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What To Do If You’re Stuck In An Unexpected Thunderstorm

If you find yourself on a run a few miles from home when an unexpected thunderstorm begins, here's how to keep yourself safe.

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We’ve all had those moments where we need to get out the door quickly for a run or it won’t happen. So you throw on whatever clothes you find and just go before there is much time to think about anything else. Then, two miles from home, it happens: rain. Many runners won’t take a day off because of a little rain, but what if the weather is a bit more severe? What happens if you are stuck in an unexpected thunderstorm?

“Weather conditions that precede a storm can vary by the area of the country in which you run and sometimes storms can pop up without readily identifiable conditions,” confirms Gary Oldham, a former police officer, fire manager, 9-1-1 center director, emergency manager and EMT who is a National Weather Service SKYWARN spotter and safety advocate.

Related: Gear—Stormy Weather Run Products

There are a few indicators that Oldham notes when it comes to approaching thunderstorms, including gust fronts (sudden, strong winds), rapidly darkening skies and rain shafts (visible curtains of rain in the distance).

“In general, thunderstorms come from cumulonimbus clouds. Stronger storms often reach high into the atmosphere and some—but not all—may produce an anvil, or a horizontal extension coming from the top of the cloud formation, often 40-50,000 feet or more in the sky,” explains Oldham. “Anvils almost always indicate a strong thunderstorm, but you often must be at some distance from the storm to recognize an anvil. An anvil—unless you know it’s from a stationary storm far from your path—is a good indication to find another activity for the day.”

As you learn what to look for, a general rule that Oldham points out is that thunderstorms often like to form in the afternoon and can build from the heat throughout the day (though, there are always exceptions). If you do find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, however, there are a few things you should do:

  • Seek shelter in a safe space. This includes indoors if you’re in an urban area—such as a coffee shop—or a low overhang if you are in a park or rural area.
  • Don’t be the tallest object. If you do find yourself in a park or rural area, do not seek shelter under a tree—lightning prefers to strike taller objects—and keep yourself low to the ground in a crouched position where you shelter.
  • If there is thunder, stay sheltered. Oldham stresses that if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning. Don’t take this lightly.
  • Carry a phone. If you are caught in a storm you want to be able to monitor the weather and any alerts as well as have a way to call for help if needed.

“Take all storms, particularly thunderstorms, seriously,” stresses Oldham. “Just because a Severe Thunderstorm Warning hasn’t been issued—yet—for a given storm, that doesn’t mean it can’t be deadly. To qualify as a Severe Thunderstorm, winds must be forecast to reach 57 miles an hour and/or half-inch hail must be expected. You can be badly injured from 3/8” hail or killed by lightning from a non-severe storm!”

Related: 14 Safety Reminders For Runners

If you believe the storm has passed that doesn’t mean another storm isn’t approaching, so head home or to a safe space once the thunder and lightning pass and you are sure you are out of harm’s way.

“You’re doing a really good thing for your health and your future by running, so take steps to protect yourself from danger by being weather aware, carrying a cell phone and wearing bright, reflective clothing,” concludes Oldham. “And remember, all the advice and technology in the world is no substitute for being aware of your environment and surroundings and taking responsibility for your own safety.”