Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Leaders of the Twin Cities Marathon, reacting to forecasts of high heat and humidity, made a tough but appropriate decision to cancel Sunday's much-anticipated event.
Tough, because up to 20,000 runners had put in many months and endless miles training for what for many is a lifetime goal of completing a major race. And for many the investment wasn't just in months and miles but money, since some pay to travel to the metro area from all parts of the U.S. — the world, even — for what is rightly billed as the most beautiful urban marathon in the country.
And tough, because runners are just that: tough, and willing to train in nearly every element. In fact, many had already done so through this summer's extreme heat.
But not all of them. And not all of them would likely have been able to run without the risk of heat-related ailments, which can be deadly. So although most runners would have persevered, some may have suffered from serious health complications, as has happened in several other marathons.
Several examples are cited in a 2010 study in the journal Clinical Sciences, which examined factors in determining whether to start a marathon in such conditions. For instance, the 2004 Boston Marathon, run by athletes who had to qualify in prior races, resulted in 300 emergency medical calls and 1,100 finish-area medical encounters. Several races have had to be canceled in progress, including the 2007 Rotterdam and Chicago Marathons, with the latter resulting in 185 hospital transports and 66 hospital admissions, with one death. That same year, according to the study, the Twin Cities Marathon had 70 to 80 "off-the-course ambulance transfers." In addition, "six local hospitals went onto divert status because of the volume of runner-related casualties."
These were key considerations in calling off this year's race, Eli Asch, the Twin Cities Marathon race director, told an editorial writer. After consulting guidelines from World Athletics and the American College of Sports Medicine, and after the forecast tipped the race from "red-flag" to "black-flag" status, the decision to cancel the marathon and 10-mile race was clear.
"We ultimately agreed that out of concern for life safety and concern for the impact that we would have on our community ... we couldn't go forward and put on a safe event," Asch said. "It is possible that other events would have made other decisions at other times, but we weren't ready to move forward in a way that we felt put our runners and our larger community — EMS support, our volunteers, our supporters — at risk."
Race organizers were unable to move the races earlier. "The 10-mile starts as early as we can start and have runners running in light (with running in darkness being a safety concern)," Asch said in a follow-up email exchange. "With our field sizes, we can't move the marathon start any closer to the 10 mile and still provide a safe course for both our marathoners and 10 milers. (Specifically, although not exclusively, the overlap between our professional wheelchair field and our 10-miler field would be a substantial safety concern.) As such, we weren't able to move the start forward."
With little or no flexibility on race times, the race date — traditionally the first Sunday in October — should be reconsidered going forward. One single day cannot be attributed to climate change. But the Twin Cities did just experience the warmest September ever, and Sunday set an all-time October temperature record, so perhaps a date later in the month would be prudent.
It's something organizers will consider in future years, Asch said. But for now, next year's race is serendipitously scheduled for later in the month — Oct. 6.
As for this year's runners, Asch said that "many of them are disappointed. We're disappointed, too. We're runners and we work all year to put on this race and we didn't get to do that for our runners and our community."
And yet, true to their ethos, the marathon's leaders served the running — and broader — community, and will be back at it next year and beyond. Because, after all, responsibly organizing and putting on races is a marathon, not a sprint.