Chicago Marathon runners leave the worrying to organizers, police

By Beth Werge

Temporary fencing lines Chicago's Grant Park, the location of the start and finish of the BofA Chicago Marathon. City officials and race organizers have been working tirelessly to ensure a safe race day this Sunday. Thursday, October 9, 2014
Temporary fencing lines Chicago’s Grant Park, the location of the start and finish of the BofA Chicago Marathon. City officials and race organizers have been working tirelessly to ensure a safe race day this Sunday.

While racers and spectators of the 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon might be nervous with pre-race jitters, there seems to be little concern about safety – primarily because they trust that every precaution has been taken to ensure smooth sailing on race day.

“I would say it’s the safest day [of all],” said Bart Yasso, a writer and chief running officer for Runner’s World Magazine, who will be a spectator at the race this Sunday. Yasso said it’s a combination of what the race directors and city have done together that makes him feel safe.

“Because [of the bombing] that happened in a previous running event [at the Boston Marathon in 2013], people are aware of it a little more other than, say, if they were just out visiting Grant Park,” Yasso said. “These people know what they’re doing. When I go to one of these races, I feel safer than if I was running around Chicago a month from now.”

At a news conference earlier this week, Chicago officials and race organizers detailed some of the safety measures that are in place for Sunday’s race. They said preparation is key to a successful race, and that they have been working with organizers, businesses along the route, race participants and volunteers to ensure another safe Chicago Marathon.

Like last year, participants will be required to show ID to obtain race packets, have to use race-issued clear plastic bags to store personal belongings, and must enter the staging area at designated gateways in Grant Park through security checkpoints. Runners can’t leave unattended bags or clothes in Grant Park or along the race route, and only credentialed event staff and ticketed guests are allowed access to the race start and finish in Grant Park.

Chicago Police will be deploying both uniformed and plain-clothed officers, who will conduct random bag checks of spectators carrying large bags and backpacks, and canine units will be on the scene for the duration of the race. Plus, there’s a color-coded event alert system in place, but that will primarily communicate the status of course and weather conditions.

“Race organizers and city personnel work diligently every year to plan and coordinate this world-class event in Chicago to ensure a safe and positive experience for all – participants, spectators, residents, visitors and volunteers,” said Gary Schenkel, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“It’s that ‘see something, say something’ mentality,” Yasso said. “That’s why I say it’s the safest time to be out and about.”

According to head marathon physician Dr. George Champas, a staff of 1,500 volunteer medical personnel, along with the Chicago Fire Department, emergency medical service and police, are prepared to deal with everything from the usual medical issues that pop up at a race, such as dehydration, to communicable diseases like the flu and Ebola.

“In the old days, they did have an ambulance at the start and some people at the finish,” said Yasso, who has been at about 20 Chicago Marathons and at the finish line in Boston for 34 years straight. “Now they have people all over the course, including on bikes. I’ve been at races where someone collapsed or had problems, and there was a response instantly. When someone needs help, someone is there pretty quickly. It’s pretty amazing.

“And that’s a collaboration of all these big races around the world: These marathon majors work together and mix practices, and that makes it a really safe environment,” Yasso said.

Zach Scott, 24, will be running his first marathon at Chicago this Sunday and said that he, for the most part, feels safe and secure.

“If there was a real concern, I feel like there would be more of a clamor about it,” Scott said. “I haven’t heard much about that being a problem. Because of what happened with Boston, I’m sure they’ll take extra precautions. The city will obviously not want anything to happen – probably why I’m not really thinking about it.”

Steve Georgas, acting chief of special functions for the Chicago Police Department, said there have been no credible threats to the race.

“The biggest threat we feel, the biggest threat we prepare for, the biggest worry that keeps us up at night is the lone wolf,” he said. “You don’t understand the power of how that could be one little missing piece to a giant puzzle that is being put together.”

Being such an iconic event, the Chicago Marathon attracts tens of thousands of racers to the city each year. On Sunday, runners from all 50 states and more than 100 countries try their hand at 26.2 miles, according to the Chicago Marathon website. Organizers said they expect 1 million spectators to line the streets, and 45,000 entrants are registered to compete. This means that it’s not only health hazards that organizers have to prepare for, so they are implementing various measures to ensure a safe event.

“In this situation, as in all situations, the locals are going to be in the lead,” said Mark Peterson, external affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “For an event like this, the city has been doing an enormous amount of preparation. But we stand ready.”

Race officials will also be on the lookout for people jumping in the race at their leisure. According to the race site, nobody is allowed on the course unless they are registered participants or authorized race staff, and this policy will be strictly enforced.

“I remember some of my friends, last year, jumped in for a mile or so,” Scott said. “I’ll be curious to see if that’ll be allowed. I’m sure they’ll crack down on that.”

The Chicago Marathon kicks off this Sunday at 7:20 a.m., with spectator access to Grant Park beginning at 9 a.m. To sign up for emergency updates via text message, visit alertchicago.com.