The recent heat wave is affecting one of the region's mid-summer traditions: the Missoula Marathon.
With temperatures in the upper-90s for much of the week, and a high of 95 degrees forecast for the July 9 race, worries about runner safety are causing administrators to close the course earlier and ask Missoulians for help to make sure the race goes off without a hitch.
Tony Banovich, the executive director of Run Wild Missoula and the race director for Sunday's marathon, sent an email to participants explaining safety precautions the race team was taking for the event.
The time the course is open will be cut by an hour, from seven-and-a-half to six-and-a-half hours. But the race team will consider shutting down the course even earlier if the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, an index that defines safety levels for outdoor activity, exceeds 87 degrees before the new stopping time of 12:30 p.m.
According to the National Weather Service’s website, when the WBGT goes above 87 degrees, the human body becomes stressed after 20 minutes of exercise in direct sunlight, which makes running a marathon in sunny Missoula quite difficult.
Clint Burson of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce says that while it’s “hard to compete with Grizzly football,” the marathon “is one of the bigger events in the area,” bringing in thousands of out-of-town visitors and business to Missoula.
Barb Neilan, the executive director of Destination Missoula, keeps tabs on the economic impact of the marathon each year. In 2016, Destination Missoula charted an impact of $2.4 million, with 5,000 people staying overnight while another 4,000 were day attendees. Neilan doubts the heat will hurt the marathon this year, because when it was brutally hot in 2007, “it didn’t keep anyone away.”
Banovich is asking Missoulians who live along the marathon course to place and run sprinklers in front of their homes on race day. “The ability to run through a sprinkler can help the runners to stay cool and help reduce the risk that they face heat-related issues,” Banovich explained in an email.
Banovich expects the race to go off as it has every other year. “We don’t want people to panic,” he said in a phone interview. "We’ve had warm years before, and most people have no problem.”
But for the slower runners, known as Back of the Packers, slowing down can endanger their chances of finishing the race before the course closes. Pam Gardiner belongs to this group.
“Shortening the length of exposure to heat and avoiding the beating sun of afternoon are reasonable steps toward that goal. But those measures impact the Back of the Pack … and here in Missoula we take pride in hosting a BOP-friendly marathon,” Gardiner said via email.
Yet Gardiner supports the difficult decision, and while “those gestures do not erase the disappointment ... I sincerely hope it conveys the commitment we have to all runners and walkers.”
All marathon runners and walkers will be facing the warmer-than-usual temperatures. Glen Burwick, co-director of the Missoula chapter of the Galloway Program, a national running organization, has suggested runners wear bandanas and add ice to them in order to keep cool.
“Once you get over 60 degrees, you have to slow your pace down a bit,” Burwick advises. “If you’re getting hot, slow down a little bit, if you’re running a 10-minute mile? Maybe a 12- or 13-minute mile” would be best.
But the best advice is to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. "Once you get out and running you can't get that hydration back," Burwick said.
Ann Gustafson is doing the half-marathon again this year. She's feeling good, even though it is going to be hot. "If I get way too hot I'm going to take what I can get," Gustafson said, and at 74 years old, that's a goal of a 13:44 average mile.
"I'm walking with artificial hips and knees, and I'm a testament of what you can do," Gustafson said, laughing.