Hot Marathons: Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run

Today, we are going to channel some serious old school:  Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler.

You’ve Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em, Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run…

Why?  The Madison Marathon is on Sunday.  Yeah, I know.  Madison Marathon + Kenny Rogers = What?!?!  But hear me out.

This spring has been another season of hot marathons. Boston, Cleveland and this weekend yet again, a heat wave is due to descend on much of the country, including Madison, WI where the Madison Marathon is set to take place on Sunday. I know a of lot of people who have trained really hard for this race. After months of hard work, they are all ready to knock one out of the park and run a big PR or BQ (or whatever his or her personal goal may be). Personally, I have been looking forward to getting out there on Sunday to cheer them all on.*

But Tuesday afternoon, the Madison Marathon race directors posted this update:

3:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 22. ATTENTION:  In accordance with American College of Sports Medicine guidelines, there is a significant chance the Madison Marathon’s full marathon may be cancelled due to predicted high temperatures on Sunday, May 27. A final decision will be made by Friday at 4 p.m.

If cancelled, all full marathon runners will have the option to run the half marathon.

At this point, the half marathon will take place as scheduled (May 27 at 7:12 a.m.). If the full marathon is cancelled, the half marathon course will be open from 7:12-11:30 a.m., giving half marathon runners an extra hour to slow their pace.

This is not a cancellation announcement. A final decision will be made by 4 p.m. on Friday, May 25.

Shortly thereafter, they posted this link:  Read the article “Determining a ‘Do Not Start’ Temperature for a Marathon on the Basis of Adverse Outcomes by WILLIAM O. ROBERTS

Why?  Because of this:

Yes, it is going to be another hot one here this weekend.  So, rather than start and stop the race, directors are considering halting it altogether.  In other words, insert string of expletives if this was/is your goal race.

This announcement is coming on the heels of the Green Bay Marathon, which was cancelled last Sunday at approximately 9:30 am (2 hours 30 minutes into the race) due to extreme heat.   The Green Bay conditions were very similar to those forecast for Sunday – although it is supposed to be slightly warmer and more humid this weekend.

I have to admit I was a little shocked when I saw the race directors may cancel the marathon altogether this weekend.  I have never heard of any marathon shutting down entirely pre-race due to the heat.  Sure, they do get cancelled periodically mid-race due to the heat (Madison was shut down in 2006 and 2010), but several days before the race?  Unheard of.  This could have a huge impact on the 1700+ registered marathon runners.  It could also signal a shift as to how race directors will handle high temperatures on race day.

What do I think?  Personally, I think they should fold ’em (cancel it) if the forecast continues to predict extreme heat.  While most marathoners are seasoned runners and know to slow down, it is still way too dangerous in my opinion.  While we may tell ourselves to slow down, we don’t always listen (myself included).  I realize, however, that people have invested a lot of time (training) and money (registration, airfare, etc.) for this race.  Not all runners want to, or necessarily need to, hang up their racing shoes due to hot temps.   Look at our own Pepper who rocked Boston despite high temps.  Of course, the race directors have also invested a ton of time and money into the race.  But at what cost if it continues?

Photo by Johnny Crawford – The Atlanta Journal Constitution

So what should the Madison Marathon race directors do and when should they do it?  What would you do if it was your goal race?  It is a tough call.   Would you walk away or run?

BTW If you are old enough, I know you have the song in your head now.  It is funny to go back, so click:  The Gambler


* I mentioned a while back I wanted to run the Madison half.  But common sense prevailed.  I am not ready, so I have been taking more recovery time.  

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Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Great job covering many angles of a tough topic, Mint! I love to think that if it were my goal race, I would be able to accept the conditions, re-evaluate my time, run safely and move on. Waiver or no waiver, I think the minds of the “race officials” are ultimately on all 1700 (or whatever the number is) participants – and keeping them safe.

    I’m not sure there is an easy answer for this. The financial workings of a marathon are complicated enough that refunds aren’t as easy as they might seem without potentially bankrupting the event for future years – permits have to be obtained in advance, medals and shirts purchased in advanced, etc. But those participants that paid for a “product” and don’t receive it are losing valuable funds. Add to that the emotional investment and all the training time, and ultimately, no one wins.

    Being married to a marathon race director, I’m not comfortable commenting on what a race director “should” or “should not” do in such situations. I would hate to see my hubby struggle with such a decision, and struggle he would.

