Over 80 Marathon Runners Sign Letter To USATF CEO Max Siegel For Safer Olympic Trials Amid Heat Concerns

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Earlier this year, USATF sent an email to athletes and announced to the public details surrounding the Olympic Marathon Trials, which is the selection race for Team USA marathoners for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

The race is scheduled for February 3, 2024, in Orlando, Florida, with a noon start time.

Since then, the organizing committee released a website that further specified details regarding the event, including the course map and men’s and women’s start times, 12:10 and 12:20, respectively. 

Even before the final selection, there had been controversy surrounding the location of the Olympic Trials. 

Chattanooga, Tennesse, was the location that was preferred by the majority of USATF’s board of directors, but trials would ultimately be held in Orlando, Florida, after USATF CEO Max Siegel overrode the decision.

With the location and late start times, athletes and coaches have voiced their concerns that potential high temperatures could create an unsafe environment for runners. The average temperature in Orlando, Florida, at that time of year, is a high of 73 degrees Fahrenheit (~23 degrees Celcius) and a low of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celcius).

However, in recent years, with climate changes, temperatures have reached the high 80s (27-31 Celcius) in February.

Marathons are very rarely race in these conditions, with most starting by eight in the morning. Although the race in Paris will take place in August and is expected to be warm, the race will be starting at eight in the morning to mitigate risks.

Hansons-Brooks Distance Project coach Kevin Hanson spoke to Runner’s World about his concerns about the late start for his 13 runners who qualified for trials (eight women, five men). 

“With six months to go, I hope higher-ups take a look at things and reconsider this decision. It’s dangerous for the athletes.”

According to an email sent to athletes from USATF, the local organizing committee has contingencies in place as they prepare for any potential challenges, weather included. What was not made clear was what weather would warrant putting these plans in place and what exactly these contingency plans were.

Molly Huddle commented on the potential contingency plans and the lack of clarity, “I don’t know what that means. Does that mean they’ll change the time, or does that mean we’ll have sponges for you?”

Part of the reason it is believed that the trials have a noon start time is for optimal TV coverage. In the email to athletes, they are promised that the entirety of the event will be televised to NBC.

Most athletes didn’t find that to be a good reason. Molly Huddle wrote on social media, “Could we not just tape delay it a few hours so no one dies? K thanks.”

Although increasing TV coverage of athletics is important to help grow the sport, there is too much disconnect in this situation between optimal coverage and runner safety. In arguably one of the most important races of their lives, athletes are not happy to sacrifice their safety for optimal TV coverage.

This is not the first time USATF has prioritized race start times over athlete safety. In the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, with a race start time of nine in the morning, temperatures had reached mid-70s (~24 Celcius) by the end of the race. 

Only 64% of men and 75% of women completed the race, with many athletes hospitalized. Shalane Flanagan became dehydrated on the course, collapsing over the finish line in third, and would have to be carried off the course by her husband. 

It would also come to light that the number of hydration stations was inadequate, and water-soaked sponges contained soap.

With no changes made, a group of over 80 elite marathoners signed a letter addressed to USATF CEO Max Siegel to voice their concerns over the start time. With the potential for extreme heat and humidity, the noon start time would create extremely unsafe conditions for the marathoners.

Dr William O Roberts highlights the dangers of heat illness and its potential long-term consequences. Dr Roberts says that for athletes to compete in that heat at peak sunlight, they would have needed to train for about “three months in the worst-case conditions.”

Dr Roberts also notes that none of the athletes have ever raced in such conditions, other than a few athletes who competed at the Marathon World Championships in Doha in 2019.

The letter closes out by saying the athletes are looking to race in the best conditions, which will already be a challenge in Florida. They request that the start time be moved to preferably six in the morning, and seven at the latest.

Swipe to read the full letter to USATF CEO.

As of the time of writing, USATF has not released a change in location or start time for the event.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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