|Ref2: Chicago Marathon reveals gaps in emergency response coordination among organizations
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Race director: Nothing we could have done better
Heat-shortened race leaves a blame game in its wake
By Josh Noel and Mary Owen
Tribune staff reporters
October 9, 2007
As the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon ended with its closest finish ever Sunday, executive race director Carey Pinkowski was awash in the excitement of the race's photo finish, passing out awards and joining the international television coverage.
But then Pinkowski quickly found out that while the race among the elite runners was a success, the rest of the event was in trouble: Runners were passing out in the record October heat, ambulances were overtaxed and there were reports of insufficient water at aid stations.
Just after leaving the awards ceremony, in the shade of a medical tent in Grant Park, Pinkowski huddled with race and city officials. The race's medical director, George Chiampas, in touch all morning with 15 aid stations on the course, detailed the situation.
"I said, 'George there's an issue here with the well-being of our participants, is that correct?'" Pinkowski said. "He said 'Yes.' So it was my opinion we needed to activate the contingency plan."
That plan, on the books for years in case of an emergency -- be it a terror attack or tornado -- called for halting one of the nation's largest marathons before it was finished. And for the first time, that plan was implemented.
"We were all in complete agreement," Pinkowski said.
On Monday, Pinkowski maintained that marathon officials staged the best event they could on a day of record heat. But many runners and race volunteers stepped up their criticisms, saying that Pinkowski and his team failed to adequately plan for runners' water needs.
Pinkowski countered that problems were created, despite the best efforts of organizers, by a logjam of runners at the water stations who spent more time there and took more cups than expected -- as many as seven at a time.
"Our participants were not drinking the water, they were cooling themselves with it," Pinkowski said. "That's something that, I'll be honest with you, we didn't anticipate."
There was never a thought of canceling or postponing the race, he said, because organizers were hopeful the weather, about 70 degrees and partly cloudy by 7 a.m., would cooperate. Instead, the clouds disappeared quickly and the temperature rose to a record 88 degrees.
During the next several hours, more than 300 people were taken by ambulance from the course, at least 10 of whom remained hospitalized Monday evening.
One person, Chad Schieber, 35, a police officer from Midland, Mich., died during the race, but the Cook County medical examiner's office said Monday that he died of heart-related complications, not the heat. Two local physicians contacted by the Tribune disputed that assessment, saying that Schieber's heart problem, known as mitral valve prolapse, by itself would not have killed him. The heat and physical exertion must also have played a role, they said.
"Is there anything we could have done better? No," Pinkowski said. "We anticipated the weather. I'm very proud of the way things went."
But the concerns came from far and wide, and included people who worked the race as volunteers.
Ryan Lown, 21, a paramedic posted near the 19-mile mark, said his station ran out of ice and that doctors had to treat a man with a body temperature of 107 degrees with a bag of cold water until an ambulance arrived.
"We only had two bags of ice to begin with," he said. "We thought we'd get more, but then we found out that was our whole supply for the day."
Jay Shefsky, volunteering at the 10-mile point, said runners were arriving parched.
"Almost whenever I was handing out Gatorade, often I would hear the runners say, 'This is the first Gatorade I've gotten,'" he said. "And this was the 10-mile mark."
Sharon Pines, 57, also passing out drinks at the 10-mile mark, said volunteers were forced to refill a 2-foot water cooler at a nearby restaurant and reuse cups runners had thrown to the ground. After scrambling for almost an hour, she said, volunteers discovered a truck full of supplies parked nearby -- but by then most of the runners had passed.
"We weren't getting a lot of intelligence about what was going on down the block or at other stations," Pines said. "It was a maelstrom of emotions going on at the water table."
Pinkowski said organizers plan to talk with volunteers to get a more complete picture of what happened.
Meanwhile, dozens of runners contacted the Tribune to share their stories of needing to find their own water at city fountains, from friends and family along the route or at gas stations. A few others contacted the Tribune to say that there was enough water provided.
Pinkowski, race director since 1990, said he is confident every aid station had enough water or Gatorade to last the race. He said runners might not have seen water on some tables, but with watering stands as long as 200 yards, the fluids might have been farther down.
"It's a plan that we have used successfully for many years," he said. "From what I have been told, it's the consumption -- the volume of water used. Not that we didn't have enough."
The weather first became a factor on the Tuesday before the race, he said, when the Sunday forecast changed from cool and cloudy to warm and humid. On Thursday, race officials sent a "heat advisory" e-mail to runners that warned them to stay hydrated, wear sun block and adjust their pace as necessary.
On Saturday, provisions were made to add extra ice, sponges, drinks, misting stations and cooling busses to the routes, he said. Specifically, organizers say fluid servings for runners were increased by more than 205,000 to roughly 1.8 million.
Pinkowski's day began about 5 a.m. Sunday when he stepped out from his downtown hotel to check the weather. Though temperatures were already in the high-60s or low-70s, he said he was optimistic.
"I was hoping and praying we'd get a little bit of a break," Pinkowski said. "If you would have come out of the hotel and it was 90 degrees, you'd take that into consideration."
The first sign of stress, he said, came among the elite runners who were clearly off their best times, Pinkowski said. But soon the rest of the runners were having trouble too. Many were showing up at medical stations in higher numbers and sooner than usual. Ambulances contracted by the marathon were running out, which forced the Chicago Fire Department to request assistance from suburban medics, a rare move.
By the time city and race officials met in the medical tent about 11 a.m., the Fire Department was advocating an end to the race, department spokesman Larry Langford said.
"We did not order them to shut down," Langford said. "Nobody was hemming and hawing about it. The Fire Department looked at it and organizers looked at it and there was agreement."
More than 50 runners were taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where they arrived unconscious, incoherent or unable to give their names, Dr. Marty Lucenti said Monday. Most showed symptoms of heat exhaustion -- nausea, vomiting and cramping -- but more severe patients were hyperthermic with temperatures between 104 and 107 degrees.
"Most of these people were pushing their bodies to the absolute max," Lucenti said.
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