    Perhaps my bottom line is that it all comes back to the community of runners and supporting each other through thick and thin. Whether we as runners agree with the decision or not, I think it IS important to remember that these decisions are not made lightly, and while sometimes unpopular, are certainly made out of genuine best interest for the participants. I suspect this subject will be a moving target over the months to come, and we certainly haven’t heard the end of the discussion …

    1. Thanks Clove. I would be so interested in your husband’s opinion. Maybe he can chime in after everything unfolds. It would be a hard decision no doubt. Clearly there is no “right” answer.

  2. Ugh, I would NOT want to be the person having to make that call!! Like you both said, what a tough decision, and you know you are going to have some people mad at you either way.

  3. This issue is going to become increasingly common as climate change makes weather less predictable.

    A friend of mine was running Chicago (her first marathon) a few years ago when race directors called the race mid-stream and ordered marathoners to stop running. She said she saw runners everywhere along the course puking their brains out or otherwise unable to continue running in the high temps.

  4. Having done half of Cleveland in the heat, and seeing the condition of runners, I now know first-hand how hard of a decision this would be. If this was August, we wouldn’t even be talking about this — our bodies would be well conditioned and better able to handle a hot day. But instead of cancellation, they should consider a 5 a.m. start — whether that 2 hours would make a difference or not is something that doesn’t seem to be tested.

  5. I think under no circumstances should they be canceled. Maybe pound your emails with warnings, make us sign a disclaimer every mile, but no no no… I don’t think they should ever be canceled. It’s near silly. Are they trying to save me from myself, I guess, but let me decide that. I guess that makes me a marathoning libertarian.

    I say this planning to run a June 17th marathon.

    1. I think I agree with you, Mark. Especially since races almost invariably don’t give refunds. I just thought of something. Maybe RD’s should market hot marathons as the newest in EXTREME running. Ha! Depending on what my goals were I’d probably skip a marathon that was predicted to be over 80.

      1. Yes, my whole life, pretty much, revolves around planning long runs and tapering for a marathon, and I am all set to change my goals as the heat goes up, to the point where I am semi-excited for the challenge of a 90 degree day, but to not run just doesnt’ fit. There used to be some desert ultras, in fact, I think there still are.

        If they cancel, I have a 8 mile loop I will do 3 times and then run 2.2 miles back again as if I dropped my car keys.

        I would love to hear from someone who needed medical attention and felt the problem was the event wasn’t canceled, as opposed to not changing their running speed and habits.

  6. I agree with Mark and David. I don’t think a race should be canceled but an earlier start would help if that’s possible. I also appreciate that Madison like Boston, sent out emails with warnings. Cleveland did not do that (or did I delete it if they did). I think Cleveland really fell short in many ways preparing the runners for the heat. And along the course. I would hate to ever see a race canceled. If runners adjust, they can run it safely… just maybe not in the time they would want to.

  7. To those who don’t think it should be cancelled pre-race, I have a follow up question: Do you think they should call it at some point DURING if the med tent is getting overwhelmed, someone dies, etc.? I ask this because I think they are trying to prevent the overwhelming need for medical services that they anticipate this weather will create. Some of the stats in the linked study are pretty staggering. So while you as a runner may be able to personally handle running in the heat, what if the race directors/med staff cannot handle the high capacity of need? I think that is the critical problem they see. It is hard for everyone when they call it mid race because inevitably, many people continue on anyway, so are they really reducing the problem by waiting? And are you happier if you are able to start but are forced to stop at mile 22? It really is a catch 22.

    1. I wonder if with the rise in these hot marathon incidents if someone will start selling insurance to races and then if it’s predicted to be too hot the RDs could file a claim and give refunds to the runners. Maybe we need to consider increasing entrance fees to pay for the demands on cities in the event it’s hotter. I don’t know. The problem is drawing the line without being alarmists or denying people what they paid for without over-stressing first responders and cities. That’s why this is such a great post! It’s such a hard question to answer!!!

    2. If they have inadequate medical attention, I can see your point. I just hope that in the races I’ve signed up for, the race officials are as prepared for the heat as they want the runners to be.

  8. Well written. I am signed up to run the full, have been training for 18 weeks like everyone else. I was in Green Bay last weekend, and ran the half. It was HOT. I saw people stopped. My husband, who was spectating saw people go down. I am really struggling with this…would I want to be forced to quit on Sunday, or would I rather know Friday at 4 p.m. that I am running the half?!?! What about all my long runs put in, can I find another race to do, on top of a busy mom schedule?! I accept whatever decision is made, but still will shed some tears over it, and swear, and then suck it up and do the half on Sunday.

