Why on Earth Would Anyone Want to Run a Marathon in 90 Degrees?!

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

Today, I’d like to address another criticism that arose out of the 90 degree Chicago Marathon. This one asks the question, “Why would someone run in such a hot marathon?”

I think I’ll answer the question by grouping marathoners into three broad categories of runners:

Elite Runners: My definition of an elite runner is anyone among the top ten or twenty finishers who stands a fair chance of winning their event. It’s no surprise that elite runners will run in 90 degrees since they want to win and stand to make money doing so. It’s likely their job and how they make a living.

Competitive Runners: These are the speedsters who finish somewhere among the top 1% of entrants. They race to beat as many runners as they can, and will do so in 90 degree heat because they accept adverse weather as just another aspect of the sport. Their motto is something like, “You take whatever conditions are thrown at you on race day and see you how stack up against your competitors”. Competitive runners may also be sponsored, or may run with a track club that competes against other clubs for points. In other words, others are counting on them to race.

The Rest of Us: In the middle and back of the pack, runners are generally more concerned about doing their best and improving than they are about winning or competing against others (although competition is often fun for us too!). This is the group most people seem to be questioning. They wonder, “If you’re not competing and stand no chance of winning, why would you run a marathon in 90 degree heat”? and, “Since the heat will pretty much guarantee you won’t run your best finishing time, why would you even race”?

For someone who has never trained for and ran a marathon, or doesn’t have a “rest of us” mindset, I can appreciate the questions and will try my best to answer them.

  1. The “To Complete” Goal: Among the “rest of us” group, there are a lot of first-time marathoners whose sole goal is “to complete”. They don’t care how long it will take them. “So what?”, they think, “My goal is still to finish – it will just take longer”.
  2. Organization & Expense: Marathon registration fees are almost never refundable – you can’t just phone up the event a few days in advance of the race and say, “Sorry, it’s going to be too hot – I want my money back”. In addition to entrant fees (Chicago’s was $90), there can also be considerable time and costs around flights and hotels. Chances are that if you arrive in your marathon destination city, you’re not going to just show up and not run. Most people would view that as wasted time and money. Wouldn’t you?
  3. Climbing Everest: If running a marathon is akin to climbing a mountain, running one in terrible conditions is like climbing Everest. People embrace this challenge thinking, “If I can do this, I can do anything”. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that finishing a marathon in over 90 degree heat has left me me a sense of confidence I never could have imagined previously. I imagine that it’s quite like the feelings people seek and find by taking part in other extreme events such the North Pole Marathon.
  4. A Bigger Badge of Honor: I can certainly relate to this one. Finishing a marathon in adverse conditions gives you something extra to be proud about. “Remember back in 2007 when we finished Chicago in 90 degrees?”. It’s sort of like surviving a perfect storm – you get instant bragging rights.
  5. It’s Now or Never: I think by far the biggest reason a “rest of us” marathoner would run in the heat relates to the fact that months and months of training have been organized around PEAKING on THAT particular DAY. For someone who has never trained for a marathon, what I just said won’t make much sense so let me try to explain. A typical marathon training plan is anywhere from four months to a year. During that time, the runner slowly builds up their running so their weekly mileage is at it’s maximum only a few weeks prior to the race. A similar build up in intensity (i.e. speed) is also part of the program. Once these maximums have been reached, the runner goes into the “taper” phase of training – a sharp decrease in mileage that is designed to rest the runner up so that they are at their very best on race day. To make a long story short, once you’ve peaked and gone through the taper, it’s physiologically and psychologically very difficult to stop the train, back it up and peak on another day.

    This becomes even more difficult if the runner is not able to devote the same training hours after their targeted marathon date. Anyone who has trained for a marathon knows that fitting the running schedule into one’s family life can at times be a challenge. “Sorry honey, I know I said I’d be doing this for six months, but it looks like I need another couple”.

    Whenever a runner is confronted with “now or never”, they will do everything they can to run the marathon – 90 degrees or not!

So, those are my thoughts on why runners take on marathons under extreme weather conditions. Individually, these can be pretty powerful motivations. But, as many runners can attest, the reasons can combine to become an almost irresistible force in the marathoner’s choice to run in extreme conditions.

Can you blame us?

About Mark Iocchelli

Also known as the "Running Blogfather", I'm a 40-something marathoner who has beaten stress fractures and terrible shin splints. Now I'm running double the mileage with no pain - and I'm getting faster. I love to talk about running form and Arthur Lydiard. I also enjoy taking photographs, have a beautiful (and very patient!) wife, and am the proud father of two crazy kids. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about the site.

  1. Nancy Toby on October 16th at 7:35 am

    Well said!!

    There’s also the very practical “no excuses” attitude that you run on the day of the race and in the conditions that actually occur on race day, just like everyone else out there – you don’t run the race you wish for. You deal with the course and weather conditions as they are – which is what makes your times that day directly comparable to everyone else’s who ran.

  2. Mark Iocchelli on October 16th at 9:19 am

    Good point!

  3. 21stCenturyMom on October 16th at 12:48 pm

    Excellent points! I know a guy who runs at least 1 marathon a month and he DNF’d in Chicago (as did quite a few elites) because to them it was no big deal – just another race. For people who have trained for their first race, raised money for cause and traveled from out of town this is THE race – the big one. They want to do it. All they need is enough water and they can, too.

  4. maxdog on October 17th at 10:01 am

    Sorry 21stcenturymom, but it takes more then enough water, even enough water on 90deg heat index days won’t get it done if the preparation and ability and many other factors aren’t there. I ran and ‘finished’ Chicago last week and it wasn’t fun…I ran and completed the coarse (my 6yr old wanted the medal) for many of the reasons Mark listed above even though for this one I wasn’t ready…or as ready as I could’ve, should’ve been…but hey that is life and the sport.

    If we don’t pay the price before race day we will pay on race day.

    By the way, much of what has been written and said about Chicago and the closing of the race and the water I don’t believe to be accurate…that race was a pending human disaster and it needed to be dealt with swiftly or more would have died. And NO amount of water would have fixed it.

  5. P.O.M. on October 18th at 1:44 pm

    Anyone who “blames” a runner or wonders WHY, is obviously NOT a runner.

  6. rick hellard on October 26th at 4:14 pm

    I agree completley with your classifications and your reasonings.

    Very well said.