Hotter, Harder, And More Expensive: Why Triathletes Should Care About Climate Change

Climate change is coming for our sport. What can you do about it?


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Stevie Smith was ready to crush Ironman Florida. It was 2018. The previous fall she’d set a PR of 11:34.48 on the Ironman Louisville course. Over the summer, she’d had a great race at Lake Placid, then rested, and was now in peak form again. If everything went according to plan, Smith felt like a sub-four-hour marathon was within the realm of possibilities.

Hurricane Michael, however, had its own plan. On Oct. 10, the Category 5 storm plowed into Florida’s panhandle and ripped up Panama City, home of Ironman Florida. The race, which was scheduled just a few weeks later, could not go on as planned. Ironman quickly pivoted and moved the race to Haines City, a six-hour drive away, but Smith couldn’t change her work schedule, airline tickets, and condo rental, and decided to sit the event out.

Hurricane Michael was later determined to be the strongest storm on record to hit Florida’s panhandle. But given climate change, it won’t hold that record for long. A 2020 paper published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences examined the data from hurricanes between 1979 and 2017 and found that storms have gotten significantly stronger over time. It’s less clear whether we’ll also see more storms because of climate change, not just stronger ones—but 2020 was a hell of a year for hurricanes, with 29 named storms in the Atlantic.

Smith is hardly the only triathlete to have her goal race eighty-sixed at the last moment because of freak weather events and, with extreme weather on the rise, she won’t be the last. In 2016, the Boulder Peak Triathlon was canceled because nearby wildfires had diverted the race’s required police and EMS workers. In 2018, wildfires in British Columbia caused two race cancellations because of poor air quality—something that would have been repeated across the West this year if races weren’t already canceled because of COVID-19. In 2016, the CapTexTri in Austin, Texas, had to cancel the swim and the bike due to flooding on course. The inaugural 70.3 Waco in 2018 also had to cancel its swim due to high water levels and unsafe conditions, as did Ironman Chattanooga that same year (though it also had the bacteria that came with the rain). Ironman Louisville canceled the swim in 2019 because of algae growing in the water, as did 70.3 New Orleans in 2011 and 2012 because of extreme winds. And then there’s the heat. Races like the New York City Triathlon and the women’s Tokyo Olympic test event have either been canceled completely in the last few years because of rising temperatures or had distances cut to keep athletes safe. In fact, the International Olympic Commitee has said climate change now plays a key role in choosing Olympic host cities. According to a study from the University of Waterloo, by 2050 less than half of the cities that have hosted the Winter Games in the past will be cold enough to host them again.

Outside of snow sports, there are few athletic events more impacted by weather than triathlon. It can’t be too hot. It can’t be too cold. There can’t be huge waves or riptides. Lightning is a non-starter. Even strong winds can give race directors heartburn. So what happens when freak weather events become less freak and more normal? What if climate change makes the necessary conditions harder and harder to come by? Can a sport like triathlon survive?

Crews break down equipment at the canceled New York City Marathon. Photo: ALLISON JOYCE/GETTY IMAGES

Mood V. Personality

A quick explainer on how and why our climate is changing: When the sun warms the Earth, the Earth’s surface radiates that heat back out into the atmosphere, and, eventually, out into space. The problem is that gases like carbon dioxide and methane have a structure that allows them to absorb heat. So instead of the sun’s warmth exiting our atmosphere, it just hangs around, trapped by all the carbon dioxide—also known as a greenhouse gas. A good analogy is to think of the water (or pee) between your skin and your wetsuit. Neoprene traps that water, and your body warms it. By the end of a hard swim, even in cool water, you may feel stifled by how hot your wetsuit has become if warm water doesn’t escape.

The problem is there is now more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at any point in the last million years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual Global Climate Report. You have to go back three million years to find an era when there was as much carbon dioxide trapped in our atmosphere as there is now. And our temperatures are rising with that. Three million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels were similar to what they are now, seas were 50-80 feet higher. Climate scientists warn that, as polar ice caps melt with these rising global temperatures, this may be our future too.

