Thank You, Ron Huldai, for Letting the Tel Aviv Marathon Go Ahead Despite the Heat

To everybody on my Facebook feed that's blaming the Tel Aviv mayor for a runner's death: it wasn't too hot to run.

Natasha Dornberg
Natasha Dornberg
Natasha Dornberg
Natasha Dornberg

Dear Everybody on my Facebook feed:

The death Friday of Michael Michaelovich, a 29-year-old father of a newborn, is horribly sad. And by all accounts, it shouldn't have happened. Friends and family tell the press Michaelovich was fit, a regular runner, and I would guess he underwent fairly regular physicals for his Israel Defense Forces job with the canine unit.

In addition to Michaelovich, 80 runners needed medical treatment on the scene and several were taken to area hospitals, 12 in serious condition. So was the weather to blame, and by correlation Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who decided to postpone the full marathon but hold the half? Obviously, all you Facebook posters seem to think so. I know you think so because you told me so in statuses posted from cafes and couches using mobile devices and laptops right about the time I was crossing the finish line of my first half-marathon, in Charles Clore Park. Obviously, you think Huldai did something horribly wrong by letting people race. Well I think you are wrong.

I am a hopelessly amateur runner and I am slow. Although I started the race in pleasant weather conditions (far cooler than the ominous weather forecasts), by the time I got to the last five kilometers at my snail's pace, the mercury had climbed and it was getting much harder to run. And the vast majority of runners getting treatment were already in the care of medical professionals. They were not crawling along with me as the city heated up.

A few were being treated on the sidelines as I ran those last tough kilometers and two ambulances zipped by me on their way to runners who had crossed the finish line before seeking medical assistance.

The ambulances were a stark reminder not to push through the heat toward a better time. Better a slow time than no time. The heat was no surprise. It was all the talk on Facebook forums for runners all week. And it's not like you can fail to notice that, due to the heat, city hall postponed the full marathon and moved up the start times for the shorter races.

I've known for a few months I wanted to run this half-marathon. I prepared for it by running a few times a week, gradually increasing distances but never pushing for speed. And of course, I was training for this race in the fantastically fitness-friendly Tel Aviv winter, not the sudden scorcher predicted for Friday morning.

Not that I went into last week feeling like I was about to break an Olympic record, but the talk of the extreme heat was scary. I decided to run a little slower than the already-nothing-to-write-home-about pace I had planned to run. So I crossed the finish line in 2:31 (including a pee stop) while you guys were on Facebook. I had been through 21.1 kilometers of road. The water stations were so frequent that when I tossed aside the bottle I had taken at one, I went around the corner to encounter the next station. Splash stations helped to cool off, and really upped the fun. I haven't run through a sprinkler since I was a kid. And splash stations were not some crazy invention of Tel Aviv city hall to make up for running a race in hot weather, they are standard fare in the popular U.S. marathon series, the Rock n' Rolls.

Sadly, tragic but exceedingly rare deaths occur during marathons and half-marathons. In September and October 2011, marathon runners in their 30s died in Chicago, Detroit and Montreal. In 2012, a runner died in the London Marathon. The BBC reported a startling 6,000 runners needed some form of medical assistance during that race, run in unseasonably warm weather for that city, most for minor concerns including strains and sprains.

Research attributes most marathon deaths to undetected heart problems and hyponatremia (drinking too much water the day before and day of a race, diluting critical salts in the body). A Johns Hopkins study looking at nearly 11 million marathon and half-marathon participants over the course of a decade found 59 cases of cardiac arrest during races, or within an hour of crossing the finish line. Forty-two of those cases ended in death. The researchers obtained medical records for 31 of those people, and found that the majority suffered from pre-existing heart conditions. Two were overhydrated. Some countries require an EKG ahead of race registration to eliminate the first cause.

I don't know as I write this what caused Michaelovich's death or the problems suffered by 80 other participants. But seriously, everybody on my Facebook feed, was it too hot to run? Tell me your answer from your sneakers, not your sofa.

Thank you,

Runners participating in the Tel Aviv Marathon, as Magen David Adom rescue personnel treat a participant, March 15, 2013.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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