Monday, April 16, 2012

boston marathon 2012: race organizers with a conscience

i was following the news of this year's Boston Marathon 2012 and felt motivated to write up a post about something that struck me about the race. it wasn't the extreme conditions of the race, but rather how the race organizers responded to it.

the conditions, based on news reports, were brutal. apparently, race day fulfilled forecasts, with temperatures rising to 88-89 degrees F.  factoring in the lack of clouds and bright sunlight, this drove on-course temperatures close to 100 degrees F, with the asphalt working to absorb sunlight and become a radiative source of heat (much the same way on-field temperatures for a football/soccer/baseball game are always higher than in the spectator stands). it was bad enough that even the professionals were affected, with winning times well off the times from last year even though this is an Olympic year that has been marked with athletes running exceptionally fast in other venues prior to this one.

i've done races under those conditions, and they're not fun. i have total sympathy for everyone--athletes, support staff, and spectators--involved, and my respect goes to them all. you can get a feel for the conditions from the following selection of articles:
what caught my attention, however, was how race organizers dealt with these conditions.  they did so in a way that i find highly commendable, and which stands in stark contrast to some experiences i've had at other races (running and triathlon) with similar extreme conditions.  i think race organizers at other venues and in other sports could learn a lot from the people who maintain the Boston Marathon.

you can get an idea of how the operators of the Boston Marathon dealt with the forecast course conditions from the following (i've included the text of the last one at the end of this post):
 i'll summarize the strategies that are presented in these articles:
  • race organizers advised competitors, staff, and spectators about the expected extreme conditions, with recommendations on what to do and what options were available to cope
  • race organizers extended the cut-off time of the race by 1 hour to allow competitors to run at a safer pace  
  • race organizers ensured there was extra fluids and race volunteers at all aid stations
  • race organizers increased the number of prepared medical staff and medical equipment available, both on the course and at area hospitals and clinics
  • race organizers provided competitors the opportunity to defer from this year's race to next year
i want to commend the race organizers for taking these actions. they're all sensible strategies to increase the likelihood that Boston Marathon was going to be 1) rewarding (if not enjoyable under the conditions) and 2) safe (at least more so than otherwise).

these actions may seem common sense and obvious to some, but i and many others can tell you from personal experience that they're not. i've undergone some less-than-memorable and outright dangerous situations at a number of races that i shall not name (not out of courtesy, but because of utter disgust).

specifically, i've had running and triathlon races that did none of the above things--races involving even more extreme conditions (race day temperatures above 100 degrees F, or desert sandstorms, or arctic storms from Alaska) where the race organizers continued to hold the races with no alerts or announcements to competitors, staff, or spectators; maintained the same cut-off times; did not provide additional fluids or volunteers (there have been 2 races where the aid stations actually ran out of fluids and volunteers left--that was the one where temps were >100 degrees F, and it was in the know who you are); did not adjust medical aid (one race in particular in a winter storm with drenching rain and high winds with a finish-line medical tent that was a canopy with no walls and the doctors just told competitors that there were no blankets or heat and that there was nothing they could do--in the end all they did was call 911 as competitors began showing up with hypothermia...again, you know who you are).

and of course, the ultimate indignity and insult was that almost every race i've been in has refused to allow deferments, even though they knew in advance that there would be extreme course conditions. based on some of the race reports i've read, this particular issue seems to be a chronic feature of Ironman races. one report i read said that a particular Ironman at a particular Western U.S. state actually issued a dare, and told him and other competitors that if they had qualms about a forecast of a winter storm warning of snow, ice, and wind (!!!) on race day and requested a deferment that they didn't deserve to be Ironman competitors and that it was their own fault they couldn't deal with a winter storm.

to me, this particular kind of attitude is dangerous. i remind everyone of just how far this attitude can go: Ironman Utah, where 1 person actually died.

i find this type of attitude highly problematic for several reasons: 1) it's an insult to people who've committed themselves to change their lives and gone through the training that it entails; 2) it operates as an exclusionary device when the purpose of sport should be inclusionary; 3) it's arrogant and obnoxious; 4) makes sports about life-and-death, when it's supposed to be about achievement and personal fulfillment (people sign up to race for the latter, not the former...seriously: war is life-and-death, but sport is not war); and 5) to anyone with any level of street-smarts, this really sounds like a diversionary tactic to disguise an effort  to keep race monies and not have to worry about competitors--in other words: steal people's money.

