June 1, 2013 was the first day of the North Face Endurance Challenge in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Sterling, Virginia. In temperatures of 90 degrees, 287 entrants finished 50 miles, and 430 more finished the 50K.
The Western States Endurance, featuring 18,000 feet of climbing and 23,000 feet of descent, was on the weekend of June 29-30, 2013. Despite a high of 102 degrees, 277 competitors finished the 100.2 miles in less than 30 hours.
Just this past week, 81 of 96 entrants finished the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon. Starting below sea level at Death Valley and finishing 8,300 feet up Mt. Whitney, it was over 100 degrees at the start and approached 99 degrees at the finish.
These recent races are relevant in Philly, of course, due to this past weekend’s cancellation of the Back on My Feet 20in24 Lone Ranger Ultra-Marathon, Relay Challenge and other assorted races. As the City of Philadelphia, through the Parks and Recreation Department and through providing necessary security and medical services, is a necessary partner to Back on My Feet in holding the race, its decision to postpone the race this weekend was final.
After the New York City Marathon cancellation and Boston Marathon interruption, the running community should have learned the lesson that sometimes, real world events impact and take priority over even the most prestigious of races. Still, the decision to first shorten and then ultimately cancel the race was somewhat surprising and unnecessary. As per the City’s letter, the official reasoning was the “current excessive heat warning.” This past week’s weather has indeed been brutal, with highs in the 90s, and heat indexes clearing 100. And Saturday’s weather was supposed to be in the low 90s again (it ended up being a high of 89). All it takes is for one serious incident, and the race may not happen again.
The primary problem with the City’s decision is that the annual race takes place in July, so hot temperatures are both anticipated and contingency-planned. Through the race’s adverse weather policy, which is agreed to and coordinated with the City’s organizers and medical personnel, there already are precautions in case of adverse weather conditions. A flag system would keep participants aware of conditions. If the heat index exceeded 105, racers would have to walk until temperatures cooled. At no point was the concept of canceling the race for excessive heat considered in the policy.
Additionally, those who would be most affected by heat and humidity would be the Lone Ranger participants. But aren’t those competitors, many of whom trained and aimed for 100+ miles over the 24 hours, the ones in the best shape and able to handle the weather? If other ultramarathons throughout the country go forward in 90 or 100+ degree weather, with much more difficult course profiles than the flat Kelly Drive loop, then shouldn’t the race have gone forward in spite of the “excessive heat warning?” I think the answer is yes.