When a Marathon Goes Wrong

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Scott Olson / Getty

A runner is transported to an aid station near the finish of the Chicago Marathon October 7, 2007.

The numbers alone told much of the story: At the 30th annual Chicago Marathon Sunday morning, one man died, more than 300 needed medical attention from the city's overloaded emergency services — which were forced to reach out to the suburbs for additional ambulances — and fewer than 25,000 of some 45,000 registered runners actually finished the 26.2-mile course on an early October day where the midday temperature reached a record 87 degrees.

But the statistics don't give a sense of the chaotic scene on the ground during the marathon. Beyond the very real challenges posed by the weather, the problems included a communication breakdown between event organizers and competitors, a water shortage that left novices dangerously dehydrated, and a wave of anger among experienced runners over the decision to cancel the event when some were as little as a mile away from the finish line.

By many accounts, there wasn't just one marathon being run Sunday in Chicago but, depending on how fast you ran, three different races that came to three very different conclusions. By 10:30 a.m., the first contest was already over: an epic, exciting, down-to-the-wire finale in a men's competition that lasted just over two hours and came to a rousing photo finish when Patrick Ivuti (2:11:11) edged out runner up Jaouad Gharib by a matter of hundredths of a second.

But these competitive long-distance runners don't make up the bulk of any marathon's participants. On Sunday in Chicago it was the average runner — the man or woman who has trained during lunch hours and is running in hopes of setting a personal best, or as a means of qualifying for a more prestigious race such as the Boston marathon — who formed the marathon's second wave. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they ran through their third and fourth hours (the race began at 8 a.m.) underneath a glaring sun — which, despite official numbers, caused one temperature gauge atop a bank near mile 23 to reach 96 degrees around 12:15 p.m. — when they first started to notice something was going terribly wrong.

"I was drenched in sweat, completely soaked, after only mile one, and that is very unusual," said Emily Schuster, 25, a New Yorker who had trained for the event since June. "And then somebody collapsed before the halfway point, before even mile 13, and I thought: 'OK, it must be hot, they must be old.' But then at mile 15, there's a stretch where you turn into the sun and run for several miles, and people started dropping like flies. Older, younger, men, women —every couple of steps you saw someone collapsing with ice on their head."

It was shortly after noon when Schuster crossed mile 23 — on a corner where several hundred onlookers cheered the racers, shouting "It's all downhill from here!" — and first heard the announcement from a squad car's loudspeaker that the marathon was cancelled. As she neared mile 25, she encountered policemen standing in the middle of the street, urging runners to stop and walk and informing them that it was now just a 'fun run.'" Other runners said they were given even less clear-cut directions from festival officials — some runners said the only notice of the race's cancellation they received were handwritten messages they were flashed by spectators and volunteers, crude notes written on the backs of the posters they had brought to encourage friends and relatives.

Many runners like Schuster who were nearing the finish line fought through police officials to finish the race; with the finish line almost in sight, they saw no point in stopping. But the third wave of marathon runners behind them had it even worse: By then, emergency crews and empty water cups made finishing the race almost impossible. Brian Hayes, 36, of Springfield, Illinois, first noticed something wrong at the water station at mile number four (water stops are placed every two miles along the route), where he was told he was "too late" to get water. Sweating profusely, he was told the same at mile six — at one of the same stations where, earlier in the day, volunteers were not only handing out cups of water but opening up additional bottles of water to pour over people's heads.

According to official statements and the marathon's web site, the event was only canceled for those who had not reached the marathon's halfway point by noon. But Hayes says he had crossed mile 15 at 11:30 a.m. and was officially removed from the course at 12:04, re-rerouted by officials who by that point had closed the marathon and ran the runners back to Chicago's Grant Park.

"I started noticing that there were sirens everywhere; it was nonstop. I knew it was getting bad when I saw people off in the distance running into a small park to drink from one of the big fountains," Hayes said. "After we were re-routed, I heard one of the spotters using his bullhorn and he just kept yelling, 'Runner down, runner down!,' Inside the tent at the park, it looked like some type of mini-disaster, everyone icing themselves down, looking awful."

It was in this third group of runners that Chad Schieber, 35, fell to the ground. A Michigan policeman, Schieber was pronounced dead at an area hospital at 12:50 p.m. (an autopsy later showed he had a heart condition). It was unclear if he, like Hayes, had been denied water on the marathon course.

"I don't think anybody was prepared for what happened," Hayes said. "I don't blame anybody — I was mad I didn't get to finish, but I think it was maybe the best decision, given everything I was hearing. I don't know what else they could have done other than maybe call if off before it started."

But for other runners who trained meticulously and had spent many hundreds of dollars in airfare, hotel rooms and equipment to take part in the race, the cancellation was a major letdown.

"When you finish a marathon, you cross the finish line and you feel like you,ve accomplished something, and you're so happy because you can point to this as something you worked so hard to do," Schuster said, as she boarded a Monday shuttle back to O'Hare. "We were all laughing about it last night, but today we're just sad that we did all of this, and it might not count for anything."

Monday morning, some local pundits were questioning if the debacle might hurt the city's chances in being selected as host of the 2016 Olympics.