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The Future of Running and Races in a Rapidly Heating World

In an era of “code-red” climate catastrophe, the survival of our sport depends on its ability to adapt. Here’s what running and races may need to look like in the near future as global temperatures climb.

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Thousand-year floods in China and Germany, shrinking ice sheets, heat waves and wildfires in the Pacific northwest that would be “virtually impossible” without climate change — the drumbeat of catastrophic events is impossible to ignore. And, yes, in the face of mass extinction, starvation, and suffering, having to run indoors one day is laughably trivial. 

Yet, on this particular yellow-tinged day in St. Paul, it hit hard. After checking the air quality identified as Extremely Unhealthy on the AirNow website, I stayed inside. On a summer day in Minnesota, because the air was noxious to breathe. The highest particulate count ever recorded in the Twin Cities, in fact. Climate change was not in the future, it was not in China or Texas or Eugene. It was here, now, in my backyard, which is crispy from drought and baked from 23 days of temperatures over 90°F (average is 13 days in an entire year). 

Far from a freak occurrence, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested this is the new normal: “It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist. In urban areas, climate change is projected to increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, including risks from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea level rise and storm surges. It is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100.”

We’ve blithely blown through the point where just drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be sufficient to turn things around. Now, scientists agree, some of these changes are here to stay. In addition to mitigation efforts, we’re going to have to adapt. And rapidly.

Two women running in the dark.
Running before sunrise or after sunset is one way runners can adapt behaviorally to avoid dangerously high temperatures. Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Can Runners Adapt?

Jennifer Vanos is a biometeorologist, that is, she looks at how weather and climate, specifically heat and air pollution, affect human health. An assistant professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State, Vanos is a longtime Phoenix resident, and a runner. There are, she says, some ways runners as individuals can adapt, and some things race organizations can do. 

Behaviorally, most runners already make changes like running early or late in the day, finding shady routes, drinking plenty, and soaking a bandana or putting ice in their clothes. 

Physiologically, she says, exposing oneself to heat can, over a period of at least two weeks, lead to heat adaptation — you’ll be a better sweater, your heart will pump more blood to the surface to more efficiently get rid of heat. High humidity slows that acclimatization process. But when we’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about temps above 115°F, conditions most of us have never faced. Are there limits to acclimatization?

“Short answer is, we don’t know. We’re working on that in a lab environment but we can’t let a person’s core temperature go above 104,” she says. “So we don’t have hard data. Empirically, we’ve seen runners at Badwater or Marathon des Sables successfully run ultras in really extreme heat.”

The ability to adapt to extreme heat involves so many factors, Vanos says — an athlete’s fitness, what they’ve been exposed to, amount of sun, humidity, the length of the race. “I’ve lived in Phoenix a long time. I often run after sunset — it’s 105, but it’s dark and very dry. It’s honestly not that bad.”

Modifying the Way We Train and Race

Race organizations can also adapt, and she pointed to the Tokyo Olympics, a group she helped advise. “Scheduling races early or late in the day, moving the marathons to Sapporo, even moving the women’s marathon an hour earlier on the fly — I think you’ll see that more often,” Vanos says. “I would hope that at least larger organizations would have someone on their team who can do a climatological risk assessment, maybe two weeks out, to provide accurate messaging to runners.” 

Race directors currently use the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) scale, originally created for the military, to help decide when to cancel an event. But Vanos says, it’s “not fully enforced;” it’s still up to individual race organizations to actually pull the plug. And that varies widely — Twin Cities Marathon that takes place in October in a traditionally cooler climate, cancels at 70 WBGT, conditions that would be just fine for a runner coming from Miami.

Other adaptations Vanos thought will become more common are race courses designed with more shade, more sponges, water (including misters) and ice on the course, and medical personnel and time cutoffs such that slower runners who don’t make it to the halfway point within a certain limit would be required to stop.

 Unlike heat, there are no physiological adaptations that make breathing smoky or polluted air safer. William Roberts, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon says, “You’re harming your lungs. You might not feel it immediately; the effects might be down the road. Whether it’s chemicals from car exhaust or wildfire smoke, once in your lungs, it’s really hard to flush out. It can destroy lung tissue. Really high levels, above 200pm, is along the lines of smoking cigarettes.”