Sea level rise is only one part of the climate nightmare we currently face. “We’re also juicing up the atmosphere, so we’re adding more moisture to it,” said Kathie Dello, Ph.D., the state climatologist for North Carolina. That means more rain in some areas of the country, plus more humidity, and stronger storms—like Hurricane Michael. While the Southeast may get hotter and wetter, the West will become more arid as it warms.

Of course, bad weather has existed since the dawn of time. And for decades, triathletes have happily slogged through hot afternoon runs and frigid winter bike rides. The important distinction, said Dello, is that climate and weather are not the same. “My favorite analogy for this is that weather is your mood and climate is your personality,” she said. Moods come and go. But dour people always seem a bit grouchy, even when they’re in a decent—for them—mood. Any given day might be good or bad weather, but the overall climate—all those days aggregated over time—is what scientists are worried about.

As we push the levels of carrbon dioxide up higher and higher, despite warnings not to, like any mother short on patience, Mother Nature’s outlook is darkening. According to that same annual global climate report from the NOAA, from 1880 to 1980, global average temperatures have risen .07 degrees Celsius per decade (or .13 degree F). From 1981 until now, the rate of increase has doubled. In the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, scientists confirmed that at the current rate of warming, the world could become 1.5 degree C (or 2.7 degrees F) warmer as soon as 2030. That’s a lot. Meanwhile, sea ice is melting—5,000 gigatons in just the past 16 years alone—causing our oceans to rise. This isn’t just a temper tantrum, it’s a total shift in personality.

And it’s not just our races that are in the crosshairs. It’s our whole lives. Look at the derecho—a term for a very very fast-moving thunderstorm—that ripped through Iowa this past year, impacting nearly half of that state’s corn crop. Our food supply will be impacted by this. So will our infrastructure. It’s hard to bike, swim, run, or simply get around when your town or county can’t afford road repairs because it’s been bankrupted by one disaster after another. In fact, in the U.S., 2020 was one of the most expensive years ever for natural disasters, Dello said. The NOAA tracks weather-related disasters and how much they cost. From 1980 to 2018, the average number of billion-dollar disasters was 6.6 per year. If you look at just the past five years, that number shoots up to 13.8 events. As of the writing of this story, the U.S. had already had 16 billion-dollar weather events in 2020, with fire season and hurricane season still ongoing and adding to the bill.

Multiple wildfires in California and Oregon brought dark, smoky skies to downtown San Francisco in summer 2020. Photo: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/ GETTY IMAGES

The Rising Price Tag in Tri

So much of climate change feels nebulous, hard to pin down or objectively prepare for. But race directors are already seeing its very real effects. Alex DeGracia, who has been a race director for more than a decade, currently works for Life Time, which puts on some of the biggest races in the U.S. He’s based in Miami—a city where coastal streets can flood even on the sunniest of days. There are a lot of logistics he has to think about when planning a race, but on that list: climate change and the related problems, some of which could hamper a planned event years down the road. Knowing a course is prone to weather-related problems can make DeGracia think twice about signing contracts with municipalities.

All those logistics and climate complications add up. Take, for example, the New York City Triathlon. In 2018, race organizers shortened the run due to severe heat. In 2019, organizers canceled the race altogether because of sky- high temps. “People ask why we don’t just move the race, so it’s not in July,” DeGracia said. The problem is that the tides in the Hudson have to be safe enough for swimming too. Often, that only happens a few times a year—like in mid-July (and again, climate change is only making planning around the tides trickier). “Even this year on our prescribed date, if we were to have had it, we probably would have had to cancel as well,” he said. “That definitely hurts the bottom line and it definitely hurts the brand.”

Many triathletes don’t realize that race organizers have to upfront most of their expenses. A month before a race happens, the race director has already spent most of your entry fee, said Ann Vidro, former race director for the Grand Rapids Triathlon and the Michigan Titanium full-distance tri. “You’ve ordered your medals, your t-shirts, your food, your road signs,” she said. “It’s almost the worst thing that can happen to a race director for the weather to be bad.”

When a race offers a refund or a deferment, it’s almost always eating any profit they would have made, she said. Sometimes a race director even ends up taking a loss. That means they can only handle so many canceled races before deciding to pull the plug completely on an event, DeGracia said. The only other option is to raise the price to offset their years of losses.

