Ironman brought them together.

Specifically, the rigorous Ironman Triathlon competition and extensive medical data from its competitors connected researchers Chris Connolly and W. Douglas Hiller.

Connolly, associate professor of kinesiology in the Washington State University College of Education, and Hiller became not just colleagues but good friends.

Cellphones with photos of researchers Chris Connolly and W. Douglas HillerFrom left: W. Douglas Hiller (Photo inset Geoff Crimmins/The Spokesman-Review)
and Chris Connolly (Courtesy inset WSU College of Education)


“We text a lot. He is in my favorites with my wife and my daughter,” Connolly says. “I’m a huge baseball fan, and I feel very much like the closer brought in to get the last out.”

“He is the closer, but so much more than that,” Hiller, an orthopedic surgeon, says of Connolly. “He is smart, focused, and interested, and has the resources we need to take advantage of this treasure trove of information.”

The treasure trove is three decades’ worth of medical data from approximately 15,000 athletes who competed in the Ironman Triathlon.

Run annually on the Hawaiian island of Oahu since 1978, the Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run.

Hiller, who calls the triathlon the “Mt. Everest of sport,” participated in three Ironmans in the early ’80s. He remained involved in the event after his competition days, working for the Ironman as director of research, and has been connected with the sport for decades. In 2019, he was inducted into the International Triathlon Union Hall of Fame.

He moved to Colfax in 2017 to practice at the Whitman Orthopedic Clinic and serves as a teaching associate professor at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. He brought with him the Ironman data.

“I have all the medical records from the Ironman, and no one has ever looked at it as a whole,” Hiller says. “I really wanted to meet an exercise physiologist.”

Hiller was referred to Connolly and sent him an email.

“As one does when you get an email from someone they never met, you do a Google search and couldn’t believe the stuff I saw,” Connolly says. “I sat down with Doug, and it just blossomed into this beautiful partnership.”

That partnership then partnered with World Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, to manage all medical data with a focus on safety.

“World Triathlon is making a huge effort,” Hiller adds, noting it is the first organization in the world to fully support objective research of the sport, with nearly 8,000 competitions worldwide. Its new Global Triathlon Safety Task Force demonstrates the commitment.

“The Global Triathlon Safety Task Force [includes] representatives of all the big organizations and many of the national federations with the explicit purpose of making the sport safer,” Hiller explains.

Hiller and Connolly also developed a website at WSU to collect data from the organizations.

“We want to be an asset to these organizations,” Connolly says. “To our knowledge, they don’t have the resources to look at the data and disseminate it.”

“We’re looking at hyponatremia, we’re looking at trauma injuries, we’re looking at athletes who come to the medical tent early in the race but then have to come back later on,” Connolly adds. “All of this is shown in the data.”

With plenty of data still to be examined, the collaboration is just beginning.

If this were a triathlon, Connolly says they are in the middle of the swim portion of the race in their research.

“What we’re talking about is just the start,” says Connolly. “We anticipate this growing: our work, our collaborations, and those who are using our database.”


Read more

Global Triathlon Safety Database

It’s in the crimson blood (WSU alum and triathlete Mike McQuaid, Winter 2023 issue)