Two things you can do to mitigate the hazards of poor air quality, Roberts says, are to run indoors (preferred) or wear an N95 mask (second best).

Heat and poor air quality are only the most direct effects runners will need to adapt to. Roberts reeled off a long list of hazards that come with climate change — flooding (inundated roads, contaminated water), drought (only extreme water restrictions prevented taps in Cape Town, South Africa from going dry), more frequent powerful storms (even pea-size hail can cause injury), and proliferation of disease vectors (warmer temperatures have allowed tropical and tick-borne diseases to expand their range). 

The Problem With Unprecedented

The problem, particularly for large organizations like the IOC, USATF, NYRR and BAA, is the climate change we’re experiencing is unprecedented. Adapting is even more difficult if prediction models don’t work.  USATF thought Eugene in June, with an average high temperature of 74°F, would be perfect for the Olympic Trials. Similarly, Sapporo should have been a safe bet for the Olympic marathons.

“The heat wave in Eugene should not have happened, and Sapporo should not have had a heat wave,” Jennifer Vanos says. “They used good data for those decisions.”

USATF was caught off-guard at the Olympic Trials by temperatures that were unthinkable in Eugene, 35°F above the normal June high temperature of 74°F. Competition was scheduled throughout the afternoon, and on June 27, was finally called off at 3:15pm. The 5-¼ hour suspension of racing and evacuation of Hayward Field was costly and chaotic for the organization, and disruptive to the athletes. The organization did not respond to questions about changes to their calendar, choice of venues, schedule, or logistics in view of climate change. 

A temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit is displayed on the scoreboard at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials.
A temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit is displayed on the scoreboard on day nine of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Adapt or Die”

So far, it appears conditions severe enough to require canceling or making major changes to events like the NYC Marathon or Boston or Chicago are still infrequent enough to be on the right side of the cost/benefit ratio. Realistically, making changes to an iconic race involving hundreds of thousands of people is probably not going to happen until catastrophic events become much more frequent.

 But there are smaller organizations, and some individual runners who have already made the changes that Jennifer Vanos and William Roberts suggest. 

Adapt or die is the harsh truth of the desert, and one that Aravaipa Running has embraced.

Phoenix is not the usual focus of dramatic climate change, but it has happened there too. 

“The monsoon hasn’t been as much, so there’s been a big uptick in wildfires. It’s normal to have days over 110°F, but last year, in June, there was a ten-day period of temperatures over 115°F. This year, we had a night race where it was 117°F at 6 p.m.” Aravaipa Running race director Julie Neisch adds, “Even with night races, there may come a point where we can’t hold them.” 

She couldn’t say what that point would be, but the fact that Aravaipa could successfully put on a race at 117°F indicates that that organization has already made some adaptations that could serve as a model for others.

 One that’s been in place for at least six years is the summer night series, races from April to September that start between 6pm and 11pm to take advantage of relatively cooler temps and darkness. Courses are multiple loops — a 50K is usually five loops — so water/aid stations are no more than 4 – 5 miles apart, and runners can easily drop down to a shorter race than they signed up for, and still get a result. Aravaipa also has a generous withdrawal policy that allows runners to cancel up to 72 hours ahead of the start and get 100% credit toward another event.

 “We try not to cancel an event outright, and encourage runners to listen to their bodies. If they deem it too hot, we want to make it easy to switch to an event that’s more comfortable,”  Neisch says.

They’ve expanded to offer races at altitude in Flagstaff and Utah, as a respite from the extreme summer heat in Phoenix. Aravaipa has medical personnel at aid stations, giant water sprayers along the course, sponges that runners can squeeze over their head, and ice. Lots of ice. “At a recent race with 250 runners, we had 1000 pounds of ice on the course,” says Neisch. “We encourage runners to take in sodium and pack their clothes and their bandanas with ice. It makes a huge difference.”

Neisch did note most of their summer night run series participants are local runners who are heat adapted. “It’s a way for local runners to stay motivated and keep training through the summer.”

As savvy as Aravaipa’s adaptations are, Neisch admits, they were made as a matter of absolute necessity. “As far as bad air quality goes, we’ve gotten lucky because the wildfires happened after our race. Until you have to deal with it, you don’t put a whole lot of thought into it.”