    1. I just can’t help but think the business selling the service should bear the risk that it’s too hot to safely put on the event their selling rather than the consumer. That might mean higher entrance fees–maybe MUCH higher, I don’t know. But it *feels* wrong that the consumers should be stuck not getting the opportunity to run the marathon they paid for without getting a refund.

  9. I live in Madison and I have to say that I stand with the RD-whatever the decision may be. We’re a city that’s used to having athletes around and providing top-level care in both athletic events and to all of the people who live here. We host an Ironman every year, too, so it’s not like the medical professionals here don’t know what they’re doing.

    I know that if I were signed up for this race and if I had been training for the past few months for it, I would be bummed and probably spewing expletives, too. But the other side is that we’re runners and you never know how a run might go on any given day. I think that we pride ourselves in being able to roll with the punches and go with the flow-particularly when situations or conditions get challenging. But we also need to adjust when it comes to things like this.

    It is a hard, hard decision. It is one I am glad that I don’t have to make.

    And what the heck, I’m crazy enough that if I had trained for 26.2, I might get up extra early-run 13.1 and head to the start line for the half!

  10. Runners need to take better responsibility. DON’T SIGN UP FOR A RACE YOU CAN’T RUN. Just frustrates the heck out of me with all these people passed out and throwing up. I guess may never push myself hard enough but the worse I’ve felt on a long run was that I needed to sit down for a bit and get my barrings back. It makes no sense to me to have sign up for a marathon in a place where you know it can get hot. It’s like signing up for a race in Phoenix, AZ in the May saying “it shouldn’t be that bad, Phoenix doesn’t get that hot.” I understand that the mass nature of this races is really where the decision comes. People make stupid decisions. i think about My brothers and I running our first marathon on the beach in Los Angeles. I had trained and still struggled but none of them had trained. I say again, NONE OF THEM HAD TRAINED. And you know what they did they slowed down and finished just after 6 hrs. They pushed through the heat and sun and finished without dieing. I would be very frustrated if a race I signed up for cancelled on me. I would probably go on FB and Twitter and rant and rave about how horrible the race was and how much no one should do it. I like the stories of races canceling because now I know what races to not sign up for. This is another reason that I do smaller races. They have much more command and control of their personnel and the racers. Sorry for the long rant but this is such an annoying frustrating topic to me.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Alex. I have to say that sometimes even if prepared the heat can get the best of even the most fit among us. I totally get where you’re coming from and people need to think long and hard if they should start a marathon they haven’t properly prepared for or if the conditions are extreme and they aren’t acclimated. Hope no race you ever plan to run cancels on you!

    2. I hear what you are saying (sort of), but ask you to take off your runner hat and put on a race director hat for a moment. This decision is not about whether runners will be smart, or whether they have signed up for the right race. Sure, come race day all of the marathoners must personally decide whether to run or not and how to adjust their goals (which hopefully they will). The issue of cancellation is about race management making big decisions – which is not based on 1 person – it is based on everyone and ensuring EVERYONE can safely cross the finish line.

    3. I’m with Alex. I would be livid if they voluntarily cancelled an event. It would be a huge display of poor planning and organization. Perfect example is Ironman National Harbor 70.3. Cancelled and people were pissed.

      The biggest thing that would tick me off is the money factor. I don’t have a lot of it, so when I sign up for big races that its an investment. You take that away from me, then I have to wait for YOU to send me my money back. Then look for another one.

      The race should go on and just have the proper assets in place to handle runners going down. Its on the runners to judge for themselves if they’re going to quit or finish. Personal accountability…

  11. I agree that Madison will provide top-level care and service to the runners. In fact, I think that is exactly why they are taking the bold (and unchartered) approach that they are.

  12. Since I work in PR, I’m curious about another angle of it. I know that most races offer no refunds, but I wonder how this impacts future sponsorships and whatnot for the race if they do cancel, particularly since Madison cancelled in 2006 and 2010 as well. I know all the sponsor dollars have been spent at this point, but I would want to know how they handle all the things they purchased: water, post-race food, etc. Even medals, really.

          1. Agreed! I did see that registrants would get a $20 credit towards next year’s race, but I’m not sure I would want to take the chance that it would go on as planned.

