Fluctuation in the Weather Forecast both Before and During the 2019 BAA Boston Marathon Made for Challenges

On April 12, three days before the 123rd running of the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, the BAA received a dire warning about the anticipated race day weather conditions. They were told "with real confidence" that race day would feature 38-41 degrees, heavy rain and wind out of the east from 20-30mph—conditions almost identical to 2018. The BAA sent out an email blast to participants, which produced groans around the world. "The early forecasts for the 123rd Boston Marathon on April 15 are showing the potential for persistent rain, a headwind from the NE, and cold temperatures." Participants might have felt the message was a year out of date. As they had done in 2018, organizers abandoned the 25-minute gap between the third and fourth waves, instead starting the fourth wave immediately on the heels of the third wave, and braced themselves to emulate their 2018 planning.

Race day featured warm and humid conditions (70-degrees) with a threat of lightning, thunderstorms and winds generally favorable out of the west (see Dave McGillivray's Tips & Tricks column for dealing with lightning and storms). These were certainly conditions carrying risks, but they were very different ones than those forecast just a few  days earlier. To complicate matters further, the conditions varied greatly—from warm and muggy, setting the stage for heat and humidity related injuries, to cooler, rainy, windy conditions, setting the stage for hyperthermia—during the eight-hour window between when the elite women started at 9:30 a.m. and the bulk of the Wave 4 runners finished by 4:30 p.m. With lightning in the forecast, the potential for variability in response at different parts of the course was a real possibility. The localized lightning threat actually raised the possibility that runners on one section of the course might be told to seek shelter, while others a few miles further along would be allowed to continue. Based on the 2018 experience, the BAA had assigned more communications personnel, increased the number of people to answer calls from along the course, initiated GPS tracking of all buses on the course in order to deploy them quickly to where they were needed, and developed pre-determined messages about various contingencies.

Different contingency plans were developed for before the start of the race and once the race was in progress. Once the race is underway, communication with the runners is the biggest challenge. The aid stations, located at approximately two-mile intervals, are the vital points for on-course communications with participants. The race course is overseen by four divisional coordinators, 65 key medical volunteers and 1,800 basic medical volunteers. Evacuation plans have to be developed for north of the race course and south of the race course, since vehicles are not able to cross the race course— which runs from west to east—due to the flow of runners.

Implementation of any emergency plan would be made by an "Executive Decision Group" operating out of the main Unified Command Center at the finish line.

When it was all over, the number of medical encounters was 2,217, about average. Early in the race, runners tended to be treated for hypothermia, but as the day progressed, they were treated for heat stroke and exhaustion. "We put the runners through more climate changes than a trip around the world," said BAA CEO Tom Grilk. "It was probably the most difficult day to plan for in history, at least in our experience."

"We were planning for so many different types of races," said race director Dave McGillivray. "It was a moving target all week long and it kept changing and changing right up until we fired the gun for the start of the wheelchair race. We really didn't know what we were dealing with."

The Spectator Experience

Before the weather became the main story for the second year in a row, the BAA worked on 'upgrading the spectator experience" at the race this year. This included making a number of visual changes at the finish line. The most obvious was a good move to locate the stage where the winners receive their laurel wreaths across the street from the spectator grandstand, which allowed those in the grandstand to view the ceremony across the street. Other smaller visual changes included moving the location of the American flag to above the finish line bridge and moving the five flagpoles for the flags of the five champions to the side of the roadway. The organizers continue to evaluate the location of the timing and scoring tent, which contains the finish line judges and other key race personnel essential for the conduct of the race, but reduces the visual experience. One race official also pointed out that "so much tradition makes change hard." However the overall goal—still a work in progress—is to enhance the experience down the entire length of Boylston Street (the final 1/3 mile of the race) though the medal distribution.

The major pre-race change for 2019 was the placement of a "fan zone" on the plaza near the finish line featuring bands, games for children, and a bit of Boston Marathon history for runners and spectators to soak up before race day. With pleasant weather on Sunday, the day before the race, the plaza was alive with people.

Race Director Dave McGillivray summed up the challenges of the Boston Marathon course by saying, "If I found the person who designed this course, I would wring his neck.”