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Saturday, October 13, 2007
Chicago Marathon's Meltdown

Frank Shorter, the 1972 gold medalist and the 1976 silver medalist in the Olympic men's marathon, knows a thing or two about running races. His recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, reflecting on the meltdown of the Chicago Marathon, discusses the dangers of extreme heat in long distance races and proposes some interesting solutions to prevent injury stemming from extreme heat and humidity during the 26.2 mile race.

The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon (this may be one case where the lead sponsor does not want its name used) takes place every October, usually a time of temperate autumn weather in the Windy City. However, this year's race occurred on a day of record-breaking temperatures and high humidity. One person died, and dozens were hospitalized. The race organizers stopped the race after four hours, angering a number of runners. Others complained of lack of adequate water supplies, due to the fact that many were using the water for dousing, instead of drinking.

As Shorter notes, such conditions impact slower runners most because they are on the course the longest. As a veteran of the New York Marathon and an admittedly slow recreational runner, I can attest that five hours on a marathon course is an awfully long time. But even shorter races can pose dangers. My worst race weather-wise, believe it or not, was a lowly 5K about 10 years ago run in such conditions in New Jersey Meadowlands (forget the name: this is basically a swamp) where I felt I the onset of disorientation after mile two. It's an agonizing feeling. (The race ended in the air conditioned Continental Arena, where I was able to recover.)

Among Shorter's solutions are to install more misters and showers the aid stations, recommending salt packets for runners and for them to strip down as much as possible (men being topless and women wearing as little as possible. The latter advice is geared toward the runners and that made me think of the idea of what duties does the race organization have to warn runners of potential perils?

Obviously, every entrant signs a waiver of liability, which essentially says that they assume the risk of harm and cannot sue the race organization, sponsors or the city for negligence. Although I could not the waiver for the Chicago race, the one from Hartford's Marathon is typical. The runner warrants he/she is trained and able to race/walk and he/she assumes all risk of harm from, among other things, heat and humidity. They are a virtual bar to a lawsuit as these agreement constitute express assumptions of risk. But part of such agreements should be a duty to warn.

And that is what bothers me. With so many first-timers running Marathons (and Chicago is a particularly good one because it is a flat course), one wonders if more specific recommendations should be stated and whether the failure to warn or give basic advice could possibly open a small window of liability that overrides the waiver.

I checked the web site of the Chicago Marathon and found that it had no such tips for runners. Maybe it would be a good idea to have a "tips/precautions/strategies" page, which outlines safety advice, from pacing, eating/drinking, how to identify symptoms of the beginnings of a heat stroke, where to get help, what to carry. Even for experienced runners from other areas, this information could be useful. Announcing any warnings on race day is fine idea and one that may have been done, but these warnings may be hard to discern with tens of thousands of runners milling about in the pre-race corrals.

Much of my pre-marathon advice came came from other runners and from coaches. When marathons were run by the few experienced and savvy runners, that was fine. But with so many novices around, such information could only help in preparation and may prevent some injuries, especially in adverse conditions like those found at this race.

On the positive side, I think the organizers did the right thing in stopping the race. They avoided more injury and acted with good judgment.


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