Is it me or does it seem that lately all of us are being challenged by Mother Nature more than ever before? The problem with outdoor events is that, yup, you guessed it, is that they are kidding. No matter how much we discuss the topic and no matter how many table top exercises we do to simulate various conditions, when the weather decides to turn on you, you had better have some semblance of a plan! Cold, ice, fog, heat, humidity, rain, wind, snow, tornados, thunderstorms and the worst, lightning.

To me, the most unpredictable weather is lightning. Do you have a lightning plan? In less than a year, I have experienced lightning at three major events I have directed – the 2019 Boston Marathon, the 2018 TD Beach to Beacon and the 2018 New Balance Falmouth Road Race. Talk about being put in a “stressful” position. This is not fun folks!

Do you and your team know much about lightning? If not, it might be worth it to study up a bit on it and get familiar with expressions like “flash to bang” and “cloud to cloud” vs. “cloud to ground”. 

Although I don’t have all the answers (I question whether I have any answers!), I at least now have some recent experiences and tips I can share:

  • Who makes the call? Need to establish a “chain of command”. Usually, it is the race organizer who makes the call (go, no go, delay) but of course if it becomes a public safety issue, then public safety can and should make the call. 

  • Unified Command Center – every race should have a UCC where information is going in and coming out. All (most) weather-related calls should come from designated officials in the UCC.

  • The two big questions surrounding lightning is “when” and “where”? When will it occur and where will it occur? It’s an entirely different logistical challenge if you are dealing with lightning before the gun fires for your start versus after the gun fires.

  • Have you identified shelter at the start (and finish) for all your runners? Is there an evacuation plan in place? Are your tents lightning rated? If runners drove to the start, could they retreat to their cars if told to? Are there buses available to use as shelter?

  • Remember, if you do successfully shelter runners at the start, if the weather clears, how long will it take to bring them all back and line them all up?

  • Identify numerous emergency shelters along the course with supplies and personal for runners to be directed to if lightning appears along or near the course. 

  • Determine in advance where your weather information is coming from, e.g., National Weather Service, local meteorologist, weather app (which one?). However, the team needs to go with one source or you may get conflicting information. Your forecast and information need to be credible and reliable or you could cause more harm than alleviate.

  • Consider bringing a local meteorologist on to your organizing team.

  • If you had to delay the start, do you know what is the longest you could delay before local authorities would say its too late to start?

  • Do you have a plan for sheltering all your volunteers and staff if there was lightning in the area? We need to realize that it is not just about the runners.

  • Communications – once a decision is made, it is crucial to immediately communicate it to all involved through the UCC, 2-way radio, texting programs, news media and social media.

Whether just in the forecast or whether it actually happens, the threat of thunderstorms and lightning can stop you in your tracks if you haven’t discussed this “what if” scenario over and over again with your team. It’s not always possible to have a set plan as to what you would do if you are faced with this because it is all about “when and where” but at least you will have a better feel for what is the safest decision to make at that time and in that location.