SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Beijing broke its own air-quality rules and held a marathon in toxic conditions

Runners World has concluded that it will take a wide range of geographic, psychological, and demographic factors to achieve a sub two-hour marathon—the current record stands at 2:02:57. It’s safe to say that none of the factors involve thick clouds of lung-choking smog, like at this weekend’s Beijing Marathon.

The amount of PM2.5 particulate matter—the most dangerous kind of air pollution, which is carried deep into your lungs and then your bloodstream—hit an Air Quality Index reading of 442 on Sunday morning before the race. At that level, China normally advises people to avoid outdoor sports and activities, and to use filtration masks when outdoors. Breathing that much pollution on any given day will reduce your life span by an average of about eight hours, and that’s without factoring in the extreme exertion of a marathon, which makes the risks much worse.

This weekend’s smog was widely forecast by Chinese health officials; after years of denial, the country is now relatively open about its dangerous air pollution problem. (India, on the other hand, can’t even measure how bad the air is in cities like New Delhi, which is widely considered to have some of the world’s dirtiest air.)

And yet, according to the Beijing News via the AP, the race committee still opted to hold the event “because of all the planning that had gone into it.” Instead, organizers passed out sponges so runners could “clean their skin that is exposed to the air.”

Not surprisingly, a small percentage of the 30,000 runners decided to bring their own face masks. Girhay Birhanu Gebru and Fatuma Sado Dergo of Ethiopia won the men’s and women’s competition. Both runners’ times were well off the world-record pace.

Participants wearing masks during a hazy day at the Beijing International Marathon in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, October 19, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: SPORT ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR4AP48
(Reuters/stringer)
Traffic police officers watch runners jog past Chang'an Avenue near Tiananmen Square shrouded in haze at the start of 2014 Beijing International Marathon in Beijing, China Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
(AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Runners wearing masks to protect themselves from pollutants jog past Chang'an Avenue near Tiananmen Square shrouded in haze while taking part in the 2014 Beijing International Marathon in Beijing, China Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
​​ (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
In this Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014 photo, a runner, wearing a mask to protect herself from pollutants, looks at her smartphone as she and others jog past Chang'an Avenue near Tiananmen Square shrouded in haze at the start of 2014 Beijing International Marathon in Beijing, China Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
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