A red-hot topic

Marathon officials are preparing for temperatures in mid-80s

By Shira Springer and Carolyn Johnson
Globe Staff / April 14, 2012
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As race day approaches, marathon runners do two things: taper training and check weather predictions. Nothing slows runners more than extreme weather conditions. And nothing presents a greater race-day risk than high temperatures. With forecasts predicting 80-plus-degree weather on Patriots Day, Boston Marathon runners, race organizers, and medical personnel are preparing for worst-case scenarios.

“Heat is the most challenging thing you can have,’’ said Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray. “We’re in the zone where we can certainly manage this. We’re confident it can be handled. We’re just looking for the runners to understand what the temperatures mean and really slow down their pace.’’

“You have to get in your head that it’s not going to be a PR [personal record] day. You have to back off. The two most important things are to be safe and cross the finish line. Everything after that is a bonus.’’

Boston Marathon race organizers and medical professionals have been monitoring the forecasts and conducting daily conference calls with the National Weather Service and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to discuss how the weather will affect the number of people seeking help at medical tents, said Dr. Aaron Baggish, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Our numbers will go up incrementally with each degree above a 65-degree start temperature,’’ said Baggish, who ran Boston in 2004, when temperatures crested above 80 degrees. “Particularly because Boston is a middle-of-the-day race with people coming through Copley at 2 p.m., this is a major problem.’’

Doctor Pierre A. d’Hemecourt, director of primary care sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-medical director of the Boston Marathon, said runners need to respect the heat and factor it into their race-day plans. Body temperatures rise not only because of the outside temperatures and humidity, he said, but because of the intensity of the runner’s effort.

“The take-home message is if it’s hot on Monday you really need to slow down,’’ d’Hemecourt said. He also noted that drinking too much water can result in hyponatremia, which can be fatal. Runners should know how to hydrate properly from their training, he said.

The BAA, along with McGillivray and his staff, already have taken several key steps to ensure runner safety. At 9:15 a.m. Friday, the BAA sent an e-mail to all 26,701 official entrants, notifying them of predictions for “higher than normal temperatures on the course.’’ The e-mail listed “important heat recommendations’’ that included everything from hydration tips to signs of heat-related illness.

Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski said “the key is communication with participants.’’ Temperatures reached the upper 80s in October 2007 in Chicago, and forced officials to halt the race after 3 1/2 hours. It was the first time in its history that the Chicago Marathon took such action. That race brought a lot of attention to the dangers of running in extreme heat. These days, many marathoners know the importance of hydrating and adjusting goals as the mercury rises.

“I always look at weather conditions on the 10-day out forecast,’’ said Amanda Santos of Cleveland, who will be running her fourth marathon and third Boston on Monday. “I don’t generally get nervous before I run a big race, but this is the first time where I do have a little bit of anxiety about it. I have been checking the weather quite frequently, instead of periodically, like normal.

“I typically like to have an optimistic attitude, so I’m not going to let it interfere and I’m not going to go into it thinking it will interfere. I also won’t as disappointed if I don’t set a [personal best] like I wanted to.’’

If a cold front does not come through, temperatures could reach 86 degrees or higher Monday. In the less likely event that the cold front does reach Boston, temperatures could hover around 55-60. Ideal marathon temperatures are 45-50 degrees. McGillivray is not waiting for the final word on the cold front.

“Our challenge is when do we pull the trigger to ramp up?’’ said McGillivray. “We’re doing it now. We’re ordering more water, more ice, more medical sweep buses.’’

Race organizers will have 30 percent more of everything in place for hot weather. Medical professionals are using 2004, when temperatures hit 86 degrees, as a template for preparation. In a typical marathon year, d’Hemecourt said, about 2-4 percent of runners would visit the medical tents, but in 2004 that number went up to almost 10 percent.

Extra physicians and nurses will be on hand at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and an alternate treatment area will be set up, with at least a dozen extra staff in the emergency department, according to Charlotte Roy, hospital emergency preparedness coordinator. During a typical marathon, Roy said, the hospital would treat about 15 runners. But in 2004, 85 runners went to the hospital.

Roy said the hospital was projecting treating as many as 50 to 100 runners. Extra ice was to be delivered over the weekend in case it is necessary to rapidly cool down runners’ body temperatures. One of the main risks is hyperthermia, when core body temperatures get too hot.

The hottest Boston Marathon on record took place in 1905, with the temperature reaching 100. The famous “Duel in the Sun’’ in 1982 took place on a 68-degree day, albeit with no cloud cover. Since 2000, the hottest race was in 2004, causing a record number of heat-related illnesses. And that was the hottest since 1976, when it was also 86 degrees at the finish.

Over the last five years, Patriots Day temperatures have climbed no higher than 55. Last year, a 55-degree day and steady tailwind provided perfect weather for fast times. This year, if hot weather predictions hold, runners will be more concerned with finishing rather than fast times.

And that goes for everyone.

“If it will be hot, I will try to do my best, but I can’t say,’’ said defending champion Geoffrey Mutai, who won the San Blas Half Marathon in Puerto Rico in February in humid, 83-degree weather and trains in hot, high-altitude conditions in Kapng’entuny, Kenya.

Added Ethiopian Gebregziabher Gebremariam: “It will be the same for everybody. Same for Kenyan, same for us.’’

Like the elites, Australian Susan Jelley was taking the weather predictions in stride. She has completed 28 marathons, including the Hawaii Ironman at close to 100 degrees. Monday will be her first Boston.

“I just take the conditions as they are,’’ said Jelley. “It’s the best way to be. Otherwise, you can get too stressed out on race day.’’

Shade might be hard to come by. When the Boston Marathon switched from a noon start to 10 a.m. for the first time in 2007, part of the reason was to keep runners out of the peak heat. On Monday, the last wave of runners will start at 10:40. That wave will include a lot of charity runners, many of whom are more inexperienced and slower than qualifiers. They could be in the later stages of the marathon just as temperatures are peaking.

“They have to plan to run more cautiously,’’ said Greg Meyer, coach of the John Hancock charity team and the last American to win the Boston Marathon, in 1983. “If they have a time goal in mind, they need to rethink that because they can get into trouble out there.’’

John Powers of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Craig Forde contributed to this report.

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