The marathon that wasn't

What really happened in Chicago? Two Table Talkers who were there weigh in on their experience.

Published October 12, 2007 10:31AM (EDT)

Health and Science

Cool Runnings: Couch to Marathons

StephanieL -- 05:40 am Pacific Time -- Oct 8, 2007 -- #859 of 929

The organization of the race was actually a total debacle. And the race organizers are out and out lying to the press about what went on.

It was hot. It was seriously hot. But that wasn't the problem. Despite putting out a heat advisory that suggested everyone stop at every water stop (thus suggesting that they have water for people at every stop), they ran out before I got to the second water stop along the way. The second! There wasn't any Gatorade at the first one; at the second, the volunteers were standing by the side of the road yelling, "We're so sorry! We've called ahead so they can try to prepare for you further down! We told them you've had nothing!"

I was not running that slowly. I was probably 3/4 of the way back, running right behind a 5:45 pace team. There were thousands behind me. I had a friend who was running in front of me with the 5:00 pace team who experienced exactly the same thing, and talked to someone in front of that who also found no water at the stops. Also, no misting stations, no wet sponges, nothing. My friends up ahead actually went into a 7-Eleven along the course to buy their own bottles of water at mile 4 or something when it became clear they weren't going to get any. They called friends who were there watching to ask them to bring more water along the way.

I was running with my camelback (best decision I ever made), and so I was hot, but I was really OK. And the people of Chicago? ROCK. People came out of their homes with little plastic pitchers and a hose and filled people's cups. (We had to run carrying them, because they'd run out of those, too.) They set up their hoses to spray us down. There were groups that had gone and bought whole flats of bottled water and handed them out to runners. Apparently runners early in the race were shouting to spectators that if they had someone they loved on the course they'd go get water for the runners. And they did. Seriously, I could cry thinking about how wonderful they were.

And it was hard. Really, really hard. But with all the hosing down, I was really OK. It was harder earlier than I expected, and I think that was the heat, so I was going more slowly, but since we'd all trained all summer, I think most of the participants had adjusted their pace. I danced through Boys Town -- I was actually running more and with a better rhythm than I had in some previous runs. It was fine.

And then at mile 14 or so (past the halfway point, you'll notice) the cops along the route started yelling, "They've canceled the race! Stop running!" We kept running. Then there were helicopters above us (nice breeze) that were announcing the race was canceled due to the heat. "You'll still get your medals!" they kept announcing over and over. As if that was the point at all. Who wants a fucking medal if you haven't gone the distance? My running partner and I agreed we'd happily walk/run along the sidewalks in order to finish if they opened the streets to cars again. And then as we were nearing the 15-mile mark, they'd barricaded the route with fences and police cars and wouldn't let us through. They rerouted us, and we even had cops run up to us and yell at us to stop running and walk right that second.

We were forced to quit. It's going to be a while before I'm even sure what to do with that. Right now, I'm just pissed off. I talked to someone last night who was physically forced off the course by a cop at MILE TWENTY! I'd be more angry if I'd gotten that far.

The whole experience was just incredibly upsetting when it could have been amazing. Had the race organizers not been caught with their pants down (how did they not prepare for 45,000 runners needing water!?), that man might still be alive, half those people might not have ended up in the hospital, and we'd have finished the race. The call to cancel things that far along was, I'm pretty sure, a CYA move on the part of the race organizers when people started passing out from lack of water they'd promised to provide. I didn't feel remotely close to passing out (I was drenched and a little sloshy, but overall, pretty good). I don't think they saved me from a damn thing.

And so it's making me outraged that the race organizers are being quoted in the N.Y. Times as saying they didn't run out of water and everyone who was past halfway with the race was called was allowed to finish. I feel like the news coverage is focused on "Those who couldn't take the heat weren't able to finish" instead of "Chicago f --- ed up and it cost people who had spent the better part of the year training and a lot of money to get there."

So yeah. If I'd started the day preparing to run a half marathon in 88-degree temperatures, I'd be pretty sure I'd kicked ass. But I didn't. And so now I just feel cheated. And like I've wasted a whole year training. So I'm just not happy.

Molly Bloom - 09:35 am Pacific Time -- Oct 9, 2007 -- #882 of 929

Finally I am back from Chicago and I say ditto to absolutely everything Stephanie said.

It was the biggest mess I have ever paid for and participated in.

I ran at an 11-minute pace for the first six miles (dropped from my usual 10-minute pace since it was hot and we were warned to slow down). The second water station at mile 4 had no water. None. And it wasn't that I was looking at one side of the street or that I was skipping it to avoid bottlenecks -- as the marathon officials stated -- the station was bone-dry. People were drinking out of the fountain in Lincoln Park!!!

I dropped my pace to 11.5-minute miles at that point. I had one bottle of Gatorade, which I had fortunately grabbed at the beginning of the race at the last minute. The next two water stations had water, no Gatorade.

At mile 10-ish -- I got my first and last cup of Gatorade. Which I had to scrounge for behind the water station.

At mile 12-ish I got my last cup of water from an official station.

I ran to mile 17, where I was pulled off the course. Between miles 12 and 17 there were no official stations still operating at all. I passed two stations that were packed up, the tables stacked and no volunteers anywhere. And I wasn't the very back of the pack, not by any means.

As Stephanie said, the people and businesses of Chicago were great -- people were running out of their houses with ice and water, and the businesses were running hoses and handing out glasses and bottles of water. They were fabulous -- I cannot stress that enough. The race organizers should be ashamed.

I did get to run over the finish line after I was diverted. I got a medal. I have no idea what to think of it.

StephanieL - 12:47 pm Pacific Time -- Oct 10, 2007 -- #911 of 929

At this point, there are articles everywhere. The spin machine is incredible. There are also, just about everywhere, interviews with people who say that the organizers are full of shit. But everyone's all full of spin, particularly given the Olympics bid, and so they have a lot invested in covering it up. NPR and some bloggers have had the best coverage I've seen so far, which isn't surprising.

At this point, I have enough distance where I can actually imagine it's possible that ending the marathon was a reasonable call, given the heat and the lack of water available to runners. I persist in believing they weren't saving me from anything, but if they'd put it to us as: "Someone has died. We've vastly underestimated what you'd need to run this safely. We have to stop it now," I'd have been angry at the lack of preparation and the clusterfuck that it was, but I'd have been more understanding and felt less betrayed.

I'll be processing this for a long time, I think.

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