Marathoners Ran through Lightning and Flooding. Here’s Why That Was Risky.

Washington Post photo by Matthew Cappucci.
Lightning in a rotating supercell thunderstorm in northwest Oklahoma in 2020.

Over the weekend, runners in Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon faced foul weather that forced more than 5,000 of them to either scramble for shelter or charge on in flooding rains and potentially deadly lightning strikes.

The storms, predicted days in advance and which were seen coming from hundreds of miles away, were not a surprise to meteorologists – many of whom were swift to criticize the decision to continue on with the race.

Organizers for the Flying Pig Marathon, which celebrated its 25th anniversary with the weekend race, said there were “contingency plans” that allowed the race to continue.

Although marathons have often taken place in light-to-moderate rainfall, major athletic organizations and the National Weather Service recommend suspending all outdoor recreation and sports when lightning poses a threat. The United States averages 28 lightning fatalities a year and hundreds of injuries – nearly two-thirds of which occurred when individuals were participating in outdoor recreation or exercising.

According to the National Weather Service, 23 percent of people killed in the United States by lightning while practicing sports were running. Runners in Sunday’s marathon were exposed along the race route, in some cases running over hulking metal bridges or wide open areas, putting them at an even greater risk of fatal electrocution.

The day’s rapid rainfall also caused water to pool on roadways, forcing runners to slog through up to a foot of flooding – conditions that can obscure terrain.

This wasn’t a case of a botched forecast. Meteorologists who had predicted the weather in advance expressed frustration that the event went on.

“I have spent 45+ years in the TV business and the decision to start the marathon is the single MOST IRRESPONSIBLE decision I have ever seen,” tweeted Steve Horstmeyer, a meteorologist at FOX19 in Cincinnati.

“A couple days after @RunFlyingPig and I am more and more disappointed in how that all played out,” tweeted Chris Vagasky, a lightning safety specialist and manager of the Wisconsin Mesonet, a network of weather monitoring stations. “I know the race director and board feels that the race was a success because they got the race off and no one was struck by lightning, but this was a weather ready failure.”

Tom Johnstone, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, said his office regularly provided support and forecasts to race organizers.

By early Sunday morning, a few hours before the storm, an update from the Weather Service “called for a one hundred percent chance of storms . . . with heavy rain and lightning. We even mentioned a low end severe risk.” His office spoke to city officials repeatedly before the race began.

Race organizers were swift to push back against criticism.

“We had a number of contingency plans in place and the safety of our participants,” said Jackie Reau, CEO at Game Day Communications, in an email. “Volunteers and spectators [are] always our top priority.”

At 6 a.m., a half-hour before the race started, Lunken Field in Cincinnati reported a thunderstorm in the vicinity. The race kicked off on time at 6:30 a.m.

“With the information we had at the start of the race, we made the decision to start without delay, as we believed it was the best decision for our participants and on-course support team,” wrote Reau. “Delaying a marathon often means a cancellation.”

On Saturday, the National Weather Service in Wilmington warned of a possible washout Sunday morning, writing in an online forecast discussion that “some pockets of moderate to heavy rain will also be in the mix,” and that “this [thunderstorm activity] is expected to be occurring Sunday morning over the forecast area.”

Nearly a half-hour after the race began, organizers tweeted that “Flying Pig Marathon officials are closely monitoring the weather with the meteorologists from WLWT, the TV partner of the Marathon,” and promised that updates would be shared via social media channels and in the Flying Pig app. By then, some runners were miles into the race.

But the WLWT meteorologists cited by Flying Pig organizers had already warned of the threat of lightning during the race.

An hour before the race, WLWT meteorologist Adam Burniston warned that even after initial storms cleared more thunderstorms would impact the race.

“A second line is still back in Indiana . . . that is still on track to arrive here around 8/9 this morning,” he wrote.

His messages grew more dire as the event got underway. “Lightning is now showing up within 10 miles of downtown,” he tweeted at 6:52 a.m. During the 7 a.m. hour, hundreds of lightning strikes littered weather maps around the greater Cincinnati metro, including several in close range of the marathon route.

“It is NOT safe to be outside right now,” Burniston posted at 7:19 a.m.; by 7:29 a.m., he emphasized it was a “dangerous time to be outdoors.”

Eventually, the Flying Pig Marathon Twitter account announced a shelter-in-place order at 7:19 a.m. Sunday morning. The majority of runners charged onward because it appeared that the clock was not paused.

The order offered four locations for potential sheltering: the Newport Aquarium Garage, the Covington Marriott, the Duke Energy Convention Center, and the Hard Rock Casino Garage. Because of the length of the 26.2 mile race, it’s possible many runners would have to run for miles to get to designated shelter locations.

With the heavy thunderstorms came flooding rains that dropped 0.67 inches in just an hour. Some runners were plodding through a foot or more of water that had collected in streets. Social media videos showed debris floating in the water.

“We always encourage participants to make the decisions that are best for their personal safety and race experience,” wrote Reau.

Preparation ahead of inclement weather is key. The first step to mitigating risk is knowing what dangers the elements may pose.

If you’re caught outside, as was the case for marathon runners who couldn’t access a shelter, safety should be priority – regardless of whether officials implement safety plans. Photos routinely emerge of lightning striking near fully packed sports stadiums or bolts of electricity arcing next to outdoor concert venues. Trust your instincts if you don’t feel safe.

If no shelter is available and you’re facing lightning risk, never shelter under trees. Although there is an instinct to duck below branches and hide from the rain, numerous people have been killed by lightning when seeking safety under trees. That’s because lightning can strike the tree and then travel through the branches and root systems.

Instead, crouching low to the ground with only your feet on the surface is best. Avoid being the tallest object in an area.

Lightning can also leap 10 or more miles from a parent thunderstorm, meaning it’s still a threat so long as thunder is heard.