Another reason for the debacle lies in the large volume of inexperienced runners in the field. Mega marathons such as Chicago are a natural draw for first-timers. "Safety in numbers" is undoubtedly one explanation for the large percentage of marathon rookies, which is bitterly ironic, given how events unfolded in Chicago, when rather than offering comfort, those very numbers turned against the first-timers.
While some of the first-timers were surely well-schooled and well-prepared for covering 26 miles on foot, a significant percentage were likely unprepared for dealing with the unusual and extreme heat. Let's face it: much of the "mystique" of the marathon has been lost in the past few decades, trampled underfoot by the hundreds of thousands that have successfully completed the distance. People of all ages, shapes and sizes populate the hundreds of marathons on the race calendar in North America nowadays. Almost everyone knows someone—a family member, a friend, a work colleague—who can call themselves a marathoner.
The allure of achieving this seemingly difficult goal has brought the event to the masses, but in doing so has removed much of the "respect for the distance" that every serious runner will tell you is of paramount importance. Those that have run many marathons know that no matter how well any one race may have gone, the next one could very well present a monumental challenge. Bill Rodgers, one of the most decorated marathoners in history, has often stated, "the marathon will humble you." Among those thousands of runners humbled at Chicago, many probably went into the race without a proper understanding of how difficult a marathon can be, especially when the conditions take a turn for the worse.
In addition, many of the first-timers likely did not know what measures to take in order to combat the hot weather. Some surely over-hydrated with water (if they could find it), diluting their systems and becoming hypotranemic (dangerously low sodium levels) as a result. Others may not have known that the only way to get to the finish was to significantly reduce their pace right from the start. Still others may have waited out in the hot sun before the start, causing their body temperatures to skyrocket before the race even began.
After all, there is no test to pass in order to enter the Chicago Marathon. No one had to prove they knew how to run a marathon in order to participate. Should that be a requirement? Should all marathons at least have some sort of basic qualifying requirement, such as having finished a road race of 10 miles or a half marathon? The libertarians among us will surely say no; those that want to run should be allowed to freely do so. Caveat emptor. And even if such a requirement were put in place, it would only add to the already heavy burden of race organizers.
Should races such as Chicago limit their fields? To what? 25,000? 10,000? What number will ensure that problems such as those that occurred in Chicago this year can be prevented? Does anyone know the answer to that question?
These are all difficult issues that massive marathons such as Chicago will have to deal with going forward. And given the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns--conditions such as those that visited Chicago--are likely to become more frequent. I do know that there are many smaller, high-quality marathons that are much easier to negotiate for both the first-timer and veteran. That's where you'll find me, far from the marathon crowds.
Don Allison, from Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine and a founder of Cool Running. He has completed 55 marathons, with a personal best of 2:35. In addition, Don has completed several ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and cycled across the U.S.A. in 2006.