While all races carry insurance for things like liability, event cancellation insurance is not a part of the master insurance program that is provided to race directors running USAT-certified events, said Glenn Humphrey, a commercial insurance risk advisor who works with the Insurance Office Of America, which contracts with USAT. To be reimbursed for lost revenues on a canceled race, directors will need to have purchased an add-on policy. “It’s historically been relatively inexpensive,” he said, noting that the number of races that do go forward every year offset the costs of the few that get shut down. The insurance market, however, is finely attune to risk. As more races face cancellation each year, “you will start to see or you could start to see an increase in the cost in race cancellation insurance across the industry,” he said. What that means for you is: the cost getting passed on to athletes and, potentially, more expensive races.

The Ironman Foundation helped with the relief effort during race week at Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico after the island was devas- tated by Hurriance Maria in 2017. Photo: PAUL PHILLIPS/ COMPETITIVE IMAGE

What do you do if you’ve missed a turn on the bike? You don’t just give up and keep going in the wrong direction, you turn around and get back on the right track.

Fires, Droughts, Storms, and Smoke

It’s not just freak heat waves or superstorms that are causing headaches for athletes and race directors, either. As the overall personality of the planet changes, the long-term weather that used to be reliable for races changes too. In 2015, the drought in California was so bad that organizers had to reroute the entrance and exit for the Wildflower swim. Colleen Bousman, the race director for the Wildflower Experience, said that the change in the swim was unpopular and signups suffered. After two years of an alternative course and with ongoing drought issues, the race and the company’s other events were canceled in 2017. By 2018, the water and Wildflower had come back and, Bousman said, they were working towards rebuilding. But then, in 2019, she cited nearby wildfires as part of the reason organizers had to again cancel that year’s event. And those problems aren’t going away. Bousman knows that drought, fires, and lake levels will continue to be a challenge—making it hard to plan.

In fact, wildfires will continue to be a major problem for races throughout the West. In 2013 scientists predicted that the fire season would become longer, smokier, and more destructive. However, those scientists thought it would take until mid-century before these changes were in full effect. It appears to be happening faster than anyone expected. Of the 20 largest fires in California history, nine have happened

in the last three years. As a casualty, Ironman Santa Rosa is already canceled permanently, in part due to the rebuilding in the area after multiple fires swept through the region over the last few years. Ironman Lake Tahoe got nixed from the calendar after snow and freezing temps hampered the 2013 race and the 2014 event was canceled (as athletes lined up to start) due to a nearby wildfire.

There’s also ongoing water quality issues to consider. Large storms cause increases in runoff. In rural areas, runoff often comes from agricultural operations. In urban spaces, it can come from water treatment plants that get overwhelmed during heavy rainfall. This runoff, which is often saturated with nitrogen—either from waste or commercial fertilizer—can lead to spikes in bacteria levels and harmful algae blooms. No one should swim in that.

Let’s not forget those training days, either. All of these ongoing issues don’t just affect race days, but the training leading up to them too. In 50 years, Dr. Dello believes that long summer training days outdoors may be unsafe for large parts of the country. They were already unsafe this past summer for many triathletes who were stuck dealing with dense smoke and wildfires. Will we all just ride and run and race in our basements on stationary trainers, as we have during the pandemic—because the air outside is too acrid to breathe?

LEFT: Racers begin the swim at Ironman Tahoe in 2013, which was one of the coldest in triathlon history with snowstorms early on race morning.
RIGHT: An athlete cools off after a hot 70.3 Syracuse in New York. Photo: COURTESY IRONMAN Lake Tahoe, MICHAEL REAVES/ GETTY IMAGES

A Missed Turn

So what can we do? There is a certain irony about fearing for the future of a sport which was invented in large part to help us burn off the excess energy we have as a result of machines doing so much labor for us—and burning so much fossil fuel as they do it. That irony gets richer when we think deeply about the fact that about 20% of our greenhouse gases come from the production of food—something triathletes actively burn through just for the fun of it. And what about all the energy and resources that go into our gear and travel? Should we stop?

