Our 2007 Chicago Marathon E X P E R I E N C E.........a marathon gone wrong !
We thought it sounded like a pretty good idea, last winter that is, when 3 of us, Tim Franks who is originally from the Chicago area and still has family there, and Ken Wellner from Kennewick, a fellow triathlete/runner, decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon on October 7,2007. Tim even convinced his brother in Chicago, Barry, along with 2 of Barry's friends to commit to the challenge. We all embarked on Hal Higdon's 16 week intermediate training program, or as close to it as we all could considering our busy life schedules and minor injuries from aging body parts !! Most of our training runs were before the sun even came up with temperatures in the 50's and low 60's, which we thought was ideal considering the average temps for this marathon were in the low to high 50's.
Our plan was to arrive in Chicago 3 days prior to the race and stay for another 3 days afterwards so we could see the city a bit and Tim could spend time with his family also. We were all checking the weather forecasts several days before we left so we could pack accordingly and up to just a few days prior to leaving, they expected cold race day conditions, approx 52 degrees, and then possibly snow showers the day after. Therefore, we packed our thermals, our winter weather dri-fit apparel, gloves, beanies etc so that we would be prepared for anything, anything but what we least expected and what actually occurred..................90 degrees + and very high humidity !
At the expo, race organizers were advising runners to prepare for very high temperatures and to focus on hydrating, hydrating, hydrating !!! There was never any mention of a possibility of race cancellation after a certain period of time depending on weather, however we learned later that they put a blip on the website a night before the race eluding to this alternative plan.
Race day morning in downtown Chicago was absolutely PACKED and temps were already approaching 80 degrees!!! It was also quite a challenge just to get to the starting area itself, much less find the expected finishing time corrals that we wanted to settle into. We finally just found a spot where we could breathe.... and waited. As we crossed the starting line the three of us attempted to weave through the swarms of runners hoping to stay together, but the masses were too huge, at mile one we had already lost sight of Tim.
I couldn't believe how drenched in sweat I was after only a couple of miles, runners were peeling of clothes from the getgo. And although there was plenty of water and gatorade at each aid station that we came across, we had no idea that there was a water shortage behind us the entire way, leaving many runners dangerously dehydrated. The race organizers had doubled the water supply but didn't take into account that much of that supply would be dwindled quickly with runners dousing themselves in addition to drinking it in mass quantities. In fact, the next day the papers showed runners running into mini-marts for fluids and even drinking out of fountains in the park, it was unbelievable, apparently many didn't get an ounce of water or gatorade until mile 7. My legs started to cramp heavily about mile 10 and got worse from there on out, not to mention my stomach being in a complete uproar after forcing more and more gatorade and water and a few disgusting gu's to fight dehydration, etc . At that point, I realized this race for me was no longer based on a time goal in hopes of qualifying for Boston, it was about survival and finishing. I just focused on one mile at a time, trying not to slow to a complete walk the last quarter of the race, walking under garden hoses spraying water and volunteers throwing gallons all over us drenching our bodies and our shoes to the point that we could barely pick up our feet. Even at that point, I had no idea that Tim was not too far behind Ken and I, feeling the exact same effects, even more so actually, having to several times to massage out his leg cramps.
This was by far the first marathon that I have ever encountered more runners walking than there were running, at only mile 14. The fear amongst the crowd of runners around us that had run this course in the past was that from mile 13 on there was absolutely zero shade and we were running into the sun for the majority of it. Runners along the way were dropping like flies and the crowd was doing their best to call for help and even dash into their own houses for towels, ice, etc. Then as we approached mile 21 we saw chicago police officers using their megaphones to alert runners about the marathon being cancelled at this point in the race and urged all of us to please walk the rest of the way to the finish. I'm not sure any of us really understood what they were trying to tell us initially so we kept plugging along, as many others did. Another mile or so later, there were helicopters above warning runners that they had exhausted their supply of medics, ambulances, etc.. to aid runners and again pleaded with everyone to stop running and walk the last few miles to the finish. At that point, we got it, and we slowly made our way to the finish, it felt like those last few miles took hours!!!! At one point, there were even bicycle policeman making last ditch efforts to slow racers down by forming a barricade across most of the road with their bikes. If runners had not made it to mile 16 by this time, they were instructed to board the chicago transit lines to take them to the finish line. But, even after we crossed the finish line, there was complete chaos. We had no idea where to go to receive our medals, blankets, or even who was supposed to remove our timing chips from our shoes. Runners were disoriented and many were getting sick around us. One runner was convulsing as a volunteer frantically tried to wheel him out of the frenzy of runners, pleading for help from any medical personnel. At that point, I headed towards the nearest tree and just hoped that Ken and Tim were feeling better than I was and could bear the heat and sun long enough to stand in the "runner reunite" area until Tim's family could fight through the masses and find us and take us H O M E !!
Looking back however, I think one of the strangest messages from the race officials that was blasted over the intercom time and time again was that they had "transformed the chicago marathon into a fun run" and hoped that runners would embrace it as such, however I doubt there more than a handful of runners at this point that felt they were having any kind of "fun" at all. In fact, the more they announced it to the participants, I think the more angry and disheartened people became, to them it was anything but a "fun run", it was a huge test of endurance for those who trained long and hard for this day. Many felt that was a slap in the face, but most runners understood the need to cancel the race due to the lack of medical resources available and water and gatorade tubs completely empty at many of the aid stations. It was just the "disbelief" amongst the faces of runners that told the story of the day !!
Apparently, fewer than 25,000 of some 49,000 registered runners finished the 26.2 mile course, about 10,000 of those deciding not to even attempt the feat in the first place. They had one fatality and more than 350 runners rushed to hospitals in the area.
Tim's brother, Barry, had been sick for several days prior to the race and wasn't well enough to even make an attempt to run, which proved to be one of the best decisions of the day. In fact, maybe the three of us should have slept in that Sunday and caught a Bears game on tv instead. Nah, although the day was a brutal one for all of us, and disappointing as well as far as our individual performances, we definitely had no regrets. I admire and respect the Chicago Fire Chief and the Marathon race director for making such a difficult decision to finally cancel the race when they did, it was the right thing to do !
The people of Chicago were amazing and I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to attempt this feat again. But, for now, I think we are all going to rest our sorry souls on the lazy boy recliners we love so dearly and embark on a training plan of anything UNRELATED to a guy named Hal Higdon!