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#34 – 2007 Chicago Marathon: A 16-Mile Disaster

12 October 2007

End of the Road at the 2007 Chicago Marathon

Photo: Princess Runner

A marathon is supposed to be 26.2 miles, yet some 6,500 runners at the 2007 Chicago Marathon were forced to end their “marathon” after 16 miles. Officially the race was canceled due to record-high heat but reading between the lines, it appears that the race director called off the event due to poor planning by the organizers. Sadly, this is not the first time that the Chicago Marathon has suffered an embarrassing mistake that jeopardized the health of its runners.

In the 2006 race, winner Robert Cheruiyot slipped as he crossed the finish line, losing his footing on a slick-surfaced sponsor logo placed on the road in front of the finish. Cheruiyot hit his head hard and was taken to the hospital; thankfully his injuries were not very serious. Why in the world would any race director allow such an obvious risk, especially given the wet conditions of that year’s race? 45,000 runners had signed up to attempt crossing that finish line and I find it appalling that safety was not a higher priority than the shininess of a sponsor’s logo. The logo was quickly removed and I’m not aware of any other runners who fell at the finish that year.

Sadly that lack of planning in 2006 did not motivate the organizers to be any more proactive when planning for 2007. The possibility of record heat was known to forecasters at least two weeks in advance and it should’ve been a contingency scenario from the outset – one of the few things a race director cannot control is the weather.

Many runners, aware of the heat, chose to not even start and save their efforts for a better day. According to MarathonGuide.com, there were “48,165 registered, 35,798 starters, 35,300 runners with a 10K split, 25,989 definitive finishers.” What really shocked me was MarathonGuide’s tally of the non-finishers: “1,000 runners who did not finish due to normal attrition, 6,500 runners who were removed from the course by race officials”. 6,500 runners forced to abandon! That’s 18% of all starters who were forced to cut short their dreams of finishing a marathon through no fault of their own.

I’ve been following the blog of Princess Runner as she trained for her goal to run her first marathon. After setting her sights on Chicago 2007, she was one of those unlucky 6,500. She wrote about her frustrating experience, including: “The reality of what was happening suddenly hit me like a sledgehammer. I was not going to finish the marathon. I could do it, but the race officials were not going to let me.” How devastating.

Her brother, Shore Turtle, also ran the marathon and was able to finish – he posted a respectable 4:13 – but had to endure seeing the letters “CXL” replacing the numbers on the race clock during the last mile. Many commenters on MarathonGuide.com related similar stories and sentiments about the 2007 race.

What really angers me about the decision to cancel the race for those who didn’t reach halfway fast enough is that the Chicago Marathon caters in particular to that demographic of novice runners. I researched the results of dozens of marathons using MarathonGuide.com and found that the Chicago Marathon has the slowest average finishing time (4:35 in 2006, 5:02 in 2007) of any marathon I checked. With 45,000 registrants Chicago is one of the largest marathons in the world, but also one of the slowest.

If record-high temperatures are combined with thousands of inexperienced runners, you had better expect a sharp increase in both water consumption and medical emergencies. Indeed, runners are responsible for their own preparation and I do find it annoying that so many folks allow themselves to get in over their head, but I was once one of those runners. I ran the 2005 Grand Rapids Marathon and was forced to walk almost 10 miles due to cramping caused by insufficient training. However, I was aware of my safety limits and the race organizers were well prepared for runners like me just in case I pushed myself too far. After all, even the elite runners can push a little too hard sometimes.

Ironically, the Chicago Marathon also caters to the elites thanks to a large prize purse as well as being part of the World Marathon Majors series. Yet as Robert Cheruiyot can attest in 2006, Chicago has not been fully prepared to protect their safety. Fortunately nobody tried to blame Cheruiyot for losing his balance, but in 2007 race officials pointed their fingers at the novice runners that they’ve courted for years. Sponsor LaSalle Bank’s vice president inexplicably claimed that “planners did not anticipate runners would use drinking water to cool themselves” by pouring it on their heads. Oh really? At the 2007 Riverbank Run I watched aid station volunteers frequently use cups of water to treat runners with a refreshing “shower” despite a high temperature of just 67 degrees. Nobody planning for the Chicago Marathon could’ve thought of that?

Given how things have gone in 2006 and 2007, one wonders just how much planning takes place for such a premier event. Apparently not much – see this quote about the debacle from Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski: “Probably we should have been a little more proactive about that.” No kidding. FYI, 2008 is just 12 months away…

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4 comments

  1. […] need look no further than the 2007 Chicago Disaster to realize that 102 degrees of body temperature is very close to our physical limits.  When […]


  2. I hate it as it was my first marathon and i completed walking last 6 miles. I hate it.


  3. It was a Horibble place to be.
    My Father and Brother ran and it was so hard for them as wel a the rest of the runners. Only 1 man died and that was good; considerind that 4 died in the 2009 Detrote Marathon


  4. This was my first marathon. I had no idea this WASN’T what it was supposed to feel like. Hit halfway just around my goal pace–1:35, and died, finished in 3:26. Looking back, I’m amazed I did that, but honestly didn’t know any better. And will fully admit I was a person taking 3-4 water cups at every station, cause I knew that I needed to dump them on myself. (Note: I ran Boston in 2008 and ran 15 minutes faster–apparently the heat did make me a lot slower).



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