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For decades scientists have warned about a growing climate change crisis, and this September has witnessed a number of catastrophes bringing the issue to the forefront of U.S. media coverage. From the flames that devoured parts of the west coast, producing apocalyptic images of rusty, tangerine-tinted skies raining ash, to destructive tropical storms on the Atlantic threatening the east coast, the effects of human-induced climate change are beginning to destabilize American life.
That includes athletic life. One of the most attractive things about running is the simplicity and purity of the sport. It’s a primal, somatic pursuit; all you really need is air to breathe, safe weather, and land to run on. (And, yes, shoes help.) But now we’re rapidly approaching a time when those fundamental requisites are under a grave threat. In fact, climate change has already begun to alter the running industry and its events, and as global temperatures climb to deadly levels transforming and intensifying our climate and weather patterns, we can expect to feel the impact more directly and frequently.
Unfortunately COVID-19 has given us a preview of how a global crisis affects the athletes, events, brands, and institutions that make up the sphere of running: Unhealthy training conditions, a mass cancellation of major events, and major financial losses.
How climate change will affect running
Perhaps the most obvious way that climate change is bound to adversely impact runners and events is extreme heat. Average global temperatures are climbing, with 2019 ranking in as the hottest year on record. 2020 is currently on track to take that crown as either the warmest or second warmest year in recorded history. Last month, the city of Phoenix, Ariz., broke a 46-year-old record by registering its eighth day of the year with temperatures climbing to or above 115°F (46.1°C).
Already we have begun to see the impact of extreme heat on major running events. For example, these days the New York City Marathon is run on the first Sunday of November. But when the event began in 1970, it was run in mid-September. Eventually it was moved to the next-to-last weekend in October before it became too hot to continue to hold it that month as average temperatures have gone up. The infamous 2007 Chicago Marathon serves to warn of the sobering medical consequences of hosting a marathon in extreme heat. That year on race day, Oct. 7, temperatures in the Windy City rose to a blistering 88°F while the humidity index was a stifling 88%. The dangerous conditions during the race caused 250 participants to be hospitalized due to ailments related to overheating. The marathon had to be halted for the first time in its history.
“It just gets too warm to run long distances,” says Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and former distance runner. “Certainly in the summer months there are going to be places where it’s just too hot outside to run safely. That’s always been the case, there’s always been heat waves. But with climate change we’ll have more intense and longer heat waves so there will be longer periods of time in many parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world where it’s just not safe to run outside.”
Take none other than the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Marathon site as proof. Due to concerns of extreme heat, the marathon’s course location was moved to Sapporo, which is 500 miles north of Tokyo and the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. Temperatures there are expected to be 10 to 12 degrees cooler than in Tokyo.
According to renowned climatologist Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, these worsening conditions for runners are the combined effect of heat and humidity leading to escalating heat index values.
“When heat indexes climb above roughly 90°F, it is increasingly dangerous to exert one’s self outdoors, and obviously that includes running, bicycling, etc.,” he explained to PodiumRunner in an email. “These conditions will become far more prevalent in the future if we continue to warm up the planet through ongoing carbon emissions.”
Not to mention that, besides the medical risks, these rising temperatures will mean slower race times. Studies have shown that the optimal marathon temperature sits somewhere between 44° F and 59°F. Once the temperature rises above that optimal range, perceived effort rises and pace slows for most runners.
Then, there is the issue of air quality.
“Hot conditions are associated with increased levels of ground-level ozone and other pollutants that are harmful to breath, and particularly dangerous if you’re engaged in strenuous activity that requires more intake of air,” says Mann.
Air pollution is a concoction of gases (such as carbon monoxide, ozone, and diesel exhaust) that vary depending on time of day, geolocation, season, and weather. Some of those pollutants, such as ozone (a component of smog) and diesel exhaust, can be harmful to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and are even associated with cancer. For this reason, outdoor exercise in unhealthy air quality is not encouraged. Overtime, as toxins are transferred through the lungs to the bloodstream and circulated throughout our bodies, it can lead to adverse effects of performance and deteriorations in general health.
As toxins continue to be spewed into the atmosphere and unhealthy air quality is exacerbated by rising general temperatures, it’s bound to have a more direct effect on endurance athletes in the coming years. Elite runner Mary Cain, who recently partnered with the environmental nonprofit organization Eco Athletes, pointed out that as a competitive runner, this is one of the biggest climate-change induced threats to her athletic career.
“If I travel internationally to go race at a meet, if I’m at a place where it’s unhealthy to be outside because of the air quality, how am I supposed to run?” Cain says. “How am I supposed to do what I’m supposed to be doing there?”
With extreme heat also comes the weather conditions that facilitated the record-breaking hurricane season on the east coast and the historic wildfires that ravaged parts of the west.
“There is no question that the increasingly large, faster-spreading, hotter-burning, more dangerous wildfires that California and the west are seeing this season (and have seen in recent years) have been exacerbated by climate change,” says Mann. “Take extreme heat, courtesy of climate change, combine it with more widespread drought, again courtesy of climate change, and you have the ingredients for the sorts of record wildfires that we are seeing in California, Oregon, Washington and Utah right now. Five of the 10 largest wildfires in California history are currently burning right now, amidst record heat. It’s not a coincidence. It’s climate change.”
In those regions where the combination of heat and drought have given way to extensive wildfires, air quality is further impaired and yields conditions that are dangerous for engaging in outdoor activity.
