Thursday, October 11, 2007

2007 LaSalle Bank Chicago Clusterf*ck: The Aftermath

I am sorry.

I apologize, to all the runners who finished behind me or who couldn't finish because I am a reckless, fat amateur who hogged all the water and Gatorade. I apologize to all the runners who collapsed in the heat, all the emergency workers who had to respond to the crisis, and now I'm apologizing to anyone who will listen.

Why? Because I am one of the 35,000 non-professional athletes who ran in Sunday's Chicago Marathon, and as I've discovered in the past few days everything that went wrong is the fault of the runners, and I'm all about taking responsibility. So, once again, mea culpa.

Just ask Chicago Tribune writer Mike Downey, who laid it all out in his October 9th editorial, Nobody forced anyone to run:

"...And don't blame sponsor LaSalle Bank if you were weak from thirst and couldn't get enough to drink.

You've got nobody to blame but yourselves.

If you are foolhardy enough to run a marathon when the temperature outdoors is up to 88 degrees, then it is your fault, no one else's.

Nearly 10,000 of the people who filed entries for this 30th annual race were smart enough not to run it.

It is as idiotic to run more than 26 miles in a brutal and potentially lethal heat as it is to play golf in a thunderstorm."

He goes on from there, but you get the idea. His opinions have been echoed by numerous sports radio personalities and callers over the past few days, and in the comments posted after the online versions of several articles about the race. There's been plenty of talk about "personal responsibility" and descriptions of runners as whiners who are unhappy that things didn't turn out the way they wanted. I've heard plenty of "what kind of an IDIOT runs when it's 90 degrees out?!" statements, many of them coming from Superfans in between mouthfuls of Cheetos and Lite beer.

What a bunch of bullshit.

Every runner in that race paid a $110 registration fee. That's $4.95 million in entry fees alone. When you pay $110 to participate in an event you have a reasonable expectation of getting more than a $5 commemorative tee shirt. You are paying for support during the race, things like readily available fluids along the route. To me the central issue was not whether or not the race should have been canceled, or when. I just want to see an honest assessment of what went wrong (and what went well) on race day, and I'm not seeing it.


Marathon running has exploded in popularity in the past decade. The Chicago Marathon has gone from 25,000 runners registered in 1999 to 45,000 runners registered in 2007. Every year the registration fills earlier; this year entry was closed in mid-April, except for elite runners and people running for charity. The early registration deadline puts many runners in the position of shelling out money and committing to race months before they even know if they'll be in shape to do so. And, of course, those fees are non-refundable. Much was made by people like Mike Downey of the fact that 10,000 runners didn't show up on race day, but it's typical for there to be thousands of no-shows in a given year.

Marathons have gone from obscure endurance races for handfuls of scrawny athletes to major events and revenue generators. According to the Associated Press, the Boston Marathon generates $50 million in revenues; the Chicago Marathon injects $20 million into the local economy. Some articles, like this one in the Chicago Sun-Times, question whether the Chicago Marathon has gotten too big.

You won't hear anything about the race being too big from city government, or from the organizers, beyond typical spokesman statements like this one from Chicago Marathon spokesman Shawn Platt:
Mayor Daley weighed in, defending the race organization:
According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, by the time Mayor Daley was making the above statement, race organizers said they had already finished their investigation:
"After polling their 15 aid-station captains, race officials stood by their claim there were enough fluids, despite widespread complaints from runners who said they went without in the record-setting heat."Yes, we struggled at times to meet demand, but we distributed throughout the day," race spokeswoman Marianne Caponi said. "Obviously there are runners who went through aid stations and didn't get fluids. I can't really comment on the difference."

... As Daley tried to tamp down any impact on Chicago's Olympic bid, race organizers said no major changes are planned for future races, although they'll always "dissect [a race] and look at ways to improve," Caponi said.Organizers consider their investigation into Sunday's race closed, she said."

At first this really stunned me. I might have expected a sportswriter or talk show callers to blame the runners, but I was suprised to hear the mayor defending the race organizers just 2 days after the event, and I was especially surprised to hear the race organizers announce that they'd already finished their "investigation."

