The New York City Marathon started at 10:45 on Sunday morning. During the race the temperature got as high as 79 degrees, and the humidity, as reported on ABC's televised coverage of the race, reached 96 percent. These are terrible numbers for a marathon. Frightening numbers.
Orlando Pizzolato, who won the race with an undistinguished time, more than six minutes slower than the race record, stopped eight separate times after the halfway point and often seemed to be on the verge of dropping out. Grete Waitz, the first woman finisher, continued to run despite stomach cramps and diarrhea. Jacques Bussereau, a 48-year-old French runner, collapsed in Queens, almost 15 miles into the race, and died an hour later of cardiac arrest. Almost 2,000 of the runners who started the race -- 12 percent of the field -- did not finish it. Rod Dixon, the prerace favorite, dropped out after 21 miles; Bobby Beathard, the general manager of the Redskins and an experienced marathoner, dropped out after 19. "I was dying with the heat," Beathard said. Almost 1,200 runners were treated for a variety of medical problems, and more than 200 were taken to hospitals.
Usually, distance is the main enemy of a marathoner.
Sunday in New York, it was the weather.
This year's New York City Marathon was less an athletic contest than a war of attrition.
"Dixon had so much to lose by dropping out," Marty Liquori, the thoughtful ABC race analyst, said yesterday from his home in Florida. "But Rod knew he was in too far. The smart ones dropped out -- they knew they were in over their heads. You're fighting a losing battle with the heat. It's got you."
"In good conscience," Dr. Samuel Fox, director of the Preventive Cardiology Program at Georgetown University, said yesterday, "they should have accelerated the start of the race, to 7 or 8 in the morning. You either start early, or you cancel. You have to consider all those hours most of these runners will be out there. And even when you start early, you put all the force you can in getting fluids to the runners along the way, and you have loud talkers out there on the course calling out the temperature and humidity and advising runners to walk it through or drop out. The competitive mindset needs our help."
Irv Brodsky, a spokesman for ABC, said yesterday that no such request -- for a change in the starting time -- was made.
"I suppose they could have thought about moving it up," Liquori said. "None of us really thought the temperature would get that high, except for Fred Lebow (the director of the New York City Marathon), and he did everything he could to make sure there was enough water out on the course. If I'd known how hot it was going to be I might have considered changing the time. But to do it at, say, 7, the runners would have to get up at 4. I'm not sure that's realistic. You could do it in the Olympics, with 70 runners; you could notify everyone and have them sign a paper agreeing to the time change. But notifying 17,000 runners on short notice is asking something impossible."
Lebow said that even with a 10:45 start, 17,000 runners begin to assemble at 7:30. "If we started at 7," he said, revising Liquori's estimate on the logistics, "the runners would have to get on the buses at 3; they wouldn't be able to sleep at all the night before."
So short of postponing the race, what were his options?
"We had no options," Lebow said.
Lebow, who was "very upset over what happened," yesterday told reporters in New York that he "went to the runners before the race and begged them to forget about (trying to break) their PRs (personal records)." Moreover, having watched the race on TV, it seemed that reasonable precautions were taken to assure that there was plenty of water available to the runners.
But when asked about the possibility of postponing the race because of the oppressive weather conditions, Lebow said, "It definitely should not have been put off." And later, in a telephone conversation, he said, "The challenge of running isn't just over the terrain, but over the conditions. You must remember that marathon runners are not Sunday strollers. They train hard for this. It is terribly unfortunate that a man died -- we've had over 100,000 runners in 15 years and this is the first time that's happened -- but other than that what's the worst thing that happened? That people ran slower times or they could not finish? I'm told none of the people who were hospitalized had to stay overnight. Now what's so bad about that?"
A marathon runner might second that emotion.
A nonrunner might call it cavalier.
Marathons have become big business. Organizers in Chicago and New York have admitted paying appearance money to certain elite runners. Television networks pay big money for the rights to such marathons; Lebow said ABC paid $100,000 to televise the New York City Marathon. It would not require an overabundance of cyncism to ask if these marathons are now so commercialized that the health of their participants is less important than the spectacle they create and the dollars such spectacle generates.
But given the reality of commercialism, and its ensuing excesses, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the televising of Sunday's New York City Marathon. Such heat and humidity in late October is a freak of nature. But the effects were out there for all to see. Running 26 miles is no walk through the park. Running 26 miles in 96 percent humidity is more like a death march. "The bottom line is this: Runners have lost respect for the marathon," Liquori said. "They think they can run 25 miles a week for three months and be ready for it. They don't respect their foe enough. Now they've seen how much hurt you have to go through. Now, before they jump in, maybe they'll contemplate how really hard it is."