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2012's nationwide marathon hot streak ends in Duluth

Wacky weather has made this a trying season for marathon runners. It's been trying for those who have battled heat while running 26.2 miles, and frustratingly trying for those who have prepared themselves for the challenge of running that far onl...

Cooling off
Donna Melody cools her hot feet in Lake Superior after finishing the 2001 Grandma's Marathon. "It's supposed to help heal your muscles," Melody said. (File / News Tribune)

Wacky weather has made this a trying season for marathon runners.

It's been trying for those who have battled heat while running 26.2 miles, and frustratingly trying for those who have prepared themselves for the challenge of running that far only to have it taken out of their hands -- er, legs -- because race officials decided the weather made it too dangerous to run.

Runners at April's Boston Marathon were given the option to defer their entry for a year because of record-setting heat on race day. Three Wisconsin marathons were canceled in May because of severe weather.

On May 6, the La Crosse, Wis., marathon was canceled less than two hours before it was to start because race officials didn't want to send runners out in a thunderstorm with lightning. Two weeks later, the Green Bay Marathon was stopped after about 2½ hours because of heat. A week later, the Madison Marathon was canceled two days before the race because of predicted heat. It reached 85 degrees in Rochester, Minn., on May 27 and runners completed the Med City Marathon there, though the Mayo Medical staff at one point considered recommending that the marathon be stopped because of rising heat.

Cool Lake Superior probably has never looked so good and so friendly to so many people wearing shorts as they come over the hill to see the Great Lake and run along its North Shore this weekend.

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Grandma's Marathon's 36th annual muscle dance from Two Harbors to Canal Park has never been canceled, and race executive director Scott Keenan thinks it's unlikely to happen this year.

But he and his staff have a detailed protocol in place to handle any potential severe weather and protect runners, spectators and volunteers -- including holding buses at the starting line of the marathon and half-marathon for shelter, and arranging to have businesses and private homes at both places available to shelter runners in the event of severe weather.

"Our No. 1 fear is lightning; I think that's the biggest thing,'' Keenan said. "I don't see anything in the forecast that would stop us from starting the races. Every day along the race course the last four weeks we could have run a great race. There might have been a few days when it was warm."

Saturday could be a muggy day for running.

The temperature at the start of the 7:45 a.m. marathon is expected to be in the upper 60s with relative humidity of about 90 percent, meteorologist Mike Stewart of the National Weather Service said Thursday. The chance of rain is 50 percent. He said the temperature will hit the mid-70s with the relative humidity 70 to 80 percent at noon, when many of the citizen runners are finishing the marathon.

"The winds are going to be out of the east at about 5 to 10 mph and by midday switch to the south at 5 to 10,'' Stewart said. "So at least at the beginning, it looks like a tail wind.''

Running blogs this spring have debated the fairness of cancelling marathons or stopping them in mid-race when runners have dedicatedly trained themselves to run in any conditions and want the opportunity to do so, while a few runners approach race day on a lark, haven't invested much effort, and put themselves at risk.

Grandma's Marathon Medical Director, Dr. Ben Nelson, said race officials don't weigh the ability of individual runners to deal with weather adversity when they decide whether to cancel or stop the race. It's much more scientific than that.

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The decision is determined by a type of heat index called "wet bulb globe temperature," which takes into account humidity and ambient and radiant temperature. Based on that heat index score and past marathon experiences, race officials can predict how many people will need to be treated in the medical tent, how many ambulance runs will be needed and how many people will be admitted to the hospital.

"The thing we consider when deciding whether to cancel a race is the number of patients that we would generate, the number of people that will fail,'' he said. "The reason we would cancel the marathon is when the number of patients we predict we are going to see exceeds what our medical resources are. If we are overwhelming our medical resources, we are putting our community at risk."

Keenan said race officials are preparing for a potential Red Flag race day, with runners advised to slow their pace. Those with previous heat stress problems or heart disease should consider not running. Thunderstorms and lightning also are possibilities.

Grandma's uses the American College of Sports Medicine's color-coded five-flag system: Black Flag -- extremely high risk; Red Flag -- high risk; Yellow Flag -- moderate risk; Green Flag -- low risk; and White Flag -- risk of hypothermia.

"We've run in red flag and black flag days,'' Keenan said. "They were a little stressful, but we got the races in. My position is we want to do everything we do safely. We don't want to put a stress on the medical services of this community.''

By far, the most common malady that will send a runner to the medical tent on race day is exercise-associated collapse, Nelson said.

"The reason that happens is the muscle in your lower legs act as a pump to help return blood to the heart and central circulation,'' he said. "When you stop running, you lose that pump effect of your lower leg muscles, you lose the ability to return blood to your heart and in turn to your brain, so you become light-headed and pass out. The key to avoiding that is to keep walking after you finish the marathon. That's important for people to know."

Nelson said the finish line at Grandma's is designed for runners to keep moving as they walk to get their medals, walk farther to get their T-shirts and farther still to get their post-race snacks.

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Keenan said his staff is in continuous contact with the National Weather Service for weather updates.

If the weather turns dangerous on Saturday, Keenan, Nelson and Glenn Evavold, chairman of the Grandma's Board of Directors, would huddle and make a decision whether to cancel or stop the race.

"It's important that we tell the runners not to make this a personal best day,'' Keenan said. "It's important that you listen to your body. With that humidity, it's going to take more out of you. Take extra water, walk through the water stations and change the race from a competitive one to just a fun day on the North Shore.''

Related Topics: CANAL PARKWEATHER
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