A blog for (semi) athletic middle-aged men (and women) holding on to (the last vestiges of) their youth
by training for and competing in running, cycling, swimming and triathlon events!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chicago Takes Heat Over Marathon

I find it interesting to read all of the news coverage about the Chicago Marathon -- most of it criticizing organizers for their handling of the unusually high heat and humidity during the race this past Sunday. Some people seem to think the event was too big, some think officials should have cancelled the race sooner and still others think it should not have been cut short. I think they're all a bunch of Monday morning quarterbacks who should sit in their Lazy Boys and find something else to write about.

First of all, the runner who died had a common heart condition known as mitral valve prolapse. We had a man die of a heart attack in a 5K race in Kansas City two years ago in optimal weather conditions. Was the race too big? No. Too hot? No. Was the death the fault of the race organizers? No. Obviously, a death in a race is tragic, but are we going to start requiring every participant to pass a physical? I sure hope not. Even that would not prevent injury or death.

Second, the heat and humidity were high, but not terribly unusual or life threatening. According to the chart below from WGN-TV and the Chicago Tribune, the high temperature was 84F at noon with a heat index of 92F, which means the relative humidity was about 70%. And it was only 83 F with a heat index of 89F when organizers decided to close the course to runners not past the halfway point around 11:30 -- three and half hours into the race (which is not unreasonable).

Sporting events like this are held all over the country in worse conditions, just not as high profile as the Chicago Marathon (in other words, the media doesn't pay much attention). For example, the Vineman 70.3 Half Ironman triathlon in July featured temps and humidity near 90. According to my MotionBased track of the event we reached a high of 89.6F and 88% relative humidity. I ran those numbers through the National Weather Service's Heat Index Calculator and came up with a heat index of 116F! No wonder I felt like I was dying towards the end of the run!

But I didn't die because I stayed hydrated. Heat becomes deadly when you sweat excessively and don't replace fluids. When you become dehyrdated, heat remains in your blood and your organs slowly cook (see below). The one valid criticism I have read is there wasn't enough water available on the course. That is a problem and is probably why many runners were unable to finish. Even then, I understand many runners were using the water cups to pour water on themselves - which may feel good but does nothing to prevent dehydration. That's just selfish and stupid and not the fault of the organizers.

So I have decided that criticizing the organizers is unfair. The criticism really belongs on the backs of the participants who failed to prepare properly, stay hydrated and didn't stop themselves before their body shut down on its own. The bottomline is every participant needs to know their own abilities and pay attention to warning signs.

The Chicago Marathon is yet another example of where we need to accept a little more responsibility for our own health and safety. It's time to stop suing McDonald's for obesity, blaming Crocs for elevator accidents and criticizing race organizers for Mother Nature. I certainly know I will be more careful the next time I ride my bike (and will continue to wear my helmet)!


P.S. Overhydrating can also be dangerous. Excessive water consumption can result in a condition called hyponatremia, better known as water intoxication. Hyponatremia occurs when the sodium concerntration in plasma falls too low, probably as a result of drinking too much water while losing too much salt.

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