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Chicago Marathon 2008: A Modest Proposal

By Justin Sondak in News on Oct 8, 2007 9:00PM

2007_10_08.justmarathon.jpgBy now you've heard about the hottest ever Chicago Marathon, yesterday’s brutal event that claimed one life, brought ambulances to more than 300, and overwhelmed race organizers and emergency personnel. The initial stories about the fatality and the difficult decision to cut the race short, dashing the hopes of thousands of first-timers, have overshadowed the larger story about race organizers failing their own endurance test.

Shrugging off the 2007 race as a once-in-a-lifetime snafu obscures the need to improve a celebration that quickly turned nightmarish. Here’s where to start:

Move the date back. Moving the race from mid- to early-October didn’t work out. Summer’s barely over and hot temps in October aren’t a complete surprise. Next year's is a week later (October 12), a good start.

Open registration in late spring and limit the field. 2007 registration opened in January, when most of us have no clue whether we can spend all summer training. But by May or June, runners can enter with confidence, not on a whim. Organizers cited this year’s field at 45,000, bigger than New York's (38,000+) and London’s (36,000+)—and those are larger cities with more resources. Offer quality over quantity and cap the field at 30,000.

Bring more hoses. Running out of water at Mile 8 is an embarrassment. The most efficient water stations we've seen use tap water stored in buckets and drawn from garden hoses to fill a hundred or more cups per second. Ice Mountain is not much better, and thirsty runners barely know the difference.

Offer refunds. Next time "red flag" conditions are forecasted by Friday (and there will be a next time), offer refunds to all entrants with medical conditions or an expected 5+ hour finish time who agree to withdraw. Field those requests online and at the pre-race Expo. Serving tens of thousands in record heat is a huge challenge for even the most organized cities. Chicago was clearly not up to the job. Admit that up front and give people their $110 back. What organizers lose in registration fees is less than what they’ll save in court costs.