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On Road Racing

BAA’s heat plans saved day for Boston Marathon

Jessica Coomber and her John Ward schoolmates offered water to Boston Marathon runners at Heartbreak Hill in Newton.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

Jessica Coomber, 8, and her John Ward schoolmates offered water to Boston Marathon runners at Heartbreak Hill in Newton.

The organizers had been through this five years ago, when a nasty nor’easter brought wind and rain that might have sent Captain Ahab below decks.

“It seemed like 2007 all over again,’’ said Dave McGillivray, who has been the Boston Marathon race director for the past dozen years, after the steam-heated 116th edition was in the books. “Go? Or no go?’’

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Since 1897, when 15 men lined up on a dirt road in Ashland, the world’s most fabled road race never had been canceled or even postponed.

“If it was any other race I was directing, I might have leaned closer to no-go,’’ said McGillivray. But this being Boston, it was go - with a yellow light.

For days, Boston Athletic Association officials had known that they could be dealing with a midsummer day’s nightmare on Patriots Day. Cloudless skies, temperatures in the mid-80s, and nearly 27,000 runners determined to get to Copley Square if it killed them.

“We told them this year this is not a race, this is an experience,’’ said BAA executive director Tom Grilk. “And that’s just what it was, an epic experience at that.’’

What was more astounding? That all but 328 of the 22,863 entrants who collected their numbers started the race? Or that 21,603 of the starters - almost 96 percent - finished?

Though the BAA had offered an unprecedented come-back-next-year deferral to anyone who picked up a bib and had second thoughts about becoming roasted roadkill, just over 1 percent opted not to toe the line in Hopkinton.

“I thought there’d be between 1,000 and 2,000 deferrals,’’ said McGillivray. “Then I thought, what am I thinking? They’re runners. They’re going to start.’’

How committed - or crazy - were these people? Anecdotal chatter had it that some bib-holders gamed the system for a buy-one, get-one - they didn’t officially start but ran anyway as bandits amid the worst conditions since the 1976 Run for the Hoses.

More than 200 participants ended up in the hospital and nine still were in critical (but not life-threatening) condition Tuesday afternoon. Approximately another 2,700 were treated in tents along the course and at the finish.

This was one day when the mercurial New England weather came exactly as advertised.

“Everybody knew what was coming and everybody was prepared for it,’’ said Grilk. “It certainly wasn’t a day that we wanted, but it was a day that we had planned for.’’

The planning essentially began eight years ago in the wake of the 2004 race when the temperature also was in the mid-80s and produced a record number of heat casualties.

“Up until that day, I looked at this as a sporting event,’’ said medical services coordinator Chris Troyanos. “Since then I’ve never looked at it that way. I look at it as a planned mass casualty event.’’

Switching from a midday to a morning start in 2007 helped. But once the organizers concluded last week that the temperatures could be in a dangerous “red zone,’’ they sent an advisory e-mail to registrants and reaffirmed it Sunday afternoon. The message: Consider not running. And if you do run, take it slow and rehydrate.

For more than a century, this marathon has been Mother Nature’s diabolical test lab. In the five years from 1905 to 1909, the weather ranged from 100-degree heat to sleet to snowflakes-and-drizzle to 97-degree heat. In 1939, there was a nor’easter combined with a partial solar eclipse. Last year, the conditions were so perfect that Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest 26 miles in planetary history. On Monday, he cramped and dropped out at 18 miles.

What happened this year was that Plan B became Plan A. Twice as much water and ice as last year. More buses, more medical workers, more tent space. McGillivray had been one of the survivors of the Run for the Hoses in 1976, when 40 percent of the starters dropped out on a course that had only a handful of water stations, forcing runners to depend on the kindness of strangers.

There were nearly 12 times as many starters Monday and nearly all of them were bent on finishing. So the BAA wanted to err on the side of caution by doubling down on support services. Everybody knew what had happened in Chicago in 2007 when the day came up 88 degrees and muggy and more than 10,000 runners didn’t finish after the organizers, who’d run short of water, stopped the race after 3 1/2 hours.

Wesley Korir, who ran Chicago on another warm day last fall, decided he’d be the wise tortoise here amid a bunch of silly hares.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,’’ he decided. “I want to go home.’’

So he went out conservatively, and when the leaders headed off on a mad dash through the hills, Korir held back.

“When they took off, I thought, I wish I had the opportunity to tell them, you guys are crazy,’’ he said Tuesday.

Mutai ended up with a DNF. Mathew Kisorio faded to 10th. Levy Matebo ran out of octane in the final mile. And Korir picked up a $150,000 laurel wreath by following the advice of Aesop, the old Greek trainer. Slow and steady wins the race.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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