Commentary

Marathoners manage to beat heat

Facing exhausting conditions, Boston runners emerged stronger for challenge

Updated: April 16, 2012, 11:19 PM ET
By Tom Lakin | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The sun rose hot and high on Monday morning in Boston.

By early afternoon, the temperature already was nearing 90 degrees in Copley Square and it was clear then, as the heat shimmered off the pavement like an oily haze, that the story of the 116th running of the Boston Marathon was not the winners -- Kenyans Wesley Korir and Sharon Cherop -- but the unseasonable spring sun that had runners staggering across the finish line in search of water and a place to sit down.

In the right-hand lane of the Boylston Street cool-down alley, about 100 yards from the finish, all the talk was of the heat.

"That was brutal," one mid-afternoon finisher said as he uncapped a water bottle and poured its contents down his chest. "I'm not sure I'd do that again."

[+] EnlargeBoston Marathon
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireStaying hydrated -- inside and out -- was an important task for Boston runners.

"If it wasn't Boston," said another, "I wouldn't have even bothered finishing."

Race organizers anticipated this on Sunday when they advised inexperienced runners to go slow and be sure to properly hydrate. But even for expert runners such as University of North Carolina graduate Russ Hennessy, a veteran of two Ironman competitions, no press release could accurately capture the mean truth of a greedy April sun hanging low over Heartbreak Hill.

"The entire last mile all I was thinking was I never want to do another marathon," said Hennessy, 24. "I was pretty nauseous for most of the second half of the race."

For Kasey Hacker, a 23-year-old from Wilmington, Del., the heat became a factor almost immediately.

"Sitting in Athlete's Village [at the Hopkinton starting line] you could feel the heat on your back," Hacker said. "I think everyone had at least a little sweat going before they even started. It was crazy."

Even former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, running his first marathon on behalf of the American Stroke Association, said the heat was a significant obstacle.

"This is the only marathon I've ever attempted to run so I can't really compare it," Bruschi said, "but all I know is that I was hot, I force-fed myself as much fluid as I possibly could and my wife, who ran with me, tried to slow me down as best she could because, in football games, you just want to go. And that's what I'm used to. So at the start we went off a little fast. Then we wanted to slow down because of the heat.

"This is almost more of a gut-check than football," Bruschi said, "because it's nonstop. Football is explosive, you're tackling, you get 40 seconds of rest. But in a marathon you have to get to the 26.2 and if your calves cramp up or anything else, you've got nowhere to go. You've got no trainers out there to rub your legs or anything like that. So after today I have a new respect for all these marathoners."

Aiding the boiling runners were some 1,200 medical volunteers, including 30 more doctors than in years past, all on the lookout for signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

"The very first things are how the runners are walking, then we check their mental status and get their vital signs," Dr. Pierre A. d'Hemecourt, the race's co-medical director, said of what his team was looking for. "Mental status is a huge thing that tells us whether something is going wrong. If they have significant mental status changes, then you start to think about heat exhaustion and possible hyperthermia."

North Andover's Maureen Moran, 42, was among the volunteers dispensing water from 34 card tables near the finish line on Boylston Street.

"It's been pretty constant all day," said Moran, who arrived at her post at 9 in the morning and wouldn't go home until sometime after 6. "I think the runners are pretty happy to see me."

[+] EnlargeLauren Deady
David L Ryan/Getty ImagesWhile the high temperatures took their toll, race officials were ready to deal with exhausted runners.

Indeed, Moran and her counterparts were easily the day's most popular draw. As runners wobbled through the cool-down alley outside Copley Square, many greeted the volunteers with thanks simply for showing up on such a hot day.

"Let's hear it for the volunteers!" one finisher yelled as she passed Moran. "You guys rock."

But it wasn't all cheery vibes on Boylston Street. Volunteers steered woozy runners in wheelchairs as many collapsed to the curb, head in hands, no longer able to stand. There was vomit and many ashen faces.

"I just really thought I could do it," one woman sobbed as she rode a wheelchair to the medical tent. One man lay prone on the cement, seemingly unresponsive to the heeds of medical personnel.

"There are going to be some bad cases, as usual," said Christine Veary, a water volunteer who is a cardiac nurse at Tufts Medical Center. "And because of the heat, if something bad happens it's probably going to happen today."

"Still," Veary said, "I'm very impressed with everybody today. There are all shapes and sizes out here and most of them are finishing just fine."

John Riley of Somerset agreed. "These people are not going to be denied, I know that for sure," he said. "Everyone who ran today is going to be able to say they ran in Boston in 2012 when it was so hot. I think it's great that so many gave it a shot."

And that, in the end, was the story of Monday's marathon -- giving it a shot in the face of all that sun and heat.

"I think it's safe to say the conditions were brutal," said longtime Boston Marathon senior director Guy Morse, standing near the finish line in a blue blazer and slacks, sweat dampening his mustache, as afternoon gave way to early evening. "But I was amazed and blown away by the condition of the runners as they came across the line. I've seen worse-looking runners on better days. That tells me they listened to us and were careful.

"Between the volunteers and our medical staff, which is top notch, not to mention the fans along the streets handing out water and spraying runners with hoses, the whole day was an amazing team effort. We gave the runners the chance and they earned this. Everyone can be proud of themselves today."

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