Today is the 117th Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon. The marathon always occurs on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April. Luckily, the weather today is comfortable for runners (and spectators!) with a high in the mid 50s, although that is not always the case. Last year temperatures ranged between 85° and 90° during the race, prompting race officials to encourage non-elite runners to defer running until 2013. The 2012 race was also the second slowest since 1985. Considering the impact of weather conditions on athletes competing in endurance events, will climate change affect winning times in the Boston Marathon?
According to researchers at Boston University: probably, but not much.
Abraham Miller-Rushing, Richard Primack, Nathan Phillips and Robert Kaufman examined that question (in a paper published last September in PLoS one) by looking at temperature data and winning times for the Boston Marathon between 1933 and 2004. They found that warmer race-day temperatures did, in fact, slow winning times. However, although annual temperatures in Boston increased 2.8°F between 1933 and 2004, race-day temperatures were incredibly variable (ranging from 34° to 90°F!) and did not follow any trend during that time period. These findings mean that warming did not have a detectable effect on Boston Marathon winning times 1933-2004. The authors also predicted how warming could affect winning times in the future. They found that warming at a rate of 0.104°F per year (a high estimate for global change) would, on average, slow winning times approximately 2 minutes over the next hundred years.
However, to further complicate matters, in 2006 the Boston Athletic Association moved the marathon’s start time from 12:00pm to 10:00am to reduce afternoon traffic congestion in Boston and allow runners to race during the cooler morning hours. The authors’ predictions are based only on data collected from races beginning at the old start time. No one knows exactly how the earlier start will effect winning times, but we can guess that it will help offset the effects of warming temperatures.
So, thanks to New England’s erratic spring weather and Boston’s traffic problems, we can still expect to see some ridiculously fast Boston Marathon winning times in the future.