At a high school track meet in South Dakota yesterday, student athletes struggled to breathe, not due to the hard effort of racing, but because of poor air quality caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires. A news release said the smoke caused “low visibility and increased fine particulate matter pollution.”

Some nearby regions canceled outdoor sports events like track meets and golf tournaments.

However, the town of Hartford carried on as usual with its regional track meet.

Sprinter Emma Buys recounted having difficulty breathing. She told Keloland News, “When I’m coming towards the end of my race, I can definitely feel like there’s not that much air there.”

For athletes competing in multiple events, their exposure was greater. “Some of these guys run the mile, two mile, those longer events definitely have it a little rougher than me when they’re having to breathe it the whole time that they’re racing,” Buys said.

The region chairperson for track, Roy Grady, told Keloland News that the situation was discussed at a coaches and officials meeting. He said, “Everybody was made aware of that; to make sure they keep an eye on our athletes, you know, and we could allow substitutions if we wanted to.”

In places that are facing chronic air pollution, the decision to carry on with outdoor sports like track and field is a difficult one. While air pollution can aggravate heart and cardiovascular disease, as well as lung diseases like asthma and COPD, Runner’s World reported on a 2021 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal which found that “regular exercise, even when performed in areas with air pollution, can reduce the risk of early death from natural causes, compared to being sedentary.”

Another sprinter competing yesterday, Carter Van Donge, talked about toughing it out, saying “Everyone’s kind of used to knowing that there’s either going to be rain, wind, or it’s going to be 90 degrees outside. So I’d say that here we do a pretty good job of just dealing with the weather and fighting through it.”

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Abby Carney is a writer and journalist in New York. A former D1 college runner and current amateur track athlete, she's written about culture and characters in running and outdoor sports for Runner's World, Like the Wind Magazine, The New York Times, and other outlets. She also writes about things that have nothing to do with running, and was previously the editor of a food magazine.

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