Safe to Race?: Chicago creates new safety regulations for city races

It takes intensive preparation — weeks, months or even years. Preparing for a distance race such as a marathon is more than a commitment of time or physical endurance; it is a mental challenge. But in the shadow of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Chicagoland runners have to deal with new mental barriers, stemming from the prospect of terrorism and violence. In response, race organizers have altered race day procedures to ensure the safety of their participants.

Runners in the Chicago Marathon 2013. Photo from Creative Commons

Runners in the Chicago Marathon 2013. Photo from Creative Commons

This year’s Chicago Marathon was a first for Rebecca Geissler.  She says she felt safe but noticed that many runners seemed to be “on edge about security.”

“While standing in my start corral, someone walked by with a backpack that was obviously mostly empty, and a couple runners pointed the person out to a volunteer,” Geissler said.

The Chicago Marathon is one of six international races that make up the World Marathon Majors.  These races are complex to organize. Race directors must corral more than 40,000 runners and thousands of volunteers.

The safety procedures for each race vary along with its size. For example, some races allow a runner’s family or friend to retrieve his or her race packet if appropriate permission is granted.  Others allow packets to be picked up the morning of a race.

This year’s Chicago Marathon enacted a few new practices that may become the norm for other races: participants had to pick up their own bib or race packet, and checked gear could only be placed in a clear plastic bag provided by the race organization. The Chicago Half Marathon, held in September 2013, also utilized clear plastic bags for gear check.  A clear bag allows race day personnel to easily see any items that runners may not carry with them for a race: keys, phone, or warm up gear.

Having run other races in Chicago prior to her first marathon, Geissler felt switching the gear check requirement to a clear plastic bag was not unusual. Mostly, she noticed an increase in security compared to other races.

Chicago Marathon runners had to go through two security checkpoints to reach the starting line; the security checkpoints were assigned based on bib number and color.

Two other runners in this year’s Chicago Marathon echoed Geissler’s statements, noticing an increase in security along the course. Because spectators are not allowed near the finish line, one runner welcomed the increased “space” to catch her breath after running the 26.2 miles.  She just wished her mom could have seen her cross the finish line.

Bryan Ganek, volunteer coordinator for the Chicago Area Runners Association, said even volunteers had to go through security checkpoints as they arrived at the course, displaying confirmation that they were officially registered volunteers.

The Oak Brook Half Marathon, which has a smaller racing field, made a drastic change. Its director, Tom Hepperle, was forced to cancel gear check completely for the 2013 race after the local police expressed growing concerns over the amount of security personnel required to safely aid runners.

“Not having gear check, in our case, was basically a workable solution,” Hepperle said.  “The way our event is set up, parking is adjacent to the starting line.”

For Oak Brook runners, accessible parking meant gear could be stored in one’s car. This is not the case for all races, however. In some, runners may have to walk more than a mile to the start of the race from a designated parking location.

Security is not the only concern race directors have to consider, according to Hepperle. In smaller communities like Oak Brook, emergency personnel must also consider what might happen if a major security issue occurs outside of the race.

“It’s regrettable that we have to take these kinds of measures … to ensure the safety of the participants,” Hepperle said.

Whether gear check will remain in place for future races, big or small, is yet to be determined and is evaluated on an individual basis. One iterative constant within the Chicagoland racing community is that race day security has seen changes following the Boston Marathon bombings.

In the end, security is a concern for many.  But even in the wake of race violence, Geissler and runners alike fear that too many changes will impact the fans.

Spectators tend to line the 26.2 mile course through Chicago on marathon day, cheering on the runners, holding signs and ringing bells.

“You can really feed off their excitement, and this year some of that buzz was lost,” said one repeat marathoner.

Geissler added, “There was still a higher chance [of danger] for spectators, but I would hate to limit access to spectators which would destroy the amazing and important part they play in the marathon.”

By Elisabeth Montemurro