at the races Running in the Time of Climate Catastrophe 

Running in the Time of Climate Catastrophe 


Kevin Jones at Odyssey Medical says his job is only valuable when you realize you need him. Like the fire extinguisher you may or may not keep in your house, Jones, Odyssey’s executive director of national event operations, is invisible, until he’s pulling someone at a triathlon out of the water or grabbing a runner with heat stroke off the side of a course.

These days, in the days (maybe) after COVID and in the time of unprecedented fires, race cancellations seem to grow in frequency as the health hazards pile up like old shoes in the basement.

Air quality indexing for Eastern Canada is a new phenomenon, but we came out of COVID with a fonder appreciation for the health impact of participating in life and sport,” says Jones, reached after the Mont Tremblant IRONMAN had to be canceled due to Quebec’s wildfires when the AQI was close to 300 and Montreal had the worst air quality in the world. The Tremblant event was rescheduled from June 25 to August 20, but suddenly runners and organizers discovered a sequel to the COVID nightmare.

“What we’re seeing in organized racing and will continue to see is modified experiences and participants being accepting of change,” continues Jones. “Safety experts need to be completely objective and participants need to remember: we’re not just thinking about what happens on race day, but what will happen to our attendees three weeks—three years—down the road?”

Kevin Jones (centre) the team from Odyssey.

Runners make horrible choices. We run when we’re sick. We run when we’re injured. We run when the heat is so bad, like in the 2012 Boston Marathon, that 2,100 athletes get treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration. Should that event have been canceled? Nothing more disappointing than training for something—and heaven forbid, traveling to an event—only to discover it’s canceled on race day.

On the other hand, says Jones, there are things worse than disappointment.

“Sport is not an essential function, which is hard for runners to hear,” says Jones, mentioning how a runner’s toughness, which serves us so well in practice, can also have a negative effect on our overall long-term health. “Race organizers have to make difficult decisions, even more so in our current environment where we need our experts to save us from ourselves.”

Scenic route at the Marathon Beneva de Montreal, September 23 & 24, 2023

Alex Ratthé is the executive producer of this September’s Marathon Beneva de Montreal and he’s a runner, competitive cyclist and addicted to the outdoors. Like myself, he ran when the health advisors warned us not to and, like me, he regretted his decision afterwards when he returned home with a scratchy throat and teary red eyes. For Ratthé, expecting almost 18,500 people in his city which recently had worse air quality than Kuwait, the wildfires—decreasing, but still numbering nearly 100 with smoke reaching Europe—are a wakeup call.

“We have the power to start taking care of the planet—right now—there’s no time to wait,” says Ratthé, who echoes Canada’s leading race directors like Ian Fraser in Ottawa and Charlotte Brookes in Toronto making green initiatives priority number one. By cutting down on T-shirts and medals, and even eliminating plastic bags at bib pickup, events are rethinking each of their decisions toward one goal: how can we make our event more green?

“When the fires started it was awful because we’re just starting to reach our 2019 numbers, but I have friends being evacuated from their homes so when you stop thinking selfishly and realize we’re experiencing a climate emergency, it’s less about races and more about what every human can do to combat this catastrophe.”

Most of us are racing something this fall. All of us hope our races aren’t cancelled (including, maybe especially, the people putting them on). However, maybe the question today is less about what will happen with fall races and more about what we will do today to save the world for our kids?