Heading out for a run? Colorado health advisories extended as smoke from Canadian wildfires still visible this weekend

Kevin J. Beaty
Runners head down 17th Avenue in the annual Colfax Marathon’s final leg, May 20, 2018.

Health advisories were in effect this weekend as smoke continued to cover the eastern half of Colorado due to wildfires in Canada that began days ago.

An extended air quality advisory issued by state public health officials was expected to last until at least 4 p.m. on Sunday for counties along the Front Range, including Douglas, Larimer, Weld, the Denver-Boulder area, Fort Collins and Greeley.

“Although some improvement will be possible by Saturday afternoon, health impacts will remain possible beyond that time due to the recent exposure to heavy smoke,” officials with the state Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement.

A health advisory was also in place for the Eastern Plains from 4 p.m. on Saturday until 9 a.m. on Sunday. Counties include Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Yuma, El Paso, Kit Carson and Cheyenne among others.

Officials said older adults, children and those with heart or lung disease should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. 

Impact on sports

The smoke has, not surprisingly, impacted those who exercise or compete outdoors. 

Officials with the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club postponed a handful of games Friday evening after air quality monitors showed high levels of particulate matter in the air. Some even felt stinging in their eyes.

“It depends on the feeling,” said Marcus Owerko, director of tournaments and events. “If we’re really feeling it we’re going to postpone.”

Owerko said if games aren’t postponed then extra water breaks or rest time for referees and players are incorporated in games. 

On Friday, their monitors registered an Air Quality Index value of 192, which is calculated by averaging the concentration of pollutants during a given period. Anything above 100 is considered unhealthy.

Megan Verlee/CPR News
A youth soccer game in Wheatridge takes place on Saturday, May 20, 2023, amid smoke in the air due to wildfires in Canada.

Andrew Freeman, 12, referees Rapids games for children younger than him. Two games he was supposed to referee in the Denver-Aurora area were canceled Friday. 

“I could see the air wasn’t clear and it didn’t feel great on my lungs and my sinuses,” Freeman said of being outside that day.

Denver’s Colfax Marathon, a two-day event that includes a 5K race on Saturday and a half-marathon and marathon on Sunday continued as planned. 

“The only thing we would ever delay, cancel for obviously would be for a magnificent terrorist activity or lightning is a crusher,” said Creigh Kelley, race director. “But otherwise, the beat goes on.”

Kelley said over 6,000 athletes finished the 5K at City Park on Saturday morning without incident. He noted that some with pre-existing conditions like asthma walked instead and in the case of the marathon, others won’t try for a personal best.

“We listen to our medical personnel because we don’t want to fool around,” Kelley said. “And we have one of the most robust medical programs for an event of this size and kind in the country.”

Tips on staying safe

Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonologist with National Jewish Health, said the degree to which someone experiences side effects or worsening health conditions depends on how much time is spent outside and the intensity of the activity.

When you compare activities like running for an hour, gardening for an hour, or sitting in a chair for an hour, the runner will get a lot more polluted air in and out of their lungs, he said.

“So when we look at the Colfax Marathon this weekend where people might be having a sustained effort for three or four hours, that's gonna be a fairly significant exposure compared to maybe just going outside to go to the grocery store,” Dr. Beuther noted.

Children are more vulnerable because their lungs are disproportionately large to their body and therefore greater exposure. 

Dr. Beuther offered the following safety tips for those with pre-existing conditions:

  • If you have a chronic condition, make sure to take your regular medication every day
  • Have a rescue or short-acting emergency inhaler on you in case of sudden symptoms
  • If you have persistent worsening symptoms call your doctor and initiate an action plan
  • It’s best to stay inside or limit the duration and intensity of activity outdoors

“So if your asthma's just perfectly controlled and pretty mild and you had planned on running this marathon this weekend and you want to go for it, you go for it,” Dr. Beuther said. “But if you're not feeling well, this is not the time to spend all day outside.”