With afternoon temperatures forecast in the mid to upper 90s for both the Friday and Saturday sessions of the Class 3 and 4 Track and Field Championships in Jefferson City, coaches and parents of athletes competing in the distance events were furious over MSHSAA's refusal to reschedule those events at a time when heat-related illness would be less likely to occur.
"As a former competitive runner and now parent of a runner, I have found that MSHSAA's concern or lack of concern for the distance athletes racing in the hottest time during the day is one of the most troubling topics discussed every year at this time," said Laura White of Crystal City. "In my simple mind, MSHSAA defies all logic and common sense by placing the longest distance events in or around the hottest time during the day. I never will understand this thinking by the state or those that decide the schedule. Is there something I'm missing here? Most of the other high school associations around the country where heat is a yearly concern recognize the need to permanently schedule the 3,200-meter and 1,600-meter races either in the early morning (best option) or late in the evening (after 7 p.m.) out of concern for the safety of the athletes. It should worry everyone out there that MSHAA does not recognize this very simple thing."
The track advisory committee, a volunteer board of coaches that represents the state and makes policy recommendations to MSHSAA, has recommended in the past various changes to create a safer time slot for conducting the distance races at the state meet. Proposals for running the 3,200-meter either late Friday evening, or on early Friday and Saturday mornings have been dismissed by the board of directors.
According to Dean Hays of Hardin-Central High School, "The 2007 recommendation by the track advisory committee is what we are currently under in regard to the 3,200 meters and as a result it will not be MSHSAA that makes the call. It will be by the on-site medical staff following procedures established by the medical advisory committee."
Dr. Kim Colter, a member of that medical advisory committee, says flatly, "I really think that the 3,200 should be moved to a cooler part of the day, no matter what it does to the schedule at the meet, the convenience of coaches, parents, bus drivers, etc."
So there will be at least one voice of reason at the meet. But will it be enough to actually effect changes needed in the expected dangerous levels of heat and humidity?
The MSHSAA Track and Field Manual states that the 3,200-meter runs shall be conducted in their current places in the schedule of events at the State Championships, with the stipulation that the events would be rescheduled to a cooler time of the day on a case-by-case basis whenever deemed necessary by the on-site medical staff per wet-bulb readings. But according to the state association guidelines, rescheduling would only occur if the heat index hits 105. The window of grueling temperatures from 95-104 allow for "modifications," which could include misters, water cups, etc.
John Rockhold, of Independence points out the footnote from NOAA's Heat Index Chart:
Since heat index values were devised for shady, light wind conditions, exposure to full sunshine can increase heat index values by up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, strong winds, particularly with very hot, dry air, can be extremely hazardous.
"If that 105 heat index is going to be the critical bit of information that this decision hinges on, I feel it is imperative that the temperature and wet bulb temperature used to calculate the heat index be determined on the track where the athletes will run, at the time they are going to run," added Colter. "A temperature measured in the shade at the radio station across town, and a humidity from a few hours ago aren't going to tell us the challenge the athletes face when they toe the starting line."
Misters? Water cups? Seriously? Is that the best solutions that the best track and field minds in the state can come up with?
But we are not talking marathons or even a 5K road race (which even weekend warriors have enough sense to schedule early in the mornings). In a state-championship event of only two miles distance, few runners would sacrifice precious seconds to grab a cup of water even if it was offered. The break in pace, the momentary lapse of concentration, the risk of choking or sputtering and losing your breathing rhythm, could easily cost a runner an all-state medal or an individual championship and adversely affect their team.
"Drinking during a 3,200-meter race doesn't make a lot of sense to me," said Colter. "You won't absorb anything you can drink until after the race is over. Trying to drink when breathing as hard as one does at 3,200 pace is a challenge at best."
Jason West, Communications Director for MSHSAA released the following statement a day ahead of the state meet: "We have been monitoring the weather conditions predicted for this weekend and want you to be aware that schedule changes to the track meet may occur. If a heat index of 105 degrees is reached the meet will be delayed until the temperature drops and the conditions are more favorable (safe) for the athletes to compete.
"Hydration is very important and should start now. Make sure that you are eating properly and prepare for the conditions. We have already secured a cooling station, which will be located by the medical tent for the athletes to use after their races. Meet management and the games committee will use the public address system to announce any delays in competition due to hazardous weather."
More than one coach and parent insisted before the meet that they would not risk the health of their athlete/child in extreme heat conditions. More than one runner has gone down from heat-related illnesses in the past, none of them higher profile than Amber Warren.
Warren of St. Peter's Lutheran, the best Class 2 girls distance runner in the state in 2004, wobbled to a fourth place finish in the 800-meter run in the extreme heat after winning the 1,600 earlier in the afternoon. She required medical attention and did not compete in her best event on Saturday, the 3,200-meter run.
Every year, MSHSAA makes heat-related illnesses a point of emphasis at the start of the school year when athletes are struggling through football, cross country, soccer and softball practices in the sweltering August and September heat. Where is that concern in May, when the top athletes gather in the state capital for the track and field championships?
Laura White continued, "I'm extremely disappointed and troubled that a permanent change in the scheduling has not already taken place, but it will be even more disappointing if changes have not been made in the near future before something tragic does happen. The state association needs to ensure that it has scheduled events in the best possible way to avoid a tragedy and a major part of that solution would be to schedule the distance races in the safest time during the day as many other states have."
Preach it, sister.
Protect the athletes.
MSHSAA, are you listening?
MSHSAA was listening, sort of. Faced with overwhelming scrutiny, and criticism from coaches and parents, the state association made the right call and moved Friday's Class 3 and Class 4 Boys 3200-Meter final to a 7:30 p.m. start time.
But then on Saturday, with temps exceeding Friday's levels, there was no adjustment to the meet schedule. The Class 3 and Class 4 girls went to the starting line at 3:25 in the middle of a sizzling afternoon to run the 3,200-meter race.
While not the permanent solution the running community is seeking, the move on Friday was at least a step in the direction of sanity. MSHSAA has long had a reputation for dragging its heels on important issues, sometimes seemingly waiting to see what action neighboring state associations took before weighing in with its own decision.
I applaud MSHSAA for making the right call in the one instance, but find it indefensible that the association failed to take steps to protect the runners under similar circumstances on Saturday. I urge the association to go beyond the "case-by-case" philosophy and find a permanent safe time slot for the distance races at the state meet. Yes, there will be years when heat is not an issue, and to that I can only say, "Count your lucky stars."
Someone at MSHSAA has to take a proactive stance and change the schedule of the state track meet before a tragedy occurs. If even Kansas has it figured out (they run all the 3200-meter races early in the morning or after 7:30 PM at their state meet), surely the Show-Me state can do the same.
The safety of our student-athletes is not negotiable. We must find a permanent solution to this problem, and others that threaten our kids in extracurricular activities.