Marathoners flat-out love to run.
They run in the midnight sun in Norway, at the North Pole, across Antarctica and on the permanent ice cap of Greenland. They're only too happy to dodge lightning bolts, flash floods or packs of snapping dogs if that's what it takes to complete the 26.2-mile race.
So when organizers of the Chicago Marathon began directing runners off the course shortly before noon Oct. 7, a collective gasp went through the running community.
Cancellations and closures are incredibly rare even for smaller marathons -- and for the major marathons, they are unheard of, says Ryan Lamppa, a researcher for the last 15 years for Running USA, a nonprofit national organization that promotes running.
Nobody wants to shut down a marathon. But organizers have to be ready if they need to.
"Canceling the race is something we don't want to think about," says Marc Chalufour, communications manager for the Boston Athletic Assn., which manages the Boston Marathon. "The repercussions are many." Sponsors, organizers, vendors and even the runners are all heavily invested in the event, which may have been scheduled to be televised. There is potential loss to the event's image, costing future sponsors.
The Chicago Marathon was shut down by executive director Carey Pinkowski as more than 300 runners were stricken by heat, which by 2:30 p.m. topped 85 degrees (with more than 85% humidity) -- a record for that race. One runner, Chad Schieber, 35, of Midland, Mich., who was later determined to have had a heart condition, died shortly after the race. The organizers declined to comment on the events leading up to the cancellation decision.
Hellish weather of a different kind assaulted the more than 20,000 runners six months ago at the Boston Marathon as weather forecasts hinted at gale force winds and temperatures in the 30s, and marathon officials scrambled to anticipate the effects of harsh wind and freezing rain.
At the 38th running of the New York City marathon Nov. 4, organizers are expecting nearly 40,000 runners and planning for just about anything, including fluke weather.
For the most part, marathon organizers think in terms of managing potential problems, not canceling a race -- but they do prepare for that contingency.
A web of services
Putting on a marathon is an enormous operation for a large, metropolitan area, involving a web of organizers, police, fire, emergency medical services, transportation, sanitation and parks and recreation departments, among others, who send staff to observe the event for potential problems.
Representatives of city and county agencies will often be stationed at a central command post, where they consult with organizers throughout the race.
Major marathons have liquids stations about every mile as well as more than half a dozen medical aid stations along the way and at the finish line. Volunteers and medical personnel stationed at these sites are in constant contact, via radio and cellphone, with the medical director and others to report problems.
"Most of the big races will have radio communication and documentation of the type of illnesses that are being seen," says Dr. Brian Krabak, a sports medicine physician at the University of Washington and Children's Hospital in Seattle, who has served as medical director for marathons and ultramarathons nationally and throughout the world.
"There will be a coordination of services so if someone is pretty sick and needs to go to the emergency room, they'll be taken away by ambulance. All of this is being communicated to the head medical director," he says.
There may even be emergency medical technicians roaming the course, Krabak adds, "so you are always dynamically testing what's going on. It's a big communication system."
At large races, the marathon team will have spent months planning the race and anticipating the needs of the runners. In the final weeks before the race, they look to the sky and say a prayer.
In the case of the Boston Marathon, the initial reports were grim. "About two weeks out we started to get long-term forecasts of a gale blowing in, heavy rains, near-freezing temperatures," Chalufour says.
Race officials had to anticipate the effect of freezing weather not only on the runners, but also on the 5,000 volunteers, who wouldn't have the benefit of running to stay warm, and on the race infrastructure, which could be blown away.
Their preparations included e-mail updates to all entrants on the potential weather conditions and information about hypothermia.
"What it came down to is, as late as 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. [on the day of the event], there were heavy, heavy winds, but then it died down," Chalufour says. "By the time people were showing up, it was dreary but not unsafe."