The recent meltdown of the Chicago Marathon serves as an interesting example for discussing issues of responsibility and risk taking.
Over at Marathon Pundit, John Ruberry is taking issue with a Chicago Tribune opinion piece by Mike Downey, who has offered his take on who is responsible for the meltdown of the Chicago Marathon. He says it’s the runners’ fault. I think he’s confusing several issues, and it’s better to separate them and deal with them one at a time.
Hey, don’t blame the city of Chicago if you were too tired and too hot Sunday while running a marathon.
Downey’s right that you can’t blame the city of Chicago for the weather. You can’t blame LaSalle Bank for it either. The weather is always a risk at an outdoor event.
Some people have claimed that the race date could have been changed when the weather turned bad, but that seems unrealistic. Between the runners, the support staff, the city workers, the volunteers, and the media, perhaps 50,000 people would have to change their plans on a few days notice. You’d have a lot more things go wrong than a water distribution problem if you tried something like that.
And don’t blame sponsor LaSalle Bank if you were weak from thirst and couldn’t get enough to drink.
Here Downey is right and wrong in the same sentence. He’s right that you can’t “blame sponsor LaSalle Bank if you were weak from thirst.” Nobody was forcing the runners to keep on running. They did that themselves.
On the other hand, runners certainly can blame LaSalle Bank if they couldn’t get enough to drink. When LaSalle took the runners’ $110 entrance fee, they accepted responsibility for organizing the race, arranging for the course to be available at the scheduled data and time, and providing things the runners would need along the way, such as water.
As reports come in, it’s starting to look like the marathon organizers didn’t keep their part of the bargain when it came to the water supply. They didn’t force anyone to keep running, but neither did they provide the runners with their full $110 worth of services. I’m guessing that LaSalle’s agreement with the runners disclaims all liability for their failure, but that just means they won’t have to refund the money. It doesn’t mean they didn’t screw up.
“They didn’t plan for it,” one runner harped about Chicago’s race authorities.
“They clearly weren’t prepared,” another said on TV.
“They,” the marathon organizers, cautioned runners all week long that the temperature for Sunday was going to be hot. Not “unseasonably warm”—hot.
Warning people that it’s going to be hot is not the same as preparing for the heat. Marathon officials had a self-imposed duty to provide sufficient water. They failed.
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.
There’s nothing terribly foolhardy about running in a marathon, not even in really hot weather. Humans are efficient bipeds with no fur and a lot of sweat glands. Our ancient ancestors spent much of their time chasing game animals hour after hour in the sweltering heat of the African wilderness. We’re natural runners, and all healthy people are physiologically capable of training to run a marathon.
What about all the people who collapsed in Sunday’s marathon? Well, of the 35,000 people who entered the race, only about 300 people collapsed. That’s less than 1 percent. Most of those who collapsed recovered just fine within hours. (Some runners even recovered before the ambulances arrived. The treatment for heat exhaustion consists of resting, cooling off, and drinking water. Simply collapsing in a heap on the ground accomplishes the first two parts of the treatment. When it comes to distance running, we humans really are built for it.)
A handful of people had more serious health problems, and one man with a heart condition died. Those people probably shouldn’t have been running, especially if they knew of prior health problems. But except for that one third of one tenth of one percent, almost everybody came out of it okay.
There’s another way to look at it: Of course there are some health risks when 35,000 people run 26 miles under the sun. That’s what a marathon is.
Injuries and deaths are not uncommon in sports like motor racing, power boating, scuba diving, river rafting, surfing, and downhill skiing. Actor Christopher Reeves was paralyzed from a horseriding accident. One person in twenty who tries to climb Mount Everest never makes it back. For K2, it’s one in ten.
A couple of million people are treated every year for injuries arising from ordinary sports like basketball, football, soccer, baseball, softball, rollers skating, volleyball, and swimming. A friend of mine hurt himself pretty bad playing tennis.
A particularly revealing factoid is that literally tens of thousands of people are injured every year playing golf. It’s a really low-stress sport, but the players are often old or in poor health and therefore easily injured.
That’s the key insight: What so many sports enthusiasts have in common—whether they’re 70-year old golfers walking in the grass, incredibly physically fit young people who climb mountains, or the hodge-podge of people who ran in Sunday’s marathon—is that they are pushing the performance of the human body up against its limits. Often several limits at once. And sometimes the body breaks. That’s what limits are.
That’s what sports are.