No Running Away from Extreme Heat

Summer runners
Yours truly (left) with my running buddy Cami on a hot, sticky day in July 2016. According to NOAA’s monthly “State of the Climate” summary, July was much warmer than average in Virginia.
Credit: Courtesy Dave Haber

My running club recently gave me a certificate that reads “Born to Run Award.” Sure, it’s no Olympic medal; I’ll leave that to the track and field elites competing in Rio later this week. In fact, I didn’t even get the award for being particularly fast or talented, but because I really, really love to run.

Except in the dog days of summer, that is.

Unlike the majority of American runners, I’ll happily stay outside in the cold. But heat and humidity can take the fun out of even my easiest runs. And races? I usually shelve my speed ambitions from May through mid-September unless I’m feeling masochistic.

So I was intrigued earlier this year when I read about unusually high temperatures in Vermont that forced race officials to halt a marathon for the first time in its 28-year history. Extreme weather rarely derails distance-running events, unlike baseball and NASCAR. Weather-related cancellations are so uncommon, in fact, that disastrous heat during the 2007 Chicago Marathon and the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon after Superstorm Sandy grabbed national headlines (and also jacked up the price of race insurance).

Anecdotally, however, it appears that wacky weather is becoming a bigger problem for race organizers and runners. From January 2007 to August 2016, at least 68 marathons, half marathons, 10-milers, and 10k races were postponed, suspended mid-race, or outright canceled because of severe weather — everything from heat, to lightning, to hurricanes. Eight of the races were halted or canceled for the first time in their decades-long histories, and more than a third of the affected races were in 2015 alone. Extreme heat disrupted a quarter of the races, and Runner’s World reported in 2012 that some race directors have shifted events to cooler times of the day or year in response.

Map of running races disrupted by extreme weather
Locations are approximate, and some markers have been shifted slightly to make them easier to see. Only one marker is used in locations with multiple disruptions of the same type (e.g., heat in Chicago).
Credit: Based on NRDC analysis

This quick analysis doesn’t say much about the role of climate change thus far, but it does give us a worrying preview of how climate change-fueled increases in heat, storms, and wildfires could affect the future of running and other outdoor sports. (The future number of winter-related disruptions is less clear, as winters are getting warmer and snow and ice storms may become less frequent overall.)

There are the professional athletes who can’t perform their best in the heat. There’s the emotional and financial hit to middle-of-the-pack runners who miss family time to train, shell out hundreds of dollars for entry fees and travel, and make their feet look like this only to have a race canceled. There’s the potential economic impact to the $1.4 billion road racing industry as customers slip away. (For context, organized road racing is worth nearly the same amount of money the National Football League made from ticket sales in 2015.) And whether runners race or, like me, just run around their neighborhood in the summer, heat-related illnesses are a real threat. From 1997 to 2006, U.S. emergency rooms treated nearly 1,200 exercise- or sport-related cases of “exertional heat-related illnesses” like heat cramps and heat stroke. Although exertional illnesses can occur in any weather, they’re more likely in extreme heat and humidity.

I guess I’m going to have to change my award to read, “Born to Run, As Long as it’s Not Too Hot Out.”


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