12 May 2014

An Open Letter to the Boston Athletic Association

To the Boston Athletic Association:

Weeks have passed since the Mother of All Boston Marathons, the Boston Marathon of Redemption, the Boston Marathon that wore out a good percentage of the televisions of America well before the starter’s gun with absurd levels of media coverage, some justified, some shameful in its hounding treatment of last year’s victims. The spotlight was on you, and you came through.

But thoughts have been brewing in my head since race day, and while it’s later than I’d planned, it’s time to get them on virtual paper, even if it means delaying what would have been my topic for this week’s column. Now in the hindsight of the event, there are things that need to be said.

First, let’s not let the problems obscure this, it was absolutely fabulous. You did a phenomenal job choreographing thirty-two thousand runners and a nearly unbelievable fifteen thousand volunteers. You enrolled as many volunteers as there were people in the town I grew up in, and they all knew where to go and what to do, and they all did it with aplomb and smiles on their faces. They are all saints, and your skills in logistics are truly amazing every year, but even more so this year. Bravo!

But let’s address the dark side of the equation: the security response to last year’s tragedy. Anyone reading this column regularly knows I have not been shy in my criticism of several aspects of this year’s security plan. Should, through the viral magic of the Internet, this missive actually arrive in your offices, I have no regrets if you go back a few weeks and read my first and second columns on the topic, as well as the “Last Dig” at the end of another pre-race column. I was harsh then, and I am sticking to my views now. Some of what you did for this race made perfect sense. But some of what you did made it harder for the runners to do what they came for. And worse, some of what you did put runners at risk. That which was wrong needs to be corrected.

Let’s be honest. You dodged a huge bullet because it was a beautiful sunny day, in fact a bit too beautiful, bordering on hot. Because the notorious New England weather cooperated, you got away with the bad stuff that I was most vocal about. While you should congratulate yourself not only on another brilliantly executed Boston Marathon, but also a safe Boston Marathon, please do not assume because it was safe that this year’s security plan should simply be replicated next year.

Because it wasn’t raining and had in fact been dry for several days prior, the Athlete’s Village wasn’t a mud pit, and starting the race in dry shoes wasn’t a problem. Considering how difficult it would have been to bring shoes and other gear to race in – and keep them dry till starting time – based on the rules you laid out and the clarifications – or lack thereof – that you provided on the phone (as detailed in my previous columns), you dodged that bullet.

Because it was a beautiful day, it was easy to guess by six AM what to wear when the gun went off hours later. Nobody minds donating old clothes before the race, but nobody wants to discard good stuff. Had the weather been iffy such that appropriate wear couldn’t be determined till race time, runners would’ve has to race in sub-optimal clothing or lose gear they’d rather have kept.

Both of those issues had the potential to impact runners’ performances. That’s bad news for a world-famous race comprised in a typical year of eighty percent qualified – read competitive – marathoners, probably the highest percentage of any major marathon in the world. That’s wrong. But never mind performance; let’s address safety – not against terrorism, but against the elements.

Because it was warm, you got away with the ridiculously unfair no baggage policy that applied only to those who boarded shuttles in Hopkinton. Why living in or staying in a hotel in a western suburb should disqualify a runner from a basic service available to others is beyond me. Your position that we were supposed to travel into Boston in the wee hours of the morning to drop a bag so we could take a bus back to where we live was, frankly, ludicrous. As a result, if we didn’t have a friend handy at the finish (and many didn’t), we were left with no dry clothing for after the race.

The “heat poncho” you handed out at the finish was a significant improvement over the usual Mylar sheet. But even that poncho wouldn’t have provided adequate shelter for dehydrated, depleted marathoners on a cold, windy, or worse, rainy day. Even with the temperature in the low sixties, I enjoyed the poncho while in the sunshine of Copley Square, but found myself shivering and cold once I stepped into the unavoidable shadows cast by the Boston skyline. Running a marathon will do that to you. But after all, it was a beautiful day, so it didn’t matter, right?