Earlier this month, Oregonian runner Colette Richter woke up to ash in her Corvallis home and a strong barbecue smell deriving from a wildfire that was blazing 40 to 50 miles away from the town. Throughout the week, the air quality in her area spiked to an AQI of over 500 multiple times making it extremely unsafe to exercise outside where the air was thick with smoke and ash.
“People were struggling to get their runs in at crowded gyms in addition to having to wear a mask because of COVID,” says Richter. “It was lonely, no one was outside and the smoke covered the city. We are all cooped up inside in our houses except for our solo treadmill runs and trips to the store. On top of all of this, the lack of sunlight and oxygen made everyone tired and sluggish. As runners we try to stay optimistic, but overall it’s tiring and downright depressing.”
Over on the east coast, flooding due to increased tropical storms may become a bigger concern in the coming years causing unsafe running conditions and potential race cancelations and postponements. Gerrard explains that while climate change doesn’t necessarily create hurricanes, it does make them more severe: “The warming of the ocean gives more energy to the hurricane. It puts more water vapor into the atmosphere for it to rain down.”
Mass Extinction and Loss of Biodiversity
It’s often said that running is an individual sport, and competitive running culture is at times critiqued for being an insular world. The reality is that running is intimately dependent on and intertwined within the lives of other beings and natural phenomena.
“There’s no running unlinked to the earth and other species, even if you’re running in a gym on a treadmill,” explained Victor Thasiah, Ph.D, founder of the nonprofit organization Runners For Public Lands to PodiumRunner in an email. “At times I’ve been so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that I’ve neither realized nor appreciated the obvious links in light, air, water, running gear, my energy level, etc.”
Though runners are often aware of the surfaces that they run on, Thasiah noted that we are often oblivious to the fact that every run is deeply enveloped by the “natural world.”
“We’re usually running in, with, and through a land community, filled with flora, fauna, living soils and waters, and under sun, moon, and stars,” says Thasiah. “Passionate runners can be said to live off the land. Not, of course, exactly like people who farm or hunt or fish, but approaching that kind of an intimate connection.”
So runners — whether their terrain is trail, track, or road — are certain to be affected by the biodiversity crisis we are currently experiencing, sometimes referred to as the world’s sixth great extinction. Some reports have estimated that one million species will be annihilated over the next few years due to human actions. From the lands we run on to the wildlife we encounter to the food that fuels us to the plants that give us oxygen, the catastrophic decline of nature is bound to hold severe consequences for us, not least of which being eviscerating a sense of beauty, enchantment, and possibly resources from the sport.
What We Can Do
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it’s how disastrous the failure to act in the face of an oncoming, predictable catastrophe can be. Climate change is an extraordinary complex topic and the fight against it won’t be simple, and it certainly won’t be easy. But here are three ways that you can take action beyond reducing your own carbon footprint:
1. Raising Awareness
The organization that Cain has partnered with, Eco Athletes, aims to identify, inspire, and arm athletes with the tools they need to speak out confidently on climate change. According to the nonprofit’s president Lew Blaustein, one of the main reasons athletes have failed to get involved in climate change is a lack of confidence and expertise in discussing such a complex and politically-charged issue. But, Blaustein believes that expertise isn’t what’s missing from the discourse to make real change possible, what’s lacking is inspiration.
“If science was going to be the thing to solve this problem, we would have solved it by now,” says Blaustein. “What we don’t have is the grassroots will to change personal habits but even more-so to demand change at scale from government, from business, from the entities that have the macro influence, because this is a macro problem. What do athletes have? They have massive platforms.”
As the first runner to have joined Eco Athletes roster, Cain is uniquely situated as a respected voice of advocacy within the running community following her activism against structural misogyny and abuse in the running industry. Much less known until her recent partnership with Eco Athletes is her longtime concern for environmental issues.
“I think as athletes we, depending on our platforms, can have a lot of influence on our local communities,” says Cain. “Even if we ourselves are not the scientists or the ones with our boots on the ground, helping in any way we can, even if it’s just our voices, is incredibly important.”
2. Learn From BIPOC Activists
Thasiah’s organization, Runners For Public Lands, based Ventura, Cal., organizes runners for antiracist environmental advocacy and stewardship, as environmental justice and racial justice are inextricably intertwined. Among other things, the group aims to educate runners on regional environmental issues having to do with equitable access, public lands, climate change, and sustainability.
“Everyone in the United States needs to make changes to meet the moment we’re in,” says Thasiah. “We can’t lose the momentum and ambition we have for racial justice and equity, and for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The biggest change for the running industry and culture specifically might be for people to get used to applying an antiracist, and environmental impact, test or filter to everything they’re doing, and make changes accordingly. There’s lots of solid advice out there, especially from black runners, indigenous runners, and runners of color. Find it and act on it.”
3. Pressure Business and Government Entities
Cain, who works at the running brand Tracksmith as a community organizer, thinks industry leaders — from the companies that create running products to those that put on running events — need to begin to prioritize sustainability and the environmental impact of their business models and products in whatever space they occupy.
Of course, as individuals we can work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through our means of transportation and conscious consumption, but according to Gerrard, who teaches law at Columbia, what the government does collectively is far more important.
“To get everyone to act requires government policy,’ says Gerrard. “At this particular point in time, between now and the election, I think the most important things that individuals can do is to vote, get all their friends to vote, and to get people to register to vote because what the government does is by far and away the most important thing to effect climate change.”
More information about Runners for Public Lands can be found here.
More information about Eco Athletes and their mission can be found here.