  13. I agree with the race officials. The strain the 2010 race put on the medical staff overwhelmed them, plus getting the word out to stop runners doesn’t always work as planned, as shown in the Cellcom race last weekend. What we don’t want to see with even higher temperatures/humidity this weekend is another Chicago 2007, with 49 hospitalizations putting stress on the local hospitals and slowing emergency care for the general public… as well as the 1 death that year. Nobody wants to have that kind of thing hanging over their head. It’s best to call it early rather than waiting until people start dropping.

  14. FYI, I’ve been scheduled to run in the half on Sunday. I’ve got several disappointed teammates from the American Cancer Society DetermiNation team, but they realize it is for the best, no matter how hard they’ve worked to get race-ready for the full. They’ve put in the work to build a good fitness foundation, they’ve raised money to fight cancer, and they’ve made a lot of new friends. It’s important to look at what you DID, rather than what you cannot do.

  15. I think that, if I were a race director, I’d come down on the side of canceling the race. I’d rather have angry participants than a death at the event. In fact (and Salty, maybe you can help here since you are a lawyer), isn’t the fact that they have documented their consideration to cancel the event going to open them up for even more liability in the event that they don’t (or, now that they have, didn’t) cancel it? Wow, that sentence is even longer than most lawyers write.

    1. I need to take a look at the average marathon waiver (the small print they make you agree to when you sign up). I would imagine it gives the RD the right to cancel. I would say documenting their reasons, especially if they’re good reasons, would actually dissuade many people from suing and would also help the race make a case if they are sued. Documentation (well, documentation of doing good-or ostensibly good-things) is almost always itself a good thing in this regard. Mint’s an actual working attorney so she’d probably be better at answering this that me, the lawyer on “holiday” 🙂

      1. My point was the concern that they are documenting the reasons they might cancel the race. Were they then to decide not to, and an incident occurred, couldn’t one argue that they were negligent in not following through on what they documented? It would be like a company saying “well, we might not launch this product because it could kill you”, and then saying “hell with it, some customers might be mad if we don’t.”. I guess this is just my early years in the very conservative legal culture at GE still emblazoned in my memory.

        1. I suppose. I would argue (heh) that it showed they really were careful (and not reckless or negligent) in their consideration of what to do in light of the extreme circumstances. So I’d represent the race and you could represent the injured runner of the marathon that went on anyway 🙂

        2. The other thing that I meant to add was that communicating with the other side can be a great way to prevent lawsuits. The runners will arguably feel like the race “cares” and be less likely to sue. Of course, there are always those outlying sue-happy folks, but their really rare. I think good customer service goes a long way to preventing these kinds of suits. If the race was my client I’d advise them as such and I’d advise them to document and put studies like the one cited in this post in the folder!

  16. I don’t fault them for cancelling if they believe they can’t support the race with any additional resources. I do however fault race management for the paltry $20 discount towards next year’s race. I understand some fees are already paid and medals/shirts purchased. However in the races, I help administrate some of the largest fees are for police protection / water / course supplies. Cut the race shorter in distance and time the amount of expense is markedly less.

    I don’t know what the right amount is. A starting point might be 50% of your 2012 entrance fee if you choose not to race towards next year’s race. This is another reason I am extreme reticent to ever register early for a marathon. I would much rather race a well-organized Quad Cities marathon that I can sign up for a week before than have to guess at marathon readiness (myself and the weather) in 2 or 4 months in the future like Twin Cities.

    1. The $20 was a refund – not a discount toward next year. All marathoners could also run the half. I’ll try to post a link to all the details soon.

  17. I’ve run a marathon at temps 20+ degrees over projected temps. I was annoyed ( to say the least) that they ran out of water at mile 20, but I managed my own run. I spent money for airfare, hotel, etc. and also packed and prepared for race day between 30 and 90 degrees. Where does personal resonsibility come in? I have also travelled a distance and decided not to run a race at the last minute because I felt I couldn’t safely participate. For me, the race officials would need to compensate me because I would’ve travelled in good faith to gauge myself in an event in varying conditions.

  18. Boston Atheletic Association handled the heat problem correctly. Deferment to next year’s marathon were given to those who personally decided not to risk their health. Many of the runners who did not take the deferment did not finish, including several elites. My goal, no matter my time, is to RACE. Boston 2012 was not a race, as evidenced by the slogging of hurting runners, runners in the medical tents, hospitalized runners and drop outs that included both the men’s and women’s winners from 2011. What’s the point?
    I do not believe any race should be canceled due to heat. Taking the deferment, I still must pay to register for 2013, but I am looking forward to racing THE Boston Marathon.