Re: Re: Reflections on the Chicago Marathon

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More, from Philip Hersh in the Tribune:

A saner, safer race
Smaller field would avert big problems

Philip Hersh | On Olympic Sports
    October 9, 2007

Sunday morning, I rode a bicycle with some friends to the 11-kilometer mark of the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon to cheer members of our cycling group who were running. We arrived at the same time as the lead women, whose pace was just under 6 minutes per mile, and we stayed long enough to see the 15-minutes-per-mile people.

There was a dramatic change in the morphology of the runners as time passed. Nearly all those running from a 6- to 8-minute pace had bodies that suggested distance running — lean and average height. The slower the runners, the larger they were, the more obvious it was many should have chosen not to start in Sunday's extreme conditions — or ever.

Although they had finished barely one-fourth of the race, thousands of the 45,000 entrants clearly were struggling.

Many of the slowest are among those lured by the new mantra of marathon organizers, that the idea is not to run a marathon but simply to cover 26.2 miles, no matter how — or how long it takes.

I decried that philosophy in a column after the 2001 Chicago race, suggesting qualifying standards were needed to “shrink a field (then 37,500) that seems to be stretching medical and other support services.”

Those services were stretched past the breaking point Sunday. Race officials had no choice but to stop the race for those who had not reached the halfway point in 3 1/2 hours, because most people in that group lacked the experience to make the choice on their own.

“What you had Sunday in Chicago was a recipe for disaster,” said David Martin, an exercise physiologist with such expertise in this area he is known as “Doctor Heat.”

“You need to communicate as much as you can that if you are marginally fit, don't run. For all but the elite runners, this is a participating event, not an insisting event.”

Chicago Marathon organizers had a news conference Saturday to warn entrants of the hazards they could face and offer wide-ranging advice that included: “Wear light clothing.”

How critical is clothing? Two-time Chicago champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya said “I wish I could have run naked” after wearing a small singlet and shorts while winning this year's world championship marathon in 90-degree heat with 60 percent humidity. Yet I saw people Sunday running in tights and long-sleeved shirts.

People dressed that way, among others, clearly would be challenged to cool their race-day adrenaline and make a rational judgment about the dangers of continuing an event with a liability waiver that says it “involves rigorous physical activity and … potentially may be hazardous.”

At the other end of the preparedness scale was Renaud Longuevre, 36, of France.

Longuevre, coach of 2005 world champion hurdler Ladji Doucoure and author of a weekly fitness column in a French sports magazine, had run two previous marathons, with a personal best of 3:55.

Sunday, he filled six bottles with a mixture of grape juice (simple sugars for energy), water (basic hydration) and salt (crucial body salts are lost through perspiration). His wife, Celine, a first-time visitor to Chicago, studied a course map to plan where she could give her husband the bottles and rented a bicycle to get there.

The plan worked perfectly. Renaud Longuevre realigned his goal from 3:45 to four hours, found his wife at every planned fluid drop-off point and finished in 3:59:50, complaining only of leg soreness all marathoners experience.

The debate over whether Sunday's marathon had enough fluids for runners less prepared than Longuevre likely will not yield a definitive result. (For a fascinating panoply of opinions, read the responses to Eric Zorn's blog at ).

“I don't think anyone in the world would imagine a scenario like what happened in Chicago,” Martin said. “It was a one-time set of factors — heat, lack of cloud cover, humidity. You don't have a contingency plan for that, except what they did in stopping the race.

“You buy paper cups for 45,000 people, but you need cups for 130,000 because people were drinking from one cup and pouring two over their heads.”

To me, the answer is simple: Reduce the field with qualifying standards, which should mean fitter runners and fewer people to help in extreme weather.

To the organizers, the revenue from a $110 entry fee is too tempting (Chicago took in nearly $1 million from 9,000 entrants who did not start). But a smaller field should mean smaller expenses.

And, perhaps, smaller runners.

A marathon is not for everybody. It is well past the time for race organizers and many would-be participants to realize that. Both sides are equally guilty of impaired judgment.

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