional meetings. But what he says he loves most is his volunteer work caring for athletes in marathons and other road races.
‘If you can’t play…’
Roberts has been an avid athlete since high school. He played hockey (” until I got cut” ) and football (” until I was too small” ) and ran cross-country and track (” I was a sprinter—I liked to get it over with quickly”).
Even while playing team sports, he often acted as a trainer, taping ankles, bandaging blisters, and bracing injured joints.
“I think the saying goes, ‘If you can’t play, you coach,’” Roberts says. “For me, it was, ‘If you can’t play or coach, you take care of those who can.’”
That sentiment continued throughout Roberts’s medical training. He worked as a tournament physician for the Minnesota State High School League while a resident in the University of Minnesota Smiley’s family medicine residency program. As he was finishing his residency, a friend who was organizing the medical team for the Twin Cities Marathon asked him to join.
“That seeded my interest in the care of runners,” Roberts says.
Since then, Roberts has been a frontline observer of running-related injury and performance at the Twin Cities Marathon, Boston Marathon, Olympics in Atlanta and Barcelona, and other races around the world. Because of those experiences, Roberts has compiled a large collection of research studies on exertional heat stroke and the impact of temperature on running performance and injury.
He’s also collaborating on other research projects with his residents at St. John’s that look at the effects marathon running has on children and at the rates of sudden cardiac death in high school athletes.
In his spare time, Roberts enjoys a variety of athletic activities: Nordic skiing, downhill skiing, hockey, catamaran racing, hiking, and kayaking. He skis or inline-skates most days of the week and has even skated a few marathon-distance races.
Yet despite his involvement with marathon runners, he has never run a marathon himself. “Never,” Roberts says. “They’re for crazy people.”