In the final scenes of “The Hot Tub” episode (1995), Jean-Paul is leading a packed field at the prestigious New York City Marathon. An elite runner who once overslept at the Olympics due to a “separate knob” incident, Jean-Paul is determined to avenge his slumber blunder – with the help of Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer. Supposedly nearing the finish, the sweat on Jean-Paul’s face is abundant. Is he struggling under the meteorological conditions? Should the race be called, halted, or completely shut down? Sadly, it was coffee that ended Jean-Paul's hopes of victory.
Shutting a race down is a complex question, and arguments for and against a decision of this magnitude are worthy of consideration in light of what’s at stake from a financial and brand image standpoint. I’ll preface the conversation by stating that the focus of this article is concerned with shutting down a race after it has started. The decision to end a race days prior is still a substantial headache for organizers and runners alike, but receiving a notice softens the blow – some. After the starting pistol is fired, however, all bets are off. Or not.
Let’s begin with the 2017 St. Jude’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee. April 29th seems like a nice morning for a race, but like the city of Atlanta, Nashville is not immune from the heat and humidity. As a consequence of the culmination of these two elements, numerous marathon runners went to the hospital for heat-related issues. Patrick Byerly, Senior Vice President of Global Events for the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon Series, said that safety was the chief concern. “The temperature and humidity, on top of the strong sun, presented tough running conditions that our medical officials deemed excessive and ultimately dangerous for the health and safety of our runners. As such, we diverted runners on the course for their safety,” he told The Tennessean.
Based on the conditions outlined by medical officials, marathon runners who didn’t reach the half-marathon split (mile 11) by 9:40 a.m. were required to finish the 13.1 course instead of all 26.2 miles they initially paid for during registration. I understand the safety concerns, but should hot weather be cause to stop runners from finishing what they started? St. Jude’s is a recent example, but let’s go back two years.
Sixty-nine degrees at the start of the 2015 Rock ‘N’ Roll Savannah Marathon – 20 degrees higher than the previous four days, quickly manifested itself on the fast, flat course. Like Nashville, around 9:45 a.m., marathon runners who had not reached the split were redirected to the 13.1 course. But what really irked those who made it past the split already was being shut down at mile 15 or 21 with a detour that led them back to the finish line. The reactions? As you might expect, shock, disappointment, frustration, and anger were emanating from the mouths of participants. Marathoner Joe Iovanisci of Williamstown, New Jersey, sums it up: “I was pissed. There was nothing I could do about it, so I just walked back to the finish line.”
In a 2010 Runner’s World article, Amby Burfoot asked the question. When should marathons be canceled based on heat? He cited Bill Roberts, the medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Roberts article, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggests guidelines for when a marathon should not be started based on Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) and the possibility that heat-related issues for runners will overwhelm the community medical assets, i.e. ambulances and emergency rooms. As Roberts puts it in his paper’s conclusion, “Marathons in northern latitudes (>40 degrees C) held in ‘unexpectedly’ hot conditions when the participants are not acclimated and the start WBGT is >21 degrees C often end in either race cancellation or an MCI (mass casualty incident). It would seem prudent not to start these races in similar conditions.”
Protecting the safety of runners is the chief rationale behind a decision to shut down a marathon. It’s a delicate dance, balancing a warmer than average morning against the expectations of thousands of wide-eyed runners who desire to start and finish a major undertaking. At the 2016 Vermont City Marathon, the race was cut short due to unsafe temperatures. Eleven runners were transported to the emergency room for injuries while others received treatment at medical tents. One runner from Shelburne, Vermont, likened Pine Street to Death Valley. Death Valley, you say? There’s a race there too, one with 135 miles and temps that can rocket to 130 degrees. I doubt it's called off due to warm weather.