Wrong. Do you realize how lucky you were? Marathon Monday was gorgeous. So was Tuesday, the ultimately perfect day for a recovery jog. Then things went downhill fast. Wednesday my training log reads, “Ugly rainy windy cold”. Saturday: “Cold 44 degrees miserable rainy blech” (“blech” being a word that means pretty much what it sounds like). And through most of the following week, New England slogged through rainy, windy days with highs generally in the forties. Allow me to translate that to post-marathon terminology: hypothermia weather.

Had Marathon Monday fallen two days later, you’d have had thousands of dehydrated, depleted, and hypothermic finishers with no dry clothing. Putting a heat poncho – or anything – over soaked clothing won’t stop heat loss. I know, I’ve been there, several times. And it wasn’t just the luck of two days later. That weather held for over a week. It’s pretty common this time of year.

In short, by denying a large class of runners the service of transporting dry clothing, you put those runners at serious risk of hypothermia. That was a very wrong thing to do and has to be fixed.

I could reiterate my pre-race complaints about misdirected security, about how the runners should not be targeted as potential suspects, but you can return to my previous columns to read those thoughts if you haven’t already heard them thousands of times already. I should, however, point out that despite this suspicion of the runners, there was a mysterious lack of verification of those same runners. Reports of counterfeit bibs hit the media after the race (read here and here and just search on "Boston Marathon counterfeit bibs" for more), but rumors of such practices were known well beforehand. Simple measures such as policing popular websites and scanning chips before allowing runners to board shuttles would have increased security far more than preventing me from bringing dry shoes in a clear plastic bag.

So let’s take stock here. On the plus side, these things worked:

  • Increasing police presence and surveillance was a no-brainer, clearly a smart thing to do.
  • Implementing crowd control checkpoints and strongly suggesting limits on spectator bags, coupled with a stated policy that all bags can be searched, again made perfect sense. It was, after all, two spectator backpacks that started this mess last year.
  • The security scan that runners went through as we boarded the shuttle buses was only a minor inconvenience and in general made sense.

But on the minus side, these things need to be fixed:

  • Not allowing runners to bring the gear they need to race was wrong. The policy that a fanny pack was acceptable but a small bag was not was absurd. (I should mention that a friend was stopped at the shuttle security check because they were carrying – I’m not making this up – a tiny Dunkin’ Donuts bag with a single muffin in it.) Use limited size clear bags to make them searchable, set up an airport-style scanner perhaps, but you must allow reasonable running gear. (Muffins would be nice, too.)
  • Not allowing ALL runners to check dry clothing to the finish was wrong, and poses a safety hazard. If you don’t want to bring back baggage buses at the Village, provide them at the Hopkinton shuttle stops. But don’t make us wander through next year’s finish chute in cold windy rain, shivering violently in our soaked togs under a mediocre poncho. (Worth noting, a friend who worked the Village in the morning reported that since everything not carried in the race was discarded, the Village ended up looking like a war zone. I know I left a bottle of sunscreen and other items hoping others would get use out of them, but knowing they’d all end up as trash, part of a tremendous eco-disaster. That is simply wasteful.)
  • Not checking the veracity of bibs at the shuttles by scanning chips was an oversight which invalidated the no-bandit policy and significantly weakened overall security.

Yes, Boston 2014 was a huge success, and as I have said, you should be rightly proud. But please work to correct the problems for next year. Please don’t be seduced by the need for theatre security that is highly visible and to which you can point in the event of an incident to say you did all you could. Don’t blindly accept all requests from the law enforcement community without a full understanding on both sides of their impact on the most important component of the race, the runners. And don’t be fooled into believing that nothing happened solely because of the plan. We all know that a determined crazy could have still created mayhem.

I thank you for your consideration.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Humor me. If you read it, if you liked it, even if you didn't, let me know!