Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 28 Jun 2002 08:24:47 -0400

Hot Date


John McGee is an idea man whose running ideas usually succeed. He headed a committee that revived the Edmonton Marathon after its ancestor had died in 1994, and the new race has grown to 10 times the old one's size.

Later, John joined the successful effort to bring the World Championships to Edmonton (and he directed the marathons there last summer). Now he's part of a group bidding on the World Half-Marathon for 2005.

An idea-man takes risks. One of his riskiest moves as chairman of the Edmonton Marathon was to make it an evening race this year.

"We were looking for something to set us apart," said John. "No other marathon in North America starts at that hour."

This also means that no other runs a greater risk of hot weather. On Edmonton's longest day the sun doesn't set until 10 o'clock. Meaning the race starts in the heat of the day and nearly everyone finishes before dark.

The race gambled on a seasonably cool evening, and lost. While we rode in from the airport exactly 24 hours before starting time, the temperature gauge on John's dash read 30 degrees Celsius. That's well into the 80s, Fahrenheit.

At packet-pickup that day the question on every runner's mind and lips was some variation of, "How do I handle the heat?" I heard it answered first by Jeff Galloway.

A woman, who might have been 25 but looked 15, said, "My goal is to break 3:30. Do you think that's still realistic in weather like this?"

She's Canadian, from Calgary. Like almost everyone else in this race, she hadn't trained well for these conditions.

Jeff answered her gently but honestly: "This isn't a day to be thinking about PRs. Start very slowly, listen to your body, and save the sub-3:30 race for your next one."

I sang much the same tune that evening and all the next day while mingling with the runners. Only a smattering of them braved the harsh Saturday sunshine for talks by Jeff, me and others from an outdoor stage.

Groping for a positive message, I told them this race would be a different kind of experience, but not necessarily a bad one. For one, they would get to start at the same time in the same city and with the same temperatures as the World Championships men's marathoners did last summer.

I promised these runners that they would remember this day longer than if the weather had been perfect. One of my clearest memories is of a marathon I ran more than 25 years ago.

That was the notorious "Run for the Hoses" Boston of 1976. Faced with a starting-line temperature of 97, runners threw away their pacing plans and time goals.

Instead they started cautiously, listened to how they felt, stayed safe and tried to finish upright. Medical problems were surprisingly few that day.

That was my slowest marathon to date. But for a poor hot-weather runner who hadn't trained at all for those conditions, I felt surprisingly good all the way.

All these years later this remains one of my most memorable marathons. These aren't bad memories, because there are no bad marathons. Each one has something to teach.

This one's lesson: You don't pick your raceday conditions; they pick you. You don't welcome the heat, but you can take more of it than you'd imagined.

I was tempted to say that Edmonton made a mistake by scheduling a summertime marathon at five o'clock in the afternoon. I might have suggested a shorter race -- say, a "10 at 10" of 10 kilometers at 10 P.M. -- on the longest evening, then a marathon at its traditional early morning hour.

Now I see that the evening start wasn't a bad idea. Edmonton wanted to give runners a different experience, and the experiment didn't fail.

A morning start would have meant rising temperatures and increasing overhead sunshine. The reverse was true for the evening.

The heat eased somewhat from its starting-line peak in the high 80s. The sun beat down less harshly as it set and the shadows deepened. More residents along the course hauled out hoses at this hour than they would have in the morning.

About 1900 people finished the marathon and the half. Oh, the stories they'll tell in years to come!

One of the best will come from Miss Calgary. That's the young woman advised by Jeff Galloway to "save your sub-3:30 race for the next one." (He'd also told her, "Don't wear a hat, because it keeps heat from escaping through the top of your head.")

The overhead clock just clicked over to "3:30:00" when I saw Miss Calgary (wearing a hat) pass under it. Sometimes a runner doesn't just live with the heat but beats it.

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