About 50,000 people registered for the New York City Marathon this year. It was the first time the race was at full capacity since 2019 and the beginning of the pandemic. Yet not all of those who started the marathon made it to the end. More than 2,000 runners did not cross the finish line before the cut-off time. That number is about two times as many non-finishers as in 2019, when there were even more starters in the race.
One factor that likely accounts for part of the difference: the weather. On race day in 2019, it was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and 43% humidity. This year, it was more than 20 degrees hotter and much more humid. In fact, Sunday was the hottest November 6 on record for New York City’s Central Park. At the finish line, it reached 24 Celsius, and the relative humidity hovered around 75%, according to the National Weather Service. It was the hottest NYC Marathon since the annual race was moved from October to November in 1986.
It might not sound like much, considering that for many months of the year NYC gets much hotter than that. However, for a feat of human endurance like a 42 km race, and at a time when people are not acclimatized to the heat, even 24 degrees can be dangerous.
And athletes are most impacted by dew point, a measure that considers the amount of moisture in the air. At higher dew points, it’s more difficult for sweat to evaporate and for the human body to regulate its temperature. On Sunday, the dew point was about 17 C — considered “sticky” and “muggy” by the National Weather Service and bordering on “oppressive.”
Prior to the start of the race, New York Road Runners (the organisation that manages the city’s marathon) included a warm weather guidance in its race-day forecast. “Be aware that you may not be acclimated to the weather we expect on Sunday,” the post said. And NYRR medical director recommended that runners consider slowing down to stay safe, along with other suggestions like additional hydration, light fabrics, and sun hats.
Yet even with the warning, participants still felt the heat, and many struggled. Daniel do Nascimento, the Brazilian Olympian going for the record, collapsed at mile 21, though he’d been on pace to win. Another Olympian, Galen Rupp — the top-seeded American in the race — also dropped out.
Even many of those who finished, at some point, had to seek treatment in one of the course’s 25 medical tents. Doctors in the tents saw thousands of runners suffering from heat illness and dehydration, NYU Langone physician Lipi Roy told Bloomberg. “The main complaint was nausea and I guarantee you that was related to the heat,” Roy said, after volunteering at the race. “Every single runner said, ‘This is the hottest race I’ve ever done,’” she added.
In years past, we’ve had to wait for attribution studies to tell us if or how a particular weather event was related to climate change. But for heatwaves, at least, that may no longer be true. Earlier this year, a group of climate scientists declared that all anomalous and extreme heat events are being intensified by climate change, in a review study published in the journal Environmental Research: Climate. Which means, as a journalist, I can already tell you that the conditions of this year’s NYC Marathon were, in part, a product of burning fossil fuels.
What were once once-in-a-decade heatwaves now happen twice as frequently. Fifty-year events now happen, on average, every 10 years.
The heat that Sunday’s marathoners felt wasn’t specific to them — it’s been incredibly warm all around the northern hemisphere. Several Northeast U.S. cities broke records over the weekend. And much of Europe is having its hottest fall season ever. Greenland experienced its largest September melt event on record. This summer was bad, too, with deadly heatwaves sweeping across the U.S., China, and Europe.
It’s disappointing to have to drop out of a marathon early, after months or years of dedicated preparation and training. But cutting a run short is just one small indicator of the change the that’s taking place worldwide. The consequences for many are much worse than missing the finish line.
Heat has killed at least 15,000 people across Europe in 2022 so far, according to a World Health Organisation estimate. Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the United Kingdom were the worst-impacted countries, each suffering between 1,000 and 4,500 deaths. Extreme heat is becoming deadlier, and this is just the beginning, if we don’t take immediate and drastic action to slash our greenhouse gas emissions.
The human body is incredible. Under the right conditions, people can run marathons. But no matter how resilient we are, we’re all vulnerable to the dangerous physical effects of climate change.
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