i can understand that races involve a lot of intensive preparation and organization, and that race organizers in exchange need to ensure that competitors provide the same level of commitment that is being put into holding a race. but it seems like there's a few race organizers at some events who are taking advantage of this to prejudice things towards some unethical ends. they seem to think having people fill out liability waivers absolves them of any sense of right and wrong or concepts of negligence and diligence.

in contrast, the folks at the Boston Marathon seem to be doing things with some sense of fairness and decency.  and they're proving it's possible to provide competitors some allowances to deal with extreme conditions. i, for one, am a HUGE fan of the idea of a deferment (as well as aid stations that actually provide aid).

it's laudable for them to have--and follow--a conscience. and i want to provide this post to direct credit to them for it...and to direct other race organizers to do something similar with their own events. 

Hot Temps Force Boston Marathoners to Take It Slow

Boston (AP) - There are races to run fast, and there are races just to finish. With temperatures hitting the 80s, Monday's Boston Marathon was the latter.

Nearly 22,500 participants braved unseasonably balmy conditions at the 116th running of the storied 26.2 mile race. Organizers stocked extra water and pleaded with runners to slow their pace to avoid heat stroke. Some 4,300 participants registered to run opted to sit out.

"It was brutal, just brutally hot,'' said 38-year-old runner Jason Warick of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who took an ice bath before the race to cool his body. "Around 15 miles the wheels just came off. Then it was just about getting home.''

Organizers said that as of Monday evening, just under 2,000 participants had received some level of medical attention, and about 120 were taken to hospitals in ambulances. One person was taken from the course in serious condition in Wellesley, though the details of their condition were unavailable Monday.

Medical volunteers scanned the finish line for runners displaying signs of heat stroke, assisting those in need to nearby medical tents. By mid-afternoon, dozens of wheelchairs carrying pale and weakened runners stretched outside the tents.

"I've never seen anything like (that),'' said 35-year-old Desiree Ficker of Austin, Texas, who used salt supplements during the race to stay moving. "It was really hard seeing the confusion on people's faces.''

Organizers said careful preparation and responsible runners prevented more serious problems on what was one of the hottest marathons in Boston history.

Heat was also a problem in the 2004 marathon, when 2,041 of the 18,002 participants who started the race sought medical attention. That's a higher percentage than any year in memory, according to organizers.
"This was the day we were preparing for,'' said Thomas Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association. "The god of marathoning, she smiled on us.''

Temperatures prompted 30 additional physicians to volunteer at the last minute. Race organizers and volunteers pleaded with runners to put their safety ahead of their competitive drive.

"Today is not the day to run a personal best,'' said Garth Savidge, rehab supervisor at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, who was helping runners before the race. "Everybody is being a little extra cautious.''

Organizers said the highest temperature recorded Monday during the marathon was 89 degrees in Framingham at 12:30 p.m.

Registered runners who decided not to run because of the heat will be given an opportunity to run in next year's race.

Susie Eisenberg-Argo said she never considered skipping her ninth consecutive Boston Marathon. The 50-year-old Sugarland, Texas resident said before the marathon that she would force herself to slow down instead - and make sure she stopped for water along the way.

"It's a challenge to back off and say, `I'm just going to take it a little more slowly,''' she said. "Most of the people here know what they're doing.''

Matt Manning finished the race in 2 hours and 34 minutes - a full 10 minutes slower than his pace last year. He said the heat set in after the first several miles.

"It was direct sun the whole way,'' said the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., man. "I was hanging around through 10K or so, then I started to slow down.... I may move to Alaska or something to get away from the heat.''

The famously welcoming crowds that line up to watch the marathon did their best to help out the athletes, cheering them on even as they themselves sweated through an unseasonably warm April day.

June Ramlett, 83, has been watching the marathon since she was a little girl. The Hopkinton, Mass. woman made sure to have a good vantage point for the starting line. She drank from a plastic jug of water to stay cool.

"It's really something to see,'' Ramlett said as thousands of runners hit their stride. "I've watching it for years and it's still very special.''

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