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'Dangerously hot' temps force schedule changes at Olympic trials in Eugene

The women's 5000 meters went off under the hot sun at Hayward Field in Eugene Monday during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials.
Paul Merca for TrackTown USA
The women's 5000 meters went off under the hot sun at Hayward Field in Eugene Monday during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials.

The broiling heat in the weekend forecast is forcing changes at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials underway in Eugene. Distance races are being shifted earlier in the day, but shorter events are staying put on the schedule in the peak afternoon heat.

Olympic hopefuls who train in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest are putting on brave faces and say they are prepared for the conditions.

In a bulletin posted Thursday, the National Weather Service described the predicted conditions across the Willamette Valley this weekend as "dangerously hot."

"Extreme heat will significantly increase the potential for heat related illnesses, particularly for those working or participating in outdoor activities," warned the Portland-based forecasters.

That covers the Olympic team trials unfolding under the bright sun at Hayward Field in Eugene. The eight days of running, jumping and throwing to select the U.S. athletes bound for the delayed Tokyo Summer Games wraps up Sunday.

The U.S. track federation (USATF) said it is taking athlete safety into account by moving the grueling 25-lap women's 10,000 meter final into the morning on Saturday. It was originally going to happen at dinnertime when the temperature on the track could be lingering around 100 degrees.

Event organizers also moved up the 20 kilometer race walk start time by two hours in reaction to the forecast heat wave. The men's and women's race walks will now start at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday in Springfield, Oregon, instead of at 9 a.m.

It's supposed to be even hotter on Sunday, with a forecast high in Eugene of 107 degrees. So, Sunday's men's 5000 meter final was also moved from late afternoon into the morning. But a lot of shorter events are not shifting significantly. Jumping and middle distance races, including the women's 800 meters and men's metric mile (1500m), are still on tap in the peak heat of the afternoon Sunday.

"I'm not concerned," said University of Oregon sophomore sensation Cole Hocker, a 1500 meter runner. "I'm from Indiana. We have some pretty hot and humid summers. Definitely been in these conditions before and ran some pretty fast races in pretty hot heat."

"It's nothing that bothers me," said Oregon Duck alum Jenna Prandini, a sprinter who grew up in toasty Clovis, California. "Just got to stay hydrated."

Several distance runners who belong to elite training groups based at Nike's Beaverton headquarters expressed mild appreciation for the shift of the 5000 meter final to the morning hours, while noting they were prepared to compete either way.

"It changes the race to some degree," said Bowerman Track Club pro runner Grant Fisher of Portland. "A little cooler temperatures will be nice. It will probably make it a more of an honest race, more of a traditional race. By no means will it make it easier or harder. You adapt to the conditions. Any race is going to be hard against these guys."

USATF said in an emailed statement that it is following guidelines for athlete safety from the American College for Sports Medicine. The medical association's position statement on competition and heat illness recommends during summer months that all events and games be scheduled during the cooler hours of the day.

Thousands of track and field fans have purchased tickets for the final weekend of the Olympic trials. Hayward Field stadium rules prohibit coolers and ice chests of any size. The trials host committee said free drinking water would be available for fans. The newly-rebuilt venue has an architecturally-striking, curved canopy over much of the seating, which could provide some shade.

A favorite in the men's 5000 meters, Rio Games silver medalist Paul Chelimo, noted in a tweet before his preliminary race on Thursday that "Tokyo will be hot as hell." Chelimo implied that he was fine with the Olympic team selection races taking place in similar heat.

The women's 5000 meter final went off on Monday afternoon in 94 degree heat. The athletes posted times well off their personal bests, but the top finishers -- Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer of the Beaverton-based Bowerman Track Club -- were among the pre-event favorites. Schweizer said afterwards her goal was to stay relaxed in the race and conserve energy so she wouldn't wilt by the end when a surge would be needed.

The extreme heat this weekend adds the greatest burden on Olympic hopefuls who have not yet achieved the minimum time qualifying standard to get into the Tokyo Games. The harsh conditions make it less likely that distance runners will be able to improve on their season's bests.

Team USA selection rules require that runners, jumpers and throwers meet the Olympic qualifying standard no later than these trials. A top-3 finisher in the U.S. Olympic Trials who lacks the Tokyo Games qualifying standard would be passed over in favor of a finisher farther back who previously achieved the needed mark.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.