Monday, October 08, 2007

Thoughts of Chicago

Photo by Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

The 2007 Chicago Marathon debacle was sad. A well-respected marathon will now have to justify its existence and its management's actions, even if they attempted to do everything right. The death was really sad, but it appears to be a heart-related, instead of a heat-related death, (not that that matters to the surviving family).

I'll start out by saying "Humans can adapt their bodies to run in hot & humid conditions." But failure to adapt does not necessarily result in heat stroke or heat illness. It can make you slow down and really feel like crap, though. (Believe me, I know this from experience). I think many of the folks that "needed medical attention" may have fallen into this latter category, and helped to overload Chicago's medical infrastructure.

There is also a wide-held belief that "anyone can run a marathon" with little or no training. "The marathon is the new 10K," and "the Ultramarathon is the new marathon." What people forget is, even "Oprah" trained hard (with a personal trainer) to accomplish her goal of running a marathon safely. People need to respect the distance! Most experienced runners respect EVERY DISTANCE that they run, including 5Ks. If you're running any distance at your limit, you can "blow-up" and keel-over, if the circumstances are ripe for disaster.

Chicago always attracts tons of marathon newbies. I wonder how many first-time marathoners were at this year's Chicago? Remembering back to my first marathon: I was under-trained and clueless about what I was getting into. I was a totally stupid Newbie. Yes, I finished; but I suffered severely for days, and couldn't/wouldn't run for weeks afterward. I learned from my experience, but I'm still amazed when I talk to some would-be first time marathoners. Many have not trained for the hot/cold or hilly conditions, and some (gym-based newbies) haven't even run on a real surface (outside) before.

Knowing how ignorant some of these first-timers can be, any organization hosting a non-qualifying long-distance event should be wary. Especially if it is a mega-sized event like Chicago. There were 45,000 entrants signed-up for Chicago. 10,000 didn't even attempt it, and 24,000 finished, but the city's ambulances, etcetera were still stretched to the limit. What if the other 10,000 DNS-ers HAD shown up? When is a race TOO BIG for race management (and a city's infrastructure) to handle? Other major events limit their field. Even relatively "small" events in the Ultra & Tri world limit their size, based on what they can handle. Maybe Chicago should at least consider it.

My group's Psycho Psummer 50K/25K this past July had a much higher heat index, but we had no heat-related illnesses and a high finish rate, despite a very hilly course.

Course Profile of one 25Km Loop.

Why didn't our Trail Nerd race have "Course Carnage" like Chicago?
- We had knowledgeable aid station help, who pushed water, sports drink, ice, food, and electrolytes. We take care of our runners!!!
- There was a requirement for participants to carry their own additional water, or risk a DQ.
- Most 50K athletes and trail runners are not "virgins" to the idea of taking electrolytes and proper hydration, but many marathoners (and marathon race managers) don't have a clue.
- Our number of entrants was an amount that we could handle.
Our Psycho Psummer Race

Here's a generalized opinion, based upon my observations and personal experience:
For the most part, Ultrarunners know what they're in for, and know how to prepare and be self-sufficient, and don't expect to be "coddled." Many newbie and first-time marathoners expect a "turn-key" race, and if they screw-up and don't show up well-prepared, the "knowledgeable" race and aid station help will lead them by the hand and tell them what to do. They aren't as self-sufficient or well-trained as most ultra or trail folks.

Chicago is an "extreme weather" city, and it can be either very hot or very cold. Race management knew it was going to be unseasonably hot & humid. They even sent out a warning to participants. But this should not let them off the I've stated, many newbies are ignorant, and won't (or can't) believe they'll be in any danger, during their first "very special" marathon.
It's been said that some Chicago aid stations ran out of water because of runners dumping water on their heads. Honestly, you've got to factor-in "the dumping quotient" on hot days, if you're a race director. At our (hot) races, we have extra ice and wet bandanas that we soak and give away, too. More than a few (hot season) marathons enlist the help of National Guard water trucks to spray-down runners and restock water aid stations. Many races use PVC water-misting arches for the runners to run through. There are many solutions to this problem.

I guess what I'm saying is, there are no excuses to not have the "safety" bases covered in an event of this scope. If there are way too many participants to handle, limit the size of the field or limit the number of newbies by having "qualifications" like Boston does, or like many ultramarathons or Ironman races do. Or maybe they should have a requirement to carry a water bottle or other hydration device, like many ultras require.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben


olga said...

I am with you, my friend. WTF?

Kim said...

In a way, I think us ultra runners actually have "more common sense" than people give us credit for.
I was working our aid station, at mile 65, in the Burning River 100 race, in Cleveland, in August. You weren't going to reach this point unless you were prepared for the heat.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Ben, but only 50 people out of 36,000 were hospitalized. Yes, that's still too many, but it's only 1 out of every 720. If one person gets sick in your race every 5 years, you aren't doing any better. I've run in small ultras that have run out of water too. It's unfortunate, but it happens.

Lora said...

It's terribly disappointing that the race wasn't more prepared. I was not happy to be told I couldn't go on when I got to the 16 mile mark. Why did my day have to suffer because the race wasn't prepared. I was denied the exhileration of the finish!

And shame on the RD for not admitting he failed us! Lots of angry folks out here looking for another Marathon...especially those that were trying to qualify for Boston.

Can you slap one together in two weeks???? ;)

mouse said...

great post, Ben. I agree that race management just simply was not prepared, and the excuses they are giving are kind of ridiculous.

