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Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Dead in NYC Triathlon; Humidity The Killer?

In an athletic tragedy, a 64-year-old triathlete died today during the early portion of the New York City Triathlon. 

While extreme sports can tax and endanger even well-trained athletes in their 20s, one must note the extraordinarily humid conditions in which the race was conducted.  As this chart shows, official weather records showed a tropical-level dewpoint (the measure of evaporation) in the mid-70s.  The temperature was only in the mid-70s, but the humidity was in the high 90s.  The dewpoint was nearly equal to the temperature, a signal of extreme saturation of the air with moisture and an indication that any perspiration will not evaporate off one's skin into water-saturated surrounding air.

In such conditions, race participants -- of any fitness level -- should exercise extreme caution.  One rule of thumb among experienced marathoners (such as myself) is to put the stopwatch away on such days or nights.

The physiological effect of these weather conditions can be explained in plain English as follows.  Such high dewpoint levels severely inhibit, or prevent altogether, one's ability to release heat through perspiration because the perspiration that is released will barely evaporate.  The saturation of one's sweat glands will inhibit the cooling effect of perspiration and result in one's core temperature rising.  If the surrounding temperature is above room temperature -- and Sunday morning's conditions were in the mid-70s -- physical exertion will elevate one's core temperature; the dewpoint will block the cooling process and help magnify the heating, leading to a potentially dangerous situation.

In drier conditions, one can exercise much more strenuously at much higher temperatures, because the lower dewpoints will readily allow for efficient evaporation of released perspiration.  From experience, it is easier -- but not recommended at all -- to run for distance on a dry 90 degree day than a very humid 70 degree day.

One should note, however, that the deleterious impact of high dewpoints falls once the surrouding air temperature is below room temperature.  A mere ten degree difference, from 75 degrees to 65 degrees, makes a world of difference in  terms of allowing the body to cool.  That is to say, a humid day at 60-65 degrees permits efficient exercise, because even with inhibited perspiration one will retain heat comfortably when the surrounding air is still below room temperature.  On such days or nights, the moisture acts as insulation to a certain degree (although improper clothing that inefficiently wicks moisture away from the skin may result in one's skin cooling to an uncomfortable degree) and the below room temperature means it is  hard to overheat.  Once the surrounding temperature is above room temperature, the high humidity quickly presents the danger of overheating.

One cannot speculate as to the reasons for this contestant's death.  However, the weather conditions before the race were such as to present the possibility of dehydration before the race and without exertion. 

From personal experience, it is very difficult to run any race, at any distance and in any condition, once the temperature is above 70 degrees and the dewpoint is in the 60s or above.  (A good rule of thumb is to add the temperature and the higher of the relative humidity or dewpoint; I think once the sum is over 140, be very careful and don't hesitate to scale back.)  

The often-warm and humid conditions in late October prompted the organizers of the New York City Marathon to push that race's dates back from the third Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November.  Many marathons are routinely run on days and at times designed to get a race-time temperature of between 40 and 60 degrees. 

I do not fault the organizers of the New York City Triathlon for what happened today.  From news reports, this contestant died shortly after competing in the swimming portion (a 0.9-mile portion) which started the race.  This was to be followed by the 25-mile biking portion and then a 6.2-mile run.  None of these segments, in my opinion, pose a particularly grueling test -- the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon this was not.  However, the increasing prevalence of high-humidity conditions with 70-plus dewpoints, even at sunrise, calls into question whether future long-distance endurance races in any sport are a good idea during the months of July and August.

Eric Dixon is a New York investigative lawyer and experienced marathoner who has completed seven marathons and numerous shorter races.

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