The Chicago Marathon Water Controversy by Andrew Suozzo

Andrew Suozzo is a professor of Modern Languages at DePaul University and the author of The Chicago Marathon (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Suozzo is currently teaching a course on the Chicago Marathon in DePaul’s “Discover Chicago” program.


This year’s Chicago Marathon was supposed to close the LaSalle sponsorship/ownership of the race in a burst of glory just as the institution was to be absorbed by Bank of America. It would end more than a decade of success marked by a commitment to quality underscored by the generosity of the owner/sponsor, outstanding race direction in the person of Carey Pinkowski, and perhaps, finally, by sheer numbers that would make Chicago the world’s biggest marathon. Instead, the marathon turned into a disaster provoked by a searing heat wave and cries of insufficient water on a course whose temperatures were more suitable to Death Valley than a midwestern city in autumn.

The male and female elite races, despite times that were understandably slower, were actually thrilling with surprise victories by runners who remained in second place until the final moments. Indeed, the male victor, Patrick Ivuti, won by barely a quarter of a second, the closest finish in Chicago’s history. None of this, however, would matter. It would be largely unnoticed amid the angry protest of runners who insisted that water was not available along the course, especially early on. While some were also furious over the closing of the marathon for slower runners, no rational person could support this position given the appalling heat. On the other hand, the absence of water, especially in soaring temperatures, would be scandalous. The traditional media and the blogosphere are rife with accusations against the race director and his staff, who have insisted that adequate water was provided throughout the course. Although my own perspective is somewhat limited, I had at least twenty students volunteering at aid stations at roughly eight and ten miles into the race. These stations are commonly referred to as the Frontrunners and the Lincoln Park Pacer stations for the running clubs that manage them. They are among the stations criticized for running out of water. My students, nonetheless, were absolutely insistent that they never ran out of water. So were other people I talked to from the Frontrunners aid station. One, a local college professor, told me that they had simply added a unprecedented fifth “story” of cups to the tables to be ready for extra high demand.

Why then the accusations? Some of the information supplied by my students from both aid stations led me to think there was a reasonable explanation for these competing versions of truth. Those volunteers who were at the beginning tables (and aid stations are very long, encompassing around 300 volunteers and a great many water tables) did at times find themselves out of cups and confronted by indignant runners. Those further along, however, did not encounter this problem. My students at the front of the LPC aid station reported dealing with some very angry runners—one demanded that a volunteer carefully wash his own water bottle before filling it—while their classmates at the end of the station were hailed by runners as the best aid station along the course and received profuse thanks for their plentiful water supply, which never ran out. I should add that the less fortunate students also reported that someone on a megaphone was asking runners to move towards the end of the aid station for plentiful water, but many runners simply ignored the instructions.

What does all this suggest? It probably indicates that many tired, disoriented, and desperately thirsty runners headed to the nearest tables at each station and overwhelmed the volunteer staff. Unable to get water promptly, they understood the situation as a failure to provide adequate hydration—a very understandable reaction, but not an entirely accurate one. This may not be the true story, but before rushing to judgment, a complete investigation of the situation at all the early water stations needs to be carried out. The captains, their volunteers, and runners need to be interviewed to get a better view of what happened. This was an extraordinary weather situation. The people in charge of the marathon have been running it with meticulous precision for years. I know them and have great respect for them. It is hard to believe that they would suddenly lapse into incompetence at what should have been the zenith of the Chicago Marathon.

This whole incident also suggests that the international marathon community needs to reach a common accord about calling races and barring slower runners in races that are still held in exceptional heat. No one race director or sponsor can face the tens of thousands of angry runners in the event of a cancelled race. Stopping a marathon is a bit like turning an oil tanker on a dime; it’s a near impossibility given the training, travel, and expense that goes into such an event, yet provisions need to be made to do just that. Perhaps this misfortune can serve as the stimulus for a collective agreement on an appropriate response to weather catastrophes.

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