But on the other hand, Chicago does attract an awful lot of first-timers and newbies who, if prepared adequately, might have been able to handle the heat. I've never seen so many middle of the packers become back of the packers than I did on Sunday. The folks who were planning to be back of the packers really didn't have a chance, given the aid situation and the heat rising so quickly.

nwgdc said...

great post, ben. your point about "anybody can run a marathon" is spot on.

Ben, aka BadBen said...

My point is that hundreds of runners reported to EMTs and medical personnel, overloading the system for the few who needed hospitalization. (An old friend of mine was working as an EMT at the race).
Many of these runners were probably not bad-off, they just "felt bad" due to hypotension (typical low blood pressure issues with heat) and cramping (due to low-electrolyte balance). These symptoms with inexperienced newbies can overload a race's medical response in a hurry. Now imagine if the 10,000 DNSers had been in the race, too.

And yes, many races have run out of water at aid stations. In a small race, just a few of the back of the packers suffer, but by the next aid station there is usually water stocked. At Chicago the MIDDLE OF THE PACK runners ran out of water...which amplified the severity of the problem, and like dominoes, totalled the race.
This hasn't happened at a race this big since the first Rock 'N Roll marathon in San Diego, as far as I know.

- Ben

Ben, aka BadBen said...

Ask and I will deliver.
A buddy of mine has a low-key flat (and certified) marathon on a crushed gravel trail on October 28, in Blue Springs, MO (near Kansas City). And they never run out of water, food, or good cheer.
It's a good Boston Qualifier.
Blue Springs Larry Mattonen Marathon

Happy trails,
Bad Ben

Anonymous said...

Ben -
You are correct, the EMT was overloaded which may have been the main reason for shutting the race down. There could have been many more deaths if they didn't. With hindsight, yes, things could have been done differently and better.

For the water - they has 1.5 GALLONS per runner, but even that wasn't enough because the runners dumped huge amounts over their heads. Do you really supply 2 or 3 gallons per runner at your race? And would you have been able to tell Chicago that wasn't enough before the race began? The hot weather was known before hand, but for only about 4 days and obviously the severity wasn't known until after the race started. There's also conflicting stories about how much water was really out. I finished in 4 hours and all aid stations had 200 yards of cups on both sides of the road at all stations.

The 10,000 DNS's is the normal 20% that all marathons have. I don't know why it's always 20%, but you can count on it.


Ben, aka BadBen said...

Honestly, you've got to factor-in "the dumping quotient" on hot days, if you're a race director.

At our (hot) races, we have extra ice and wet bandanas that we soak and give away, too.
More than a few (hot season) marathons, they enlist the help of National Guard water trucks to spray-down runners and restock water aid stations.
Many races use PVC water-misting arches for the runners to run through.
There are many solutions to this problem.

I ran Chicago in 1999. (It was a cold year). It was a fun, well-organized event, but I think it was overcrowded, even back then. A staggered (multiple) start, like what Bloomsday and other large races have moved to, might eliminate most of the issues that Chicago had, this year, by making for more of a steady, "digestible" flow of runners at the aid stations.

The Chicago Marathon will go on, and they will have learned from this year. They'll figure-out some strategies for success, I'm sure.

Stephen said...

Hi Ben, Thanks for stopping by.

I totally agree with you.

A 65 year old friend of mine did this race and just told me about the harsh conditions. She said it was the worse she had ever encountered.

She managed to finish in just over 4 hours and was still able to finish 1st place in her age division.

bryan said...

For those interested, there is also another marathon this Saturday in Ashland, Wisconsin, the Whistlestop, that is supposed to be a nice one.

I ran my first marathon this past Sunday, at the Twin Cities Marathon, where the weather was similar to Chicago but slightly less hot - they said they came within one and a half degrees of shutting it down, and I've heard from lots of people who have run many marathons and said they got their slowest times at this one.

I definitely agree on the need for people to be better prepared. Of the people I went with, one had not trained adequately, and - huge surprise - he is the only one of us who dropped out.

The only thing I realized, in the middle of the run, that I had not trained for was running in the hot sun - I did almost all my training on shady trails.

I went running again yesterday and it was 45 degrees, and I had to acclimate to sucking down the cold air. Quite a shift for two days apart!

Dirt Runner said...

Ben, Thanks for the comments. I never know where to respond from comments on my blog. Maybe you need to post that on your blog as well. Just in case I wrote here and on mine. And I have informed my wife that I'll be running Rocky again. I can't justify not running a 100 miler that's 30 minutes from my front door. Plus I have unfinished business there as well.

Ben, aka BadBen said...

I'll be there to do my 6th Rocky in a row...this year with a gaggle of Nerds.

I'll have a long-sleeve Trail Nerd shirt for you. It'll probably be cold and miserable, again.

E-Speed said...

agreed. there were quite a few other marathons that weekend with the same heat factors and none of the problems.

WynnMan said...

You are completely right on this thread. Psycho Psummer 50km was the epitomy of heat and humidity. Everyone survived, although tough, but as dumb as the majority of people think we are for running such long distances, we at least have a few brain cells. I think for the most part, the huge number of marathon entrants.... so many of the runners are under trained, and unprepared. If you can't get it right on a marathon course where there is aid every step of the way practically, then something is wrong, hence.... train more!

John said...

Ben - I'm working on a product that makes hydration easier. It's a water bottle that straps to your arm. Check it out and let me know your thoughts:

Sarah said...

Great post! I'm with ya. I've run NYC, but I think I'd have serious doubts about running in a race that size in the future.

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