Monday, October 08, 2007

Chicago Marathon Canceled

i always head to (and head home from) marathons with the confidence i'll have a plethora of war stories. this year's chicago marathon was easily the most disappointing experience i've had as a runner. i'm sure you're aware that the chicago marathon was canceled yesterday, due to excessive heat. i finished, but like the majority of the other runners, i was forced to walk in the final miles. here's a good story of the event, and you can follow a number of links to other stories from the Trib.

bottom line, it was hot. and moreover, very humid. and for those who've run this marathon before, you know that shade is nowhere to be found along the route, which made it worse. one person died on the route, which is the largest of the tragedies that occurred yesterday. there were countless others who were suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration, fatigue and broken spirits.

so here's the rundown of my personal experience. first of all, sorry to post no pictures of my own, but i left my camera in a cab. bad news.

we had a crew of six from our usual running group at the start. from the moment we lined up in our corral to start, we knew it'd be a warm one. luckily, we'd ran a number of high-mileage runs in the kansas heat. (we'd also run in lots of shade and had the benefit of Ma Woolard's sag skills)

our group set off pretty fast (too fast, probably, considering the heat) and was on pace for a 4:00 finish. we felt good, well trained. it was at the split when the heat got bad (and the route got out of the partly-shaded city streets). the sun was very harsh and the water stops at that point started getting pretty shoddy in terms of volunteer power and availability of liquid. people were so hot, they were taking more cups/dumping much of the water on their heads/taking extras with them, which definitely put the hurt on the supplies.

at about mile 14, our group was split in twos, at various places along the route. i was still feeling great, fast, light, but all of the sudden got hit with heat exhaustion and spent a good five minutes vomiting. if you've ever experienced this symptom of heat exhaustion, it's horrible. comes out of nowhere, cramps set in, you expunge all the fluid that you badly need. the good news was, i felt better and kept running.

from that point on, i couldn't keep anything down. it was drink and puke. puke and rally. repeat. then, by mile 16 or 17, i was cramping up and losing energy (not to mention pretty dehydrated from not keeping anything in). it's worth noting that i showed up to this race in probably the best running shape of my life, after a hot summer in training and had been well disciplined with my fluid and food intake to prepare.

people started dropping like flies, the water stops were baking and the gatorade/water was warm. we had to pour our own drinks many times because the volunteers were overwhelmed with the demand.

by mile 20 or 21, they'd canceled the race. we'd dropped our pace considerably and i was pretty focused on just finishing - the Did Not Finish mark is something we runners fear. with the decision made that the race was canceled and volunteers/police demanding we walk or rest, most people began walking, realizing their times wouldn't be official and started finding shortcuts back to the finish, or simply collapsing. at that point the medical tents were packed (we stopped to ask for salt tablets to combat cramps and all they had to offer was some leftover energy gel from runners who'd been ambulanced away - ridiculous).

i'm not exaggerating when i say it looked like some sort of strange skinny-people apocalypse. everyone was trudging dejectedly, water jugs were laying everywhere, fire hydrants were spraying water across the street and the cops were making announcements from their loudspeakers. ambulances were streaming by. helicopters telling people to stop running.

the good news was, at about that point our group came together randomly. it was a stroke of serendipity and the emotions were high as we all listened to each other's stories from the past few hours. cramps, more vomiting, injury, no energy, physical and mental letdown. you train for months. you change your eating and social habits. you do everything right. and for something out of your control to prohibit the realization of a goal is very hard to take.

we made it across the line, running the last 300 yards, hand in hand. to say it was anticlimactic is an understatement. normally, when i hit mile 24 or so of a marathon, i'm filled with energy, butterflies and an amazing feeling of accomplishment. yesterday, i just wanted to cross the line because it was that much closer to my hotel. i wanted it to be over.

it was, hands down, the worst athletic experience of my life. and easily one of the most frustrating experiences i've had overall.

so what happened? here's my take, for what it's worth.

the start time was 8, which, is just stupid. especially when the marathon was moved up two weeks from it's usual later Oct. date. and when race organizers knew this would be uncommonly hot, steps could have been taken to start earlier.

multiple people who were miles behind me from the get go, have said their water stations just flat ran out. two people i heard from today said they didn't have ANY water for miles at a time. that's inexcusable. they should have doubled the amount of stations ahead of time - especially in the final miles. we were lucky that we had run fast enough to be far enough along to avoid being bused back or diverted.

i'm not buying the race organizers' excuse that they weren't prepared for people to take three or four cups of liquid and then dump more on their heads. it's a marathon. people are going to go to any measure to stay healthy. you expect it and address it, not return the blame to the people who are just trying to get one foot in front of the other.

