Weather Roulette in Pittsburgh


The 1986 Pittsburgh Marathon was held on May 18th. By the end of the race day, more than half of the 2,897 competitors had been treated for heat-related injuries. The story of this ill-fated event and of its subsequent  successful modifications should be studied by every event organizer.

It was not the intention of the 1986 Pittsburgh Marathon event organizers to run the race on May 18th. The runners had asked for a late April date, but the Boston Marathon is traditionally run on Patriot's Day, April 19th, and many marathoners will not race again for at least 2 weeks after a marathon. In order to attract an elite field, a May race date was felt to be mandatory. The first Sunday in May was Greek Orthodox Easter, and the second Sunday in May was Mother's Day. This left the 3rd Sunday in May as the (apparent) earliest available date.

Stuck with May 18th, the event organizers then needed to decide on a race starting time. About 2,500 volunteers were needed to staff the race. It was not felt that the race staff could  be mustered at 4 am to allow for an early morning start. A noon starting time was objected to by the runners as likely to be too hot. Churches along the race route were afraid that the race would distract from their worship and impede traffic flow to services. Finally, the mayor of Pittsburgh told the organizers, in effect, that they could start the race at 10:30 am or not at all.

If this selection process seems very odd, it is only fair to point out that the 1985 Pittsburgh Marathon had been an inaugural event. By the following year, there were still many organizational/community issues in evolution.

Here is the heat index chart for May 18th, 1986 (striped bars) together with the 1961-1990 hourly high, average and low heat index values:

Pittsburgh PA-May 18-heat index - 1986 vs 1961-1990gif.gif (9749 bytes)

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