Dr. Dello emphatically says no. “I don’t think it’s on the individual athlete (to solve climate change),” she said. Yes, triathletes may eat more than non-triathletes, buy bikes made in environmentally cringey ways, and travel by plane to faraway races. And if you want to fix and change those behaviors, you should and can. Individual actions add up and create collective change. But real and large-scale change has to come from us pushing major polluters—namely the fossil fuel industry—to do better. Instead of nixing your whole race season to curb emissions, make the changes you can (no, you probably don’t need to drive a massive car just to fit your bike), talk about climate change with your training partners and neighbors, ask your legislators to end subsidies for oil and gas companies and invest in renewable energy and stricter emissions standards for vehicles, and, most importantly, vote for politicians who are willing to act. While the majority of Americans believe global warming is happening, the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication found that only one-third of people said they talk with friends and family about it. Start the conversation before your race gets canceled.

We also shouldn’t give up or feel hopeless, even though we’re well into a level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists have already warned could be catastrophic. Here’s the analogy Dr. Dello uses: What do you do when you realize you’ve missed your bus stop? Though a better analogy for triathletes might be this: What do you do if you’ve missed a turn on the bike? You don’t just give up and keep going in the wrong direction, you turn around and get back on the right track. We can still do that, Dello said. But the longer we wait, the further off course we’re going to get.

A cyclist takes a look at fire activity during the Blue Ridge Fire in Los Angeles in October 2020. Photo: MYUNG J. CHUN/GETTY IMAGES

How to be a More Sustainable Athlete

Yes, we need big, society-wide change—and it can start with you. A 2015 study in Nature found that people were more likely to engage in climate action when they believed it would produce overall benefits. Here are some small steps that can add up to a big difference.

Race Close to Home

Air travel is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Flying from New York to Houston, for example, to race in Ironman Texas will contribute 403 kilograms of harmful CO2 to the atmosphere. Find a race within easy driving distance—and carpool with a friend.

Skip The Bike Upgrade

When Shreya Dave was working on her master’s degree at MIT, she conducted a carbon footprint analysis of a range of transportation types. Bikes, as expected, did well. But: Her modeling anticipated that the average bike user would keep their ride for 15 years. Few triathletes do that. Manufacturing and shipping are resource-intensive processes. The longer you hang onto your ride (and buy secondhand), the better.

Eat Less Meat

Plant-based athletes have any number of reasons for fueling their endurance adventures with fewer meat products, including the fact that animal products account for huge amounts of resources and greenhouse gas emissions. Even just limiting animal products, like meat and dairy, while staying high in calorie content, can potentially cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, according to Nature. Plus, there are lots of tasty alternatives these days.

Run from Home

More than half of the car trips Americans make every day are less than four miles—and those short trips add up. Start and end as many of your bike rides and runs as you can at your house, instead of driving to the local park. If it’s not safe to run from your home, try to add your trip to the park onto another trip—like going to the store or coming home from work.

Buy Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets essentially pay someone else to conserve energy when you can’t. If you still want to fly to Kona, you can pay off that carbon sin by helping finance part of a solar energy project or chipping in to purchase woods slated for clear-cutting. This is not a perfect system, in part because the market isn’t well-regulated, but the website CoolEffect.org will help you calculate how much to spend to offset the carbon from your trip, and GoldStandard.org will help you choose reputable projects to fund.

Talk About It

Advocating for things you care about can be hard. But if we, who spend countless hours outside, don’t speak up about our environment, then who will? Here’s how to contact your elected officials to let them know you care about climate change:

By phone: This is generally seen as the best method for constituents to voice their concerns. You can look up your rep’s phone number on House.gov/find-your-representative and Senate.gov.

The Citizens Climate Lobby will help you craft emails to your elected representatives on climate-related legislation that is pending in Congress.

Elected officials often have one day a week where they, or a staff member, will take constituent meetings—both in D.C. and in their local offices. Their websites often list how to request a meeting.

And remember: You don’t need to be an expert. It’s OK if you can’t cite countless studies or memorize how many tons of emissions are produced by different industries. As a triathlete, you can easily talk about what you care about, why you care, and how what they do matters to you.