Grandma's Marathon sets new protocol for dealing with heat

The first official day of summer is Friday. Saturday's race-time temperature is predicted to be about 53 with 5-10 mph southwest winds. There's a 20 percent chance of isolated showers and a predicted Duluth high of 75.

The first official day of summer is Friday. Saturday's race-time temperature is predicted to be about 53 with 5-10 mph southwest winds. There's a 20 percent chance of isolated showers and a predicted Duluth high of 75.

Running 26.2 miles can be a humbling experience. Running 26.2 miles in oppressive heat can be perilous.

Marathoners in Duluth, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul all have stories to tell from a particularly warm 2007.

A post-race assessment of conditions last year at Grandma's Marathon, the second-warmest run in the event's 31 years, has led to revised protocol concerning runner safety on race day, which goes into effect for Saturday's marathon and accompanying Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon along North Shore Drive.

"There were 12 Gold Cross Ambulance trucks available for all emergencies in the area last year on the day of Grandma's Marathon and there were times that all 12 were in service. We had maxed out the ability of our community to respond to emergencies," said Steve Harrington, race medical director. "After hearing that, we said, 'That's the hottest that we can ever hold a marathon.' We had a lot of sick runners, and 28 had to be transferred from the course, which was a record number."


Grandma's Marathon has a race-day weather policy, which includes responses to lightning and rain, and updated it to more specifically deal with heat and humidity. The guidelines will help determine whether the marathon will be canceled or shortened to a half-marathon distance. Such decisions would be made by Thursday afternoon before the Saturday race by Harrington, executive director Scott Keenan and the chairman of the race board of directors.

There is no intention, however, of moving the race date, which has traditionally been the third Saturday of June, Keenan said.

Grandma's Marathon has never been canceled, but has been delayed twice. In 1980, a brief thunderstorm and traffic congestion led to a 15-minute delay, and in 2002 heavy rain and lightning at the finish line, and predicted to head up the North Shore, meant a 27-minute delay.


Much of the reputation of Grandma's Marathon has been built on cool runs along Lake Superior, but race day the past two years has been challenging.

In 2006, there was 91 percent humidity and a temperature of 74 degrees by 10 a.m. at the Canal Park finish. Thirteen runners were hospitalized. Last year, it was 66 degrees and sunny at the 7:30 a.m. Two Harbors starting line and 74 when winner Wesly Ngetich crossed the finish at 9:45 a.m. A temperature gauge at the finish read 84 degrees at 11:30 a.m. and the medical tent treated 509 runners, who required a race record amount of intravenous fluids to treat dehydration and hyperthermia.

"The most important thing to us is to get the race in, and we have a history of doing that," Keenan said. "But we are not going to put our runners in jeopardy."

Hot weather served a knockout punch to the 30th Chicago Marathon last Oct. 7, the same day the elements were punishing runners in the 26th Twin Cities Marathon from Minneapolis to St. Paul.


Within two hours of Chicago's 8 a.m. start, the temperature was 88 degrees, and by 11:30 a.m. organizers made the unprecedented move of stopping the race. At least 49 runners were taken to hospitals, while another 250 were treated on site. About 10,000 of the 45,000 registered runners decided not to race, while 10,934 started but didn't finish, said executive race director Carey Pinkowski.

Eric Hartmark of Duluth was seeking a qualifying standard for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and, after missing the mark of 2 hours, 22 minutes at Grandma's Marathon, decided to make one more try at Chicago or the St. George (Utah) Marathon.

"A lot of runners I know have run personal bests at Chicago, so I decided at the last minute to go there," said Hartmark, 30, who has run 2:21:56. "I felt I had a job to do that day, and was probably in the best shape of my life, but the sweat was running down your arms going to the starting line.

"By the third mile you could feel the heat pretty good and by halfway it was bad. I just slogged along the rest of the way, like on a death march. It was a pretty terrible experience. I saw a lot of people sitting or lying on the sidewalk afterward looking hot."

The heat and a sore knee caused Hartmark to drop out after 18ยฝ miles, but six days later he won the WhistleStop Marathon in Ashland, Wis., in 2:28:41 on a cool morning.

On the same day, near the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Twin Cities Marathon runners faced starting-line conditions of 87 percent humidity and 75 degrees. Later in the morning it was 84 degrees. More than 250 runners were treated at the finish-line medical tent and several runners had temperatures in excess of 108 degrees, according to medical director Bill Roberts. There were 50 ambulance trips taking runners to hospitals and a race record 900 runners did not finish.

Josh Hoban, 28, of Duluth had made his marathon debut in the 2007 Grandma's Marathon and ran his second at Twin Cities, less than four months later. It was as if he'd taken a crash course in warm-weather racing.

"At Grandma's I didn't take any water for the first seven or eight miles, which was a huge mistake," said Hoban, a civil engineer technician student at Lake Superior College and an employee of ABC Seamless. "I learned that you take everything you can get your hands on and back off your pace when it's hot."


Diane Laughlin, 44, of Duluth, a mother of three, ran the same marathon double with no serious complications. She's finished about 10 marathons and says she understands that a warm day means taking precautions.

She ran the 2007 Grandma's Marathon in 3:55:56 and Twin Cities Marathon in 3:47:29.

"You have to slow down and keep drinking liquids, and I bring along packages of goo [energy gel],'' said Laughlin, a 1986 Minnesota Duluth graduate and a part-time banquet waitress at the Holiday Inn. "Grandma's was one of the hardest marathons I've run, but most of that was because we hadn't had any warm training weather to get acclimated. At Twin Cities, I've never seen so many people walking. It was nasty."

Keenan said entrants will be notified by e-mail if the race is shortened or canceled. The heat and humidity will be measured in accordance with the American College of Sports Medicine's recommendations for endurance events.

"The possibility of canceling or shortening our race isn't going to come along very often, and I hope it's never,'' Harrington said. "We just want to be prepared and continue our commitment of safety for the runners."

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