The head of the Manitoba Marathon doesn’t regret starting a race her team soon cancelled because of the unforgiving temperatures, but she admits race officials could have done a better job communicating the closure.
Once the race was officially called off roughly 75 minutes after it began on Sunday, Rachel Munday, the marathon’s executive director, said officials made a point of telling runners they could keep competing if they chose.
That message encouraged some runners to press forward, when perhaps they shouldn’t have, Munday said.
“If it ever happened again we wouldn’t use the words, ‘If you continue, you run at your own risk,'” she said. “People think at that point there’s an option.”
The messaging seemingly added to the confusion runners felt on Sunday when the plug was pulled on the 44th annual running of the Manitoba Marathon, owing to sizzling temperatures that broke weather records in Winnipeg — and the forecast saw coming.
Some runners say they were perplexed by the cancellation and the differing messages they were hearing.
Runners befuddled by mixed messaging
“Everybody was doing their own thing,” said Geoff Richardson, a Winnipeg educator who ran in his first marathon on Sunday.
“We had volunteers saying, ‘Stop, the course is closed. You have to stop.’ And then other volunteers saying, ‘Great job. Keep going. You’re doing great.’ It was a 180-degree difference between the messaging.”
Richardson was a third of the way through the race when a police officer told him the race was closed. Unclear what the cop meant and desperate for more information, he and the other runners nearby kept going. His own concerns were settled when a race official said his race time was no longer being recorded but he didn’t have to pull out of the race.
Later on, he was urged to quit by a volunteer who claimed, incorrectly, there were no more water stations ahead.
“I’ve been training for so long I didn’t want to stop. I decided to keep running until either I finished the race or the transport bus came to pick me up and we were literally told to stop.”
Munday explained the Manitoba Marathon team wasn’t about to put up roadblocks, literally or figuratively.
“You could say, ‘The course is closed, you need to get on the bus,’ but you still can’t make them get on the bus,” she said.
Munday said buses were coming back without any runners.
Given the participants’ reluctance to quit, officials knew it had to keep offering refreshment options and maintaining the road closures, Munday said. It couldn’t leave these runners alone in such extreme heat. Three marathon participants or attendees were taken to hospital in connection with the temperatures, health officials say.
The executive director insists the marathon wasn’t caught flat-footed by the temperatures, even though a soaring mercury of 37 C was forecast for days in advance.
In an email to runners on Saturday, the Manitoba Marathon urged runners to consider a shorter distance and to forgo any attempts at a personal best time.
The letter did not suggest that cancelling the race was a reasonable possibility, though it informed runners of the flag system in which one colour represents an accelerated course closure.
At 7 a.m., marathon planners expected the race to go ahead. The weather went from “breezy and cool” at 7 a.m., Munday said, to unmanageable shortly after 8 a.m.
Unforgiving heat within an hour
“We’ve never seen the temperature accelerate like that,” she said.
“Our decisions to move forward on race day were entirely based on 43 years of experience of putting on the marathon on this day.”
Officials used what’s called wet bulb readings, which assess the temperature at which water stops evaporating from a wet thermometer bulb, to determine the race was no longer safe.
Munday said she anticipated the marathon may have to close down sections of the course around 10 a.m. or later, but nothing as extreme, or as fast, as what occurred.
“There really wasn’t any way for us to foresee that we were going to have to do a mass evacuation of the route at 8:30 in the morning.”
CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder said he was worried by the race’s feasibility for days, but noted the humidity on Sunday morning rose faster than anticipated.
“We had temperatures climbing rapidly. We had the amount of moisture in the air climbing rapidly. And even for fit runners, it’s very, very challenging to carry out a race safely in those conditions.”
Marathon planners considered starting the race an hour earlier, at 6 a.m., but it wasn’t practical to make last-minute arrangements with police, paramedics, first-aid staff and the hundreds of volunteers.
Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson Const. Jay Murray said it would have been a significant effort to reschedule the road closures, shift workers earlier and make sure all the refreshments and equipment were in place on time.
“It can be incredibly tough to move the start time of this magnitude when so much planning has occurred.”
Still, Foster Lyle, a full marathon runner who works for a finance management company, said organizers should have communicated the threat of a race closure, even if it thought the possibility was unlikely or would only affect late-morning finishers.
“The forecast was pretty indicative of what happened,” he said.
“If they anticipated closing the course down at certain intervals at certain times, it would have been nice if that was communicated beforehand.”