Sunday, June 01, 2014

Minneapolis Marathon Cancelled: Commentary on the Weather

One of my more vivid college memories is of a picture of one of my teammates winning the steeplechase at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines.  The rain was falling in such quantities that you could only see his outline as his body was enveloped in sheets of falling rain.  It was like running in a monsoon.  Weather has always been a challenge for outdoor sports.

In less than a month Minneapolis has experienced it's shortest road race and longest being cancelled due to "the weather."  "The weather" in question both times has been lightening, which has become the nightmare scenario for all race directors.  Both the Medtronic TC 1 Mile and the Minneapolis Marathon had the misfortune of being scheduled during storms that included the threat of lightening strikes on or near the course.

Many people enjoy the thunder and lightening of spring storms, often opening windows or going onto a porch to watch natures light show.  Domestic animals are not as enamored of the sonic boom thunder and explosive sounds  that accompany the sky pyrotechnics.  They rush for their "safe places" in the house.  Race directors don't have that option.

The worst pre-race weather forecast for them is for lightening storms on or near their race course.  Unlike temperature, wind, or other potentially negative weather conditions, lightening has the added burden of being less predictable.  Where will the lightening strike?  How long with the threat last?  For a road race it is not only the participants, but also the race workers who are at risk.(an interesting example of the location is everything saying is the now iconic picture from the 2013 IAAF World track Championships of Usain Bolt finishing his race on the track with the clear photo of the lightening bolt above the stadium roof.  Obviously either the IAAF has a diffedrent lightening policy or the proximity of the lightening was not threatening. Picture and story of how it was taken is HERE.)

And this risk raises liability issues.  When runners sign up for a race they sign waiver forms that note that the "assumption of risk" is the runners' responsibility.  Runners know bad things can happen from blisters, to sprained ankles, to other health or environmental issues, but the waiver is the race organization's way of informing the participants that the runners understand the other risks involved in the activity.  Beyond that race organizations don't want to get sued.

In the 1970s a Vermont ski area was successfully sued after a skier had an accident on the ski hill and died.  The ski area had advertised itself as well groomed and safe.  The lawyers for the plaintiff successfully argued that this nullified the assumption of risk, as the ski resort was implying a safety level that did not exist.  This prompted the ski industry and other sports to reinforce the concept of assumption of risk.  That downhill skiing has risks.  That no ski area can anticipate all the risks nor control the skier's willingness to put him or herself at a higher risk by their own behavior on the slopes.

No sports groups want to be charged with intentionally or otherwise risking the health and safety of  their participants or staff.  Yet all outdoor sports face this issue.  Professional baseball games and tennis matches, for example, are often delayed or  postponed due to rain because it creates a risk of injury to the participants.  They also have similar rules to road races for lightening that mandate, at the least, a 30 minute delay of the competition when lightening strikes in the vicinity of the game.

Unlike these professional sports, road races don't have the easy option of running the race the next day.  Permits to conduct the event on city streets is for the day of the race.  Most runners understand this.  As in the case of the two Minneapolis races, they simply go out and do a workout or run the race distance by themselves or with a group.  Others want to know if they still get their medals or T-shirts.

How the race organization handles these issues often determines if there will be any lasting damage to the reputation or viability of the event.  What frequently happens when a race is cancelled is that other races offer options to the runners. Grandma's Marathon, for example, reopened registration for their race through Monday for those who want  to have the marathon experience and don't want to wait until Fall.

It remains to be determined what long term impact, if any, the weather patterns that precipitated these cancellations will have.  Will runners be more reluctant to sign up well in advance of the race?  Will it result in a decline in participation in running events?  Will race cancellation insurance increase the entry fees and/or will companies offer cancellation policies for the participants?

As always there are a lot more questions than answers.  Road racing has had a rather charmed life up until now.  The threshold for cancelling races was extremely high.  With the current situation of a seeming increase in the amount of severe weather conditions, will the "new normal" be more race cancellations?  How will the road race industry respond to this latest challenge?  What can or should be done?  The temptation is to merely treat this as a transient issue.  A blip in the otherwise accommodating weather patterns of old.  The risk in taking this path is that there is no assurance that this problem will go away.

Video interview post race cancellation with the race director is HERE.


Unknown said...

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Many marathons incl Boston '13 at the Finish Line said...

I am quite certain that the race was cancelled due to "lightning" - not "lightening" as the author of this article repeats over and over again. The word "lightening" means the process of making something "lighter"... whereas "lightning" precedes thunder. Just FYI.