Monday, June 18, 2012

Are marathons getting too soft? Yes, they are

The Canton Marathon this weekend was the latest race in America to either cancel or offer refunds to runners as a result of expected hot weather. Canton follows Boston, Madison, and Green Bay in doing so, while the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota was in danger of being cancelled due to the weather. The reasoning in Boston, Madison and Green Bay, at least, was that runners in the northeast simply had not had enough chances by April or May to run in weather approaching or exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.

I can't speak for Canton or what the weather there is normally like, and it's hard to blame race directors for what becomes a public health issue or a potentially indefensible lawsuit should a runner fall ill or die during the race. I realize the LetsRun message boards are not a trusted source of legal advice, but the argument presented on the board, that juries would dismiss the idea of an adult running in hot weather having no one to blame but themselves, seems scary enough to scare race directors into the safest alternative.

On the surface, there is simply nothing wrong with running in hot weather. Billions of people around the world live without air conditioning and a good portion of them do physical work that would roughly approximate the effort of somebody running a 4-hour marathon, over a whole day or if not over four hours. Races in Hawaii, Florida, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere proceed without so much as a blink, in weather that's often far hotter.

Those runners are acclimated to the heat, but years of heat advisories and gobbledygook heat indices have turned people as a whole, and runners especially, already a whiny bunch when it comes to the weather, into wimps. Ask any group of typical runners, fast or slow, about the weather they had for races, and you'll get responses like "too cold", "too hot", "too windy", "no breeze at all" and, my personal favourite even though it's not related to the weather, "too flat".

Simply put, temperatures that are ideal for running a marathon, from zero to fifteen degrees, are said to be too cold, while any temperature over 15 degrees is going to be too hot. Running in a temperature of 15-20 degrees probably makes no difference when running a race up a half marathon, unless you live in Antarctica, and runners generally vastly overestimate how much heat or wind cause them to slow down (hint: it's usually the difference between how fast they wanted to run and how fast they ran).

I generally don't run well in the heat myself, but what do people expect when signing up for a race where the average temperature is about 25 degrees? Many of those who struggle in the heat simply lack the fitness to run in anything other than cool weather, while others lack the ability, for whatever reason, to adjust their effort, perhaps because they only ever run in perfect weather to begin with.

I remember how, on summer days when the high reaches 26 or 28 degrees in Toronto, many runners start their long runs at absurdly early times so as to ever avoid running in temperatures over 20 degrees. There's nothing wrong with that, and you probably have nothing to worry about if you only ever run races in cool fall or spring weather, but these same people founder when Chicago unexpectedly sees 30-degree weather in October. Runners with a wide range of experiences, having done long runs in hot weather, in snow and over hills, will fare much better in unexpected conditions or courses.

We have known for a long time that the sport was getting softer, and there's really nothing wrong with it, except for the decline of competition at the sub-elite level. As races in North America and Europe gradually start to cancel mass participation races because they have tens of thousands of entrants who aren't able to complete a marathon in hot weather that wouldn't be a problem in other parts of the world, this is one problem that is emerging and the trends being set now are likely to either eliminate many May and June marathons, or worse, result in unpredictable cancellations.


Seadog said...


Although I wonder at the credibility of this argument, coming from a sub-elite athlete who, for the past several years has complained about once having had to walk (slowly) from Robarts Library to Union Station (an epic net-downhill journey of 3.0688 km) when the humidex was in the mid-30s??

Alex said...

What about the flipside - cold weather? Very few races in this area are ever scheduled for Dec-Jan-Feb because of the cold. And then you talk to all kinds of "runners" who refuse to run outside in those months because of the cold (which is silly - it's ot like we're in Santaland). But then I guess there's the risk of actual weather like freezing rain that could make a course physically unsafe...

I think I just argued myself in a circle. Forget it. I think I just wanted to bitch out people who refuse to run when the weather isn't perfect.

Adeel said...

Seadog, that day was an absolute nightmare. I will never forget what happened, though to be fair, I think it was actually from Queen's Park to Union. While we're quibbling, I'd never call myself sub-elite. I prefer "good enough for an NCAA scholarship if I was a 17-year-old girl".

Alex, I'd say the same thing about people who refuse to run in the cold, but few races are cancelled because it's too cold, not many races happen in cold weather in the first place and most runners overdress in the cold to the point that it's not going to mess you up the way an under-dressed hiker or hunter exposed to the elements is at risk.

Shan said...

I don't understand why signing a waiver wouldn't be enough to protect the directors from liability. But then again, BS lawsuits really aren't hindered by anything.