'Fantastic' Ottawa Race Weekend despite withering temperatures, organizers say

Dehydration and heat exhaustion sidelined twice as many runners as usual during the 2K, 5K and 10K races Saturday — the hottest opening day in Ottawa Race Weekend history — but the weekend could have gone much worse, according to the event's medical director.

7 runners taken to hospital, but searing heat could have made weekend worse, medical director says

A runner rehydrates after finishing a race at the Ottawa Race Weekend. (CBC)
Dehydration and heat exhaustion sidelined twice as many runners as usual during the 2K, 5K and 10K races Saturday — the hottest opening day in Ottawa Race Weekend history — but the weekend could have gone much worse, according to the event's medical director.
Runners cross the finish line at the 5K race on Saturday, May 28, 2016. (CBC)

Paramedics transported five runners to hospital with heat-related illnesses on Saturday, including one who remains in intensive care with symptoms of heat stroke. Paramedics assessed nine runners on the course, and 45 visited the race's medical centre near the finish line.

On Sunday morning, when the marathon and half-marathon took place under overcast skies and cooler-than-expected temperatures, paramedics transported two people to hospital — one for a suspected heart attack, another having suffered a seizure. Fourteen runners were assessed on the race course Sunday, and 75 visited the medical centre. 

Overall, runners heeded warnings about the extreme heat by pacing themselves and drinking extra liquids, event organizers said.

Faced with what the weather was, it could have been terrible.- Jon Hooper, Ottawa Race Weekend medical director

Organizers had prepared for the worst, issuing a warning Friday that they may have to call off races. Instead they shifted start times in an attempt to take advantage of cooler evening conditions.

"From my perspective, thinking it was going to be a very scary weekend, I couldn't be happier," said Jon Hooper, the race's medical director. "I would rate it as fantastic. Faced with what the weather was, it could have been terrible." 
Volunteers assess a runner at the finish line of the Ottawa marathon on Sunday, May 29, 2016 (CBC)

5K and 10K hottest races

The 7,672 people who finished Saturday's 5K run battled 32 C temperatures and a humidex reading of 39 C. 

That's when the bulk of the runners seeking medical help arrived at the medical centre, said Hooper. About half a dozen runners arrived unconscious, dehydrated or with very high body temperatures, and had to be immersed in ice baths to cool down.
Volunteers sprayed down runners near the finish line of the marathon with water to cool them down. (CBC)

Because of the extreme temperature, organizers pushed the start of the 10K race back 30 minutes to 7 p.m. A sudden downpour began just before the starting horn blew, helping to cool things down. 

"That cut our numbers down, and I think it stopped people from getting super, super sick. That was unbelievable," said Hooper. 

Organizers shortened marathon course

Around the four hour mark of the marathon, race organizers decided to shorten the course by about 10 kilometres by redirecting the slowest participants over the Alexandra Bridge.

"We certainly believe the change had a positive impact on the safety of the runners," said race director John Halvorsen.
Halfmarathon runner Elyse Pratt-Johnson achieved a personal best despite the hot weather Sunday. (CBC)

Many residents helped keep runners cool by spraying them with hoses and sprinklers after race organizers requested their help to deal with the hot temperatures.

"The city rallied and put out a lot of sprinklers," said half marathoner Elyse Pratt-Johnson, who ran a personal best of 1.26.30. "There were kids with water guns. It was the best. I love Ottawa."

Race organizers set up water stations every three kilometres along the marathon and half marathon routes, as well as three stations along the 10K route and one station for the 5K.

"Everything was well organized, lots of water on the course," said participant Adrian Horvath. "I think the race director and committee did a really good job adjusting to the temperatures."

Nearly 9,000 registered, didn't finish

Despite the hot temperatures this hear, organizers aren't looking at changing the dates of the event, citing the unpredictability of the weather this time of year.

"We used to be on Mother's Day," said Halvorsen. "This Mother's Day it was two degrees and snowing, which is actually also a weather warning. So that would have been also undesirable."

Organizers may consider starting the 5K and 10K races earlier on the Saturday, Halvorsen said.

All told, 38,192 runners crossed the finish line during Ottawa Race Weekend out of 46,913 registered. While historical data was not immediately available, a spokeswoman for Ottawa Race Weekend said it's "very common" for people to register but not run.

Run Ottawa set up extra water stations along the race routes. (CBC)