Sprint was a presenting sponsor. they failed to take advantage of a huge opportunity and marathon organizers failed to include this sponsor in a contingency plan. their presence at the finish line allowed people to make free phone calls (this happens a lot at marathons, and normally these free calls are used by runners to find family members). at the minute the race was canceled, those Sprint folks should have mobilized their hired help and headed to the last miles to offer free calls then. that's when people needed rides and simply needed to tell people that they were safe and would be walking it in. bottom line, they could have gained some major points and been a truly beneficial part of the race with some forward thinking.

according to many of our spectators, the marathon organizers' communication to them was just plain poor. before they canceled the race, they announced that it would turn into a fun run...whatever that means. to me, it means they had no idea how to implement a contingency plan and needed filler. to say our families were worried about us is an understatement. there was not clear direction to where bused-in runners would be dropped off.

the sad thing is, the marathon will suffer for this. marathons thrive on word of mouth. heck, i'm going to freakin' Dallas TX to run a marathon this winter only because friends love it and have extolled its organization. people talk. you go back because you had a good experience. and now the chicago marathon will have to compete with runners spreading negative stories and spectators reacting negatively to their legitimate fears and in-the-dark experience.

the most positive thing the chicago marathon has going for it right now is that it's in chicago. where the neighborhoods come alive and the citizens come out of the woodwork to support the runners. the quote in the above article says it all: "The city was fabulous, but the race was horrible."

i can't tell you the amount of goodwill i saw. people going into their homes to get water bottles. people buying bags of ice and handing it out. the community - all the neighborhoods that come alive - really provided a crucial role in the runners' health.

kudos to the volunteers who also bared the heat, and the demand that they surely didn't expect to address. kudos to the city of chicago for staying out till the end and cheering us on. kudos to the always-festive crowd in Pilsen, which provided more hoses and buckets of sink water than i knew existed. kudos to the spectators who jumped into the water stops to help and ran to assist sick runners.

it was a brilliant show of humanity, and i was blessed to witness that.

my heart goes out to the man who died. it makes me sick to think about this. and i hope that those who were ill or overextended are getting better today.

i also couldn't ask for a better crew of running buddies, especially my dad, who stuck by my side mile by mile as i was losing my proverbial lunch and being too stubborn to stop running. we all stuck together as we had very little left to give, and most importantly, reached our goal as a group.

here's to a better run in Dallas. here's to the people of chicago. here's to my friends and family who showed up to cheer and waited for us to finish.

to end on a much brighter note, my good friends kevin and allison got engaged at buckingham fountain after the race. congrats to this great couple! talk about turning lemons into lemonade...speaking of lemonade...that sounds pretty good right now.


Blogger Garrett said...

Thats crazy.
Your personal experience and everything you saw. It sounds like things were terribly planned.

Glad to hear you and your group finished safely.

However, very sad news about the genteleman that passed away.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Congrats on finishing at all and I'm glad you all are OK. It hurts me to see my city in such a negative story, but as you know, the citizens and public officers did everything they could to help. It's really a sad day in Chicago. The event organizers made some mistakes. Ultimately, the event is just too big. We're all so proud of the marathon, and it's a painful time for non-runners, too.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous toby said...

Blech! Sorry for such a miserable experience, Andy. It's only up from here?

9:11 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

Duder: You totally hit the nail on the head with this..... what a nightmare. The fact that the only sounds I heard from mile 13 on were ambulance sirens was a total mind-flark. But, I finished as well...unfortunately, at this point in my running life, 'just finishing' just doesn't cut it. Utter disappointment.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Esue said...

What a letdown! Glad everyone made it through from your crew. Running the half in Wilmington next ought to come out to the Southeast sometime for a run!

7:10 PM  

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