Windy City Meltdown: Has the Marathon Gotten Out of Control?

I've never really understood the attraction of the so-called "mega" marathons, those 26-mile moving masses of humanity that snake through city streets. Sure, there' a lot of energy and excitement, but when you get to the running part, where is the fun? Waiting for hours before the start? Standing in a long line for a porta-john? Battling your way to the start and then wiggling around dozens of runners every time you try to pick up the pace? Negotiating a forest of arms and legs just to get a drink at an aid station?

I've always said the two toughest marathons in which to excel (at least for a mid-pack runner) are Boston and New York. Not necessarily for the difficulty of the courses—although neither can be characterized as easy—but for the seemingly endless waiting before the start and then the aforementioned logistical challenges once the race is underway.

Well, now you can add Chicago to that list. In recent years the Chicago Marathon has been a destination for those seeking a flat, fast course and predictably cool, crisp conditions. 2007 however, turned up a searing hot day, with temperatures reaching the uppers 80s, accompanied by high humidity. Call it an aberration or call it Global Warming, the bottom line for the tens of thousands of marathoners was difficulty, disappointment and danger. By now you probably know the ugly results: one dead, dozens hospitalized with heat-related illnesses, and thousands of others stopped from continuing by race officials at the 13-mile mark—not to mention the dashed dreams of countless others seeking a first marathon finish or a personal best.

Why did this particular marathon suffer such disastrous consequences? After all, it's not as if this was the first long-distance race run in hot weather. The mercury at the Boston Marathon reached into the uppers 90s in 1976, the famous "run for the hoses." Ultrarunners endure temperatures of up to 120 degrees in the famed Badwater Ultramarathon, at 135 miles longer than five marathons. Why then, did such a colossal meltdown ensue in Chicago?

A big part of the answer can be found in the numbers themselves. With fields of 40,000 or more, problems can and often do increase exponentially. For instance, many runners in Chicago, realizing the difficulty they were facing, turned aid stations into their own personal bathing stations, pouring several cups of water on their heads and body.

Race director Carey Pinkowski said, "Our participants were not consuming the water, they were cooling themselves with it. So we had individuals that were going to these stations, stopping, grabbing five, six, seven cups of water, cooling themselves with it and blocking the traditional flow of our procession through the water stations. That was something that, I will be honest with you, we didn't anticipate. We thought with our advisory, with our e-mail blast, that our participants would go to the cooling stations, to the hydrants, to cool themselves. But what they were doing was using the water for consumption as a cooling activity."

Not surprisingly then, some aid stations ran out of water, thus creating an extremely dangerous setting for later runners. "There (were) tables without any water at all; they were just telling us to move on because there wasn't any water," runner Tracie Bain told CBS Chicago. "People were very aggravated and almost fighting over the water at times." As so often happens in dire circumstances, many city residents and good Samaritans pitched in to help runners in need. Even so, emergency personnel were stretched to their limits trying to care for those runners with serious medical concerns, thus leaving race officials with no other choice than to call an early halt to the marathon.

In retrospect, it's difficult to place blame on anyone, including race officials. Directing and managing such a huge event with so many participants is somewhat analogous to piloting an ocean liner. Plowing ahead is fairly routine, but changing course at the last minute is difficult at best and often impossible. Even getting ten times as much water to each station, nearly logistical impossible, might still have left some runners dry.

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