Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Secretariat Finish

I've been calling it the Secretariat finish.  When Secretariat ran the Belmont Stakes, he set a fast early pace and never slowed down, running the race in record time and clocking the fastest 1.5 miles run by a horse on any dirt racetrack, a record that still stands.  What was particularly amazing about the race, the reason the race became legend, was the way that Secretariat didn't just maintain his fast pace through the end of the race but actually found, in the final stretch of the long race, yet another level of speed.  People who saw the race in 1973, like my dad who watched the race on TV, say that Secretariat won the race then, with the other horses out of the picture, found his own stride.  My dad gets a certain look on his face when he tells this story, a look that's a combination of disbelief, after all these years, and of reverence, for the horse, and for the opportunity to watch as Secretariat galloped away from the other horses in the race, horses that, by all other standards, were also running a fast race.  Secretariat didn't just win the Belmont, and didn't just set a course record, but continued to charge ahead for the full length of the long race, widening the gap between himself and the other horses, finishing the race a record 31 lengths in front of the second place horse.

So when Austin set the record for number of days over 100˚ F in late August, a tough record that we came one day from reaching in 2009, that most-recent brutal summer, and the long-term forecast continued to hold nothing but triple-digits, I started comparing this summer to Secretariat's Belmont finish.  Like the horse, this hot season started early, kept on without a break through the summer months, and broke the official record by the end of August.  And, then, like Secretariat in the last 1/2 mile of the Belmont, this summer didn't quit but continued on, producing a few of the hottest days on record (August 27, 28, and 29 were 110˚, 112˚, and 109˚ F, respectively) and racking up another 20 days of triple-digit heat, after the record was already broken.

Number of Days Over 100˚ F 
Austin, Texas
  1. 2011 – 90 days
  2. 1925 – 69 days
  3. 2009 – 68 days
  4. 1923 – 66 days
  5. 2008 – 50 days
  6. 2000 – 42 days

 Another 20 days.  Recall the summer of 2009.  It was hot, really hot.  We all complained about it and thought of it as the hottest summer ever, which, at the time, it was.  But one day before we were going to tie with the record for the number of days over 100˚ F, the heat broke.  This year, 2011, is once again the hottest summer on record, and this time we broke that 1925 record, with 70 days of temperatures over 100˚ F.  That record 70th day was on August 24, right around the time that the weather broke in 2009.  Now, I'm not suggesting that the hot season in Austin is ever over by September, but cold fronts usually start to have some cumulative effect, so that each time the heat returns after a cold front, it is slightly less hot, with high temperatures edging down into the tolerable 90's and, later in the month, into the almost-comfortable low 90's.  But this year, the September cold fronts came and went, and those high temperatures just kept bouncing back into the 100's, all the way into the last week of the month, when we had five days in a row over 100˚ F.  The last of those days, September 29, was the 90th day of triple-digit heat this summer.

Think about 90 days versus 70 days.  Ninety days over 100˚ F is three months of insanity.  And 21 full days over the record of 69 days, a tough record that hadn't been beaten since 1925.  We beat the record then we galloped on for another full month, accumulating 20 more days – that's a full third of the record itself – of triple-digit temperatures.  That's why I have been saying that this summer broke the records the way that Secretariat won the Belmont: early, fast, and relentless, with unexpected power in the finish.  Now we can only hope that this summer proves to be as rare as Secretariat, and that the records of this summer, like the records of Secretariat, remain unbroken.

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