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This year's Ironman event is taking place during a heat wave

Officials remind volunteers, spectators to keep cool while supporting athletes



Competing in an Ironman triathlon, even in the best conditions, is no easy feat.

But competing in an Ironman triathlon on one of the hottest days of the year? That adds a new layer of difficulty to the challenge.

By the time temperatures reach their peak in the mid-thirties this afternoon, the approximately 3,400 participating athletes will be powering through the mid- to late-stages of the 3.86-kilometre swim, 180.25-kilometre bike and 42.2 -kilometre run course (or the 70.3 event, which covers half the distance of the full Ironman).

"For the athletes, they're going to feel like their heart rate is a little bit higher than usual; they're going to feel like they're working a little bit harder than they usually are, and that's where they just need to be aware of that and pace themselves accordingly," explained Keats McGonigal, Ironman's senior regional director, in an interview prior to the race.

To that end, this year's race preparations included several extra measures to help competitors stay safe in the heat.

"Like we do at all of our races, we take extra precautions to deal with whatever the weather conditions are. In this particular situation, we're going to have some buses that have air conditioning out along the course, where they can stop and cool off if they need to part way through," McGonigal explained.

The event's title sponsor, Subaru, also set up a station where snow cones will be handed out to the athletes during the race, while Ironman has increased the amount of ice that will be available at each aid station throughout the event.

The race also started "earlier than what we've ever done," McGonigal added. Age group athletes crossed the Alta Lake starting line at six a.m., which means "They'll be further along in the course before it gets real, real hot," McGonigal said.

"There's a number of different things that we're doing to help take care of the athletes in this situation ... In general our athletes are used to and ready for whatever the weather throws at them. I wouldn't expect too many people to call it a day before we start."

But while the athletes pushing their bodies to the limits might be the most obvious concern, Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, Vancouver Coastal Health's Sea to Sky medical health officer, said they're not the group he's most worried about suffering from heat illness.

"Athletes are highly trained, and they train under conditions like this to put their bodies through immense challenges. They're usually not suffering from the things that make you vulnerable to heat-related illness," he said.

"The people I would be more concerned about are the volunteers who are not necessarily trained in these types of conditions and used to working outside in the sun, and the spectators who also may not be physically healthy and able to withstand the heat, and may not have access to the same types of emergency medical resources (as the athletes) if they were to get sick."

Reminding staff and volunteers to take care of themselves has been a priority leading up to the event, McGonigal added. "They're not going to be able to take care of the athletes if they're not taking care of themselves," he said.

"We're going to have them be working in rotating shifts where they can take a break and cool down in the shade; get something to eat, drink, etc. Hopefully that helps them be able to take care of the athletes."

The crowds of friends, family and fans who lined up along the course with signs and bells employed several strategies to beat the heat while cheering on the athletes, from sporting sun hats and sunscreen to sucking down sports drinks.

“It’s really hot, of course,” said Camilla Osman, who travelled from Edmonton to cheer on her fiancé. “Shade, water, that’s pretty much it.”

For Joanna Holland and her group, who made the trek up Highway 99 from Vancouver to support her boyfriend, Jonathan, keeping cool meant bringing along some super soaker water guns.

“We’re just staying hydrated, in the shade and feeling bad for him,” she said, while posted up with lawn chairs and matching T-shirts underneath the Nordic overpass. “We were spraying each other, and Jon, and then if the other athletes asked for it, we’d give them (a spray).”

Members of the general public who are susceptible to heat-related illness, such as infants, the elderly and people with chronic conditions, are of particular concern, said Lysyshyn. "Those are the people who really suffer during heat waves."

He advised anyone feeling hot or unwell to seek shelter, preferably somewhere with air conditioning. He also recommends wearing appropriate clothing, spending time in the shade, wearing sunscreen to avoid getting burned and drinking lots of water.

It's also a good idea, said Lysyshyn, to keep an eye out for people who look uncomfortable, are sweating or who may have stopped sweating, or are having trouble breathing or chest pains, and help them cool off or seek medical attention for them.