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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Volunteering at the Chicago Marathon

While mother nature was setting records with temperatures soaring into the mid-90's and the humidity levels equaling that, almost 10,000 runners (wisely?) failed to show up to what proved to be a horrendous Chicago Marathon. It became so bad that race officials eventually canceled the race rerouting people at the half-marathon mark back towards the finish area. According to the Chicago Tribune 1 person died (they are still determining cause of death), and 315 runners were removed by ambulance. Twenty-five people remained hospitalized this morning with 9 still in critical condition.

Let me share about volunteering then I'll comment about the rest of the experience.


This was my first experience of any kind at a major marathon or any marathon for that matter. I was staying in Chicago with a friend out in the suburbs. Each year his high school cross country team travels in to the race and volunteers (the school gets some $$ for helping). We met at the school at 5am and drove in and helped at Aid Station #2 which was at the 5K mark.

We received instructions and information from our Aid Station Captain and began setting things up. At this point the roads weren't closed so we were dodging early morning traffic and setting up our 8' tables.

The entire aid station consisted of 13 Gatorade tables and 16 Water tables, it also included a medical station, and port-a-potties. I was at the 5th or 6th table on the right hand side of the road passing out Gatorade. We were told that each table had approximately 1,000 cups and that due to the heat they were adding an additional 10,000 cups per aid station over last year. We were also told that we were not to refill our tables, but once empty to tear them down (I guess it is too chaotic to try and refill the tables).

It was great to watch the caravan of vehicles, the wheelchair athletes, the elite runners, and then everyone else come through. The wheelchair athletes didn't want anything from us and the elite athletes have their own bottles setup before the aid station so they didn't either. But once the first runners started coming through it was complete chaos and craziness for about 30 minutes.

Being at the 5K mark is great because all the athletes are through the aid stations in just over an hour, since they aren't spread out too much. Our table ran out of Gatorade within the first half hour, with the aid station slowly running out of everything within the next 10 minutes or so. This left quite a number of athletes without any hydration available out our stop. At some point some volunteers went to the BP on the corner and purchased a ton of water bottles and started handing them out.

According to the Chicago Tribune

"The water stations were really depleted," said Nestor Benanidez, 40, of Maryland. "As much as they might have planned, it wasn't enough."
Erin Johnson, 24, of Kansas City, Mo., said the first several water stations "were out or really low" and that she ran with her wax cup because competition for fluids was so fierce.

"You're running thinking, 'Oh my God, I really need this water to get through this,' " she said.

But race officials said they found no such problems. Each of the aid stations was outfitted with 50,000 to 70,000 servings of water and 37,000 servings of Gatorade, said Shawn Platt, a senior vice president of LaSalle Bank.

As the runners went from packs to small groups to individual runners again, we started tearing down the aid station and had it completely torn down, streets swept, and ready to be opened to traffic within 30 minutes. The marathon had a crew that followed behind the last runners tearing the entire course down as they traveled. The efficiency of the entire operation was amazing.

I really enjoyed volunteering, most of the runners were very thankful and appreciative of our work and told us so. It was an honor to serve people who were laying it out on the line. I understand those who didn't get any hydration who were quite upset and swore at us. I know it wasn't personal and I'd be very upset too. You are important and I would have given you water if I could.

I would definitely volunteer at another marathon.


Knowing that most of the second half of the marathon runners didn't get water at our stop and probably wouldn't at much of the stops coming up I knew it was NOT going to be a good experience for many of them. But who would have realized the race would be canceled. The group I volunteered with went back to the 'burbs, but I wanted to stay and watch the marathon and cheer on local runner, Brian Rayl. So I made my way towards the finishing area and saw fourth place female Liz Yelling of Great Britain finish and others around her at the 2:40ish mark. At this point there weren't crushing crowds so I wandered around and ended up at the 25.80 mark at the corner of Michigan & Roosevelt (the next to last turn in the course, at this turn you go up the bridge before turning for the finish straight).

This was a great place to watch the race and enjoy being part of the crowd. It was great to see the athletes respond to the cheering of the crowd. Several runners stopped to stretch or take care of cramps and the crowd would cheer for them and reach fever pitch when they decided to run again.

At this vantage point I saw one guy staggering and luckily a fellow runner grabbed him before he went down. But the runner had to hold him for at least a minute before the police officer standing at the corner walked over and grabbed him so the "hero runner" could continue. They then laid him down and got the medical personnel there. They proceeded to take him by wheelchair to the medical tent. Shortly after that someone else went down. This individual was eventually taken away by ambulance.

Around the 3:50 mark Police Officers gathered at the corner and started telling the athletes that the marathon was canceled and they should walk the remainder of the race. First, I was a little surprised the race had been canceled, but they kept doing it, become a little over-zealous almost trying to forcing the runners to stop. I couldn't believe with less than a half-mile to go they were trying to get them to stop. It didn't make any sense. I realize that they didn't want anyone else getting hurt, but at that point, LET THEM FINISH!

The event website later read:

Attention Participants and Spectators:

Due to the rising heat index and higher than expected temperatures, LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski and Medical Director Dr. George Chiampas, in cooperation with city officials, have implemented a contingency plan, as a precautionary measure, to effectively close the Marathon course at the halfway point. Runners who have not reached the halfway point by approximately 11:30 a.m. will be diverted back to Grant Park via Halsted and Jackson. Jackson will be closed to automobile traffic and the participants will be provided with additional support along this route. Participants who crossed the halfway point prior to the shut-down will continue to be fully supported along the standard course to the finish line. Participants are asked to take advantage of medical personnel, cooling buses, runner drop out buses, water, Gatorade and other means of support en route back to Grant Park.

My wife came into Chicago and met me at the 25.80 mile mark. After watching for a while and realizing what was happening we took off and headed back to the Reuniting/Finish Area. We managed to make it through the crushing, hot, and sweaty crowds. We had to cross the path of the now diverted runners to make it to Buckingham Fountain's recovery area. I'm happy to say we found Brian and his wife and he was doing fine given the circumstances.

I say a hearty congratulations to everyone who started the race and gave it everything they had. I know it is very disappointing to those who weren't allowed to finish or who were forced to walk if they didn't want to, but congratulations on your attempt and best of luck if you decide to try another one.

Results here. It looks like anyone who crossed the finish line has results, but there are no rankings.


UPDATED: Death was not related to heat. So that is good news. The same article continues with the race director's saying there was plenty of water available, but that we (volunteers) didn't refill aid stations "fast enough." We were told not to refill and that water is usually wasted at the end of the event.

Cross-posted at Run Central Indiana.

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1 comment:

iJuls said...

Hello Young Man, thank you for volunteering - you are awesome. The race would not be able to happen without people like you.