 Not having to worry about bad air quality was one of the reasons Max King decided to live in Bend, Oregon. But four or five years ago, he bought a mask to run in, because he didn’t always have time to drive an hour or more to avoid the increasingly intense and frequent wildfire smoke. It’s not just affecting him as a runner, dangerous smoke plumes are affecting his business — trail running camps. He recently had to move his popular Mount Shasta camp (in northern California) because of wildfire smoke. Without a backup plan, he scrambled to operate the camp out of his house in Bend. 

 But, he says, wildfires have really been affecting those who aren’t mobile, like high school cross country teams. “They’ve been training in the hallways or on a treadmill. It’s not ideal.”

 Heat waves are an increasing concern, especially for his youth camps. “We run early or later in the day, and make a point to have water nearby, a lake or river, so kids can jump in and cool off,” King says. He also scouts out cooler options, like going over to the coast or running in the redwoods. 

 But these adaptations, and being ready to change plans on the fly have definitely made his job as a coach and camp director harder. “It was stressful switching my camp with 25 kids. I can’t imagine NYRR changing a race with 50,000 people.”

 And what about ultra races in which extreme temperatures can have more devastating effects on a human body? Hundred-plus degree heat is a tradition, in fact, the foundation of Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run’s badass image.The organization did not respond to my questions about whether there was a heat threshold beyond which badass would become dangerous, but King offers up that he, like about a third of the field, dropped out of this year’s race due to heat. “I think it [heat] is affecting races like Western States, in the number of finishers, and the slower times,” King says. 

Necessity Breeds Innovation

Bridget Franek is used to adapting to extreme heat. Even ten years ago, the 2012 Olympic steeplechaser and Eugene resident would wear extra clothing during a midday workout, and sit in a sauna afterward to get used to being overheated. That heat training was not necessarily climate change driven, but because USATF had scheduled her championship race at 1 p.m. in Indianapolis in July.   

“I’ve been shaking my head for years,” says Franek. “USATF always puts championship races in odd places relative to the time of year — Sacramento or Des Moines or Indianapolis — that would be hot even without climate change.” 

Bridget Franek, USA, in action during round one of the Women's 3000m Steeplechase at the Olympic Stadium at Olympic Park, during the London 2012 Olympic games.
Olympic American steeplechaser Bridget Franek recently signed on with EcoAthletes. Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Now, of course, there’s no need to seek out a sauna for heat training in Eugene. Like Max King, Franek has adapted to the frequent wildfires, either running indoors or driving to find fresh air. Athletes, she pointed out, are used to going where they need to to train — distance runners to altitude, sprinters to warm places in the winter. She thinks they’ll be up to the challenges climate change presents, at least in the near future.

But USATF making major changes? Like scheduling races early morning and late evening, or even shifting the racing season away from summer? Franek is not convinced the organization is up to the challenge. She does see possibilities though, brought to light by the pandemic.

“Covid made people figure out how to make plans that can be changed. Before Covid, the model for putting on an event — location, schedule, TV, the supply chain — was fairly rigid. Now, that model is more flexible, there are innovations that allow change on the fly. Maybe races in the future will be something like a surfing event, where there’s a four-day window, and spectators and athletes are sort of on standby. They go when the waves are right.”

Lew Blaustein likes to think outside the track oval too when it comes to climate change adaptations. He’s the president of EcoAthletes (Franek just signed on), a group that helps top athletes from a range of sports use their social platforms to become climate advocates. 

Blaustein agrees, race organizations will need to adapt — time of year, time of day, course—if their event is to continue, be it the NYC Marathon or USATF Track & Field National Championships.  But they’re going to have to think bigger picture too, he says. “Race organizations are going to need to become activists because this problem is bigger than the Boston Marathon, or running, or sports. It’s a global, macro problem.” 

He spitballed some ideas: “What if the World Marathon Majors signed a compact asking Congress to pass carbon pricing legislation?  What if all the major races pooled their resources, and collaborated with a university and a company like Boeing to ‘win the race to zero carbon aviation fuel?’ Using their social capital to advance something that would make a difference? Yes, it would make their races greener, but more than that, sports can change fan’s behavior, and instigate global change.” 

Blaustein stepped out of his visionary daydream, adding a note of stark realism, “I think sports organizations are going to have to become activists. Otherwise they’ll cease to exist.”

 Adapt or die. When it’s put that way, running on a treadmill in the summer seems doable.