A few months ago I took a class on media relations from former Chicago reporter Rick Rosenthal. One of the things Rosenthal talked about was how a public official should respond to an ugly news situation--one that might result in embarrassment or worse for your organization. He said that, as soon as possible, a responsible representative from the agency should go on camera and give a statement expressing concern over the incident, a committment to finding out exactly what happened, and a determination to correct any problem that's uncovered. Pretty simple stuff.

So, why didn't we see concern, committment or determination to fix the problem expressed by anyone representing the Chicago Marathon?

When a city receives tens of millions of dollars in revenue from a major event there's not going to be any incentive in city government to make anyone running that event look bad. When people running an event have done so successfully, and to great acclaim, for several years, it's understandable that they might respond with disbelief or defensiveness when confronted over an incident like last Sunday's race. And then, when issues of corporate sponsorship, marketing, profit and personal reputation are all mixed together, you get the tone-deaf, apparently arrogant response that we've seen in the past few days.

The Chicago Marathon was to some degree the victim of its own success and marketing this past weekend:
  • The race is aggressively marketed throughout the running community as a good venue for first-time marathoners.
  • Charities such as the leukemia "Team In Training" promote their training programs as fundraisers, and encourage thousands of novice runners to enter the Chicago marathon for such fundraising. The amount of money raised for charities went from $2,950,000 in 2002 to a reported $9,500,000 in 2006.
  • Chicago has become one of the top 5 marathons in the world, and the race directors know how much money is generated by the event and have no incentive to limit participation.

  • City officials, corporate boards and civic boosters know how much money is brought into the local economy, and have no incentive to tell race organizers to limit participation.

Picture a city of 35,000 people on a given day. Odds are someone is going to die. Now picture a city of 35,000 people running in 88 degree heat. The fact is that as more runners participate in an event like this the chances of something going wrong increase, and it's harder to adapt and respond to situations like Sunday's with 35,000 runners than it would have been with 20,000.

Another thing I've seen since 1999 is, for lack of a better description, a lack of respect for the event from many runners. I saw an attitude manifested Sunday by many runners that I think is the result of a mentality that says "hey, I paid my $110 fee, I can do whatever the f*ck I want." I've seen way more walkers clogging the route by lining up ahead of runners, I've seen more runners wearing headphones barreling along, oblivious to their surroundings, and Sunday I saw large numbers of runners yakking on cell phones WHILE THEY WERE ON THE COURSE. Yes, more than once I saw a runner take out a cell phone, abruptly stop running, and start walking in the middle of the street while chatting. Hilarity did not ensue as other runners were forced to stop short or swing around them.

I've also seen a blurring of lines among spectators, volunteers and runners on the course. As the race has taken on a more festival-like atmosphere, many, many people seem to take it less seriously. (Hypocrisy alert here--I'm running my next marathon in an Elvis costume.) I had to stop short or change direction multiple times because of bystanders cutting across the course as hundreds of runners went by. This is inexcusable. At times it was difficult to tell if people on the side of the street near water stops were volunteers, spectators or gawkers.

Running is not for everyone, and I think everyone who participates in a long distance event is well aware of the chances we take. No matter what condition you're in, or what weather you have, it might just be "your time". I don't think anyone involved in planning the Chicago event was incompetent, and certainly no one in the city administration. There were contingency plans, there were extra fluids put out (although whether they made it to the right place is another matter) and, in much the same way that an otherwise fit runner can drop dead, sometimes events spiral out of control through no fault of any individual actor.

I just wish I'd heard anyone from the Chicago Marathon organization acknowledge this.


kirby said...

Is that Mike Downey the same asshat who used to cover sports out here in the Los Angeles area? Because that would explain a lot.

Bubs said...

Hey, I just looked up his bio on the Tribune website, and yes, yes it is. Tell me a couple asshat stories about him, if any come to mind.

Splotchy said...

Dammit Bubs, why don't *you* write a story for the Trib?!!

That was another wonderful post.

kirby said...

No stories in particular, it's just that I remember being spectacularly unimpressed with his writing.

Dino aka Katy said...

i wonder if any of those "commenters" ever participated in an event like this themselves.

Coaster Punchman said...

I agree - you should send this in as an Op-Ed piece.

Johnny Yen said...

Mike Downey is obviously a dickbag.