13 March 2014

Intense Dismay

Bib numbers were posted for Boston today and the streets should be filled with mirth and glee. Instead, I feel intense dismay, which is a politically correct way of relating the far stronger feelings I hold. The leaders of the Boston Marathon appear to have forgotten who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They appear to have forgotten that Boston Strong means we will not let the bad guys win. And most dismaying, they seem to have forgotten what it means to race a marathon. They should know better.

For the record, this year, if I make it to the starting line in my wounded state, I’ll be wearing bib number 1980. I remember 1980, it was a pretty good year. People may have been rockin’ to their Walkmans, but they didn’t spend all day staring at smartphones. But I digress.

A week or so back, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced their new security guidelines in the wake of last year’s bombings. Some tightening was in order. What they did went well beyond reason. If you missed it, here’s a few highlights, paraphrased: First, all runners are suspected terrorists. Second, even soldiers are suspected terrorists. Third, spectators will now be more thoroughly caged by barriers of the type that were clearly effective in containing blast damage last year. Fourth, if you had any expectations of truly racing, you’d better hope for perfect and predictable weather, even though this is New England, where the predictable part is a fantasy.

Dave McGillivray, race director, is a runner. Dave McGillivray should know better. Instead, Dave McGillivray publicly stated, “The lesson here is that individual runners have to take personal responsibility for themselves,” and, "The runners will adapt." On his first comment, frankly, I’m offended. Is he implying that we haven’t done that in the past? What personal responsibility is he referring to? If he means that we should bring what we need, that’s going to be rather difficult since we’re no longer allowed to bring anything that doesn’t fit in a fanny pack to the race.

I have no issue with disposable marathon clothing. You go to Goodwill, you spend a few bucks on ratty warm stuff, you discard it at the start, it gets collected and given back to Goodwill. Rental clothing. But Mr. McGillivray seems to have forgotten that with variable weather, we bring more than rental clothing to the race. It’s common that you don’t decide the right layers until the last moment. Sleeves? Singlet? Even tights if it’s nasty? This isn’t rental clothing. This is the good stuff, like club jerseys. Stuff that you fully expect to get it back in your baggage.

Mr. McGillivray seems to have forgotten that it is, on occasion, wet and miserable. And on days like that, with hours to wait before the start, a pair of dry shoes for the race makes a world of difference (or for some, racing shoes). I’m OK with wearing old ones to the athlete’s village and discarding them (I’ve done it), but under the new rules, you can’t bring the dry shoes – unless you put them in a fanny pack.

Now, at the risk of offending my four-hour-plus friends (and with the way my Achilles non-recovery is going, I might be one of them this year), anyone who intends to truly race Boston doesn’t wear a fanny pack stuffed with gear. I’m already an oddball in that I wear a fuel belt, a rarity in the sub-three-hour crowd. Now I need to wear a fanny pack, too? Or if I don’t want to race with it, since a fanny pack is all I can bring, I’ll have to discard it as well if I’d like dry shoes (if said shoes fit in said fanny pack). Goodwill doesn’t have many fanny packs. (Shoes in fanny pack = OK. Shoes in clear plastic bag = Not OK. Huh?)

Wait a minute. Who were the criminals last year? Wasn’t one of the challenges in solving the crimes the fact that we didn’t have a clue who they were? Don’t we know who the runners are? Don't they, after all, sport a giant license plate, a big number that identifies them to the world? Go ahead, search my bag. Verify there are no large heavy metal objects in there, I’m fine with that. But if we’re going to get all TSA about this and worry about shoe bombers at a marathon, we’re going to have a serious shortage of podiatrists.

Of course, being denied the ability to bring the gear needed to dress for changing weather is now irrelevant, since there’s no longer any baggage check at the village. You can’t send that club shirt home anyway. New York tried this one, but relented when they realized it wasn’t a very good idea.

Further, like New York, people come from all over the world to run Boston. Many if not most don’t have friends waiting downtown to supply them with dry clothing at the finish. They depend on that baggage check for warm, dry clothing at the other end. No worries, says the BAA! We’ll give you a tres chic heat poncho at the finish! Ignoring the fashion faux pas, which we as runners really don’t care about, once again, Mr. McGillivray should know better. Any marathoner knows that a depleted body is difficult to re-warm under the best circumstances. if it’s even marginally chilly, and the winds downtown make this likely, sweaty clothing will easily trump any poncho. And if it’s cold and rainy, no poncho in the world will prevent the onset of hypothermia. You simply have to remove the wet clothing. How do I know? Wineglass Half in 2011. Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard in 2013. Three immediate memories of near if not actual hypothermia. It’s not fun.

Want a real disaster on your hands? How about forty degrees and rain, and five or ten or even twenty thousand cases of hypothermia? Last year the weather was fine, and when thousands of runners were stopped short of the finish, unable to claim their bags, there were still many pictures of seriously chilled runners. Imagine that on a nasty day.

Ah, but the BAA will allow you to check a small bag of dry clothing. Now, the photos I’ve seen of this bag make me doubt that you can fit a pair of sweats or fleece inside, but let’s assume for the moment that you can. There’s a catch. The only time and place you can check this bag is on race day on the Boston Common where the buses leave for Hopkinton. If, like me, you live near the starting line, you’re out of luck. If, like thousands of visitors, you are staying in hotels outside of the city, you too are out of luck. There’s simply no way and no time for everyone to find their way into the city so they can get on a bus out of the city. I’ve written the BAA pleading that they need to offer a similar accommodation to those catching the shuttles in Hopkinton. To date, no reply.

Is this what Mr. McGillivray meant by us taking personal responsibility?

But let’s move on. Who can you trust in today’s world of terrorists? Apparently not the United States Military. The BAA has decreed, no bandits whatsoever! Indeed, your loved one can’t even jog along with you for a half mile for encouragement. I’ll avoid the lengthy discussion on that topic and jump to the punch line. The BAA has determined that the tradition of United States soldiers “rucking” the course in full gear constitutes unauthorized participants on the course and has been banned. Unless that soldier has a bib number, he or she cannot march on the course. [Ed. Note: I should clarify, I am not condoning or condemning banditry here; just stating that soldiers on a ruck do not, in my view, constitute bandits!]

Now wait a minute. If, God forbid, another incident occurs, those United States soldiers are just the people I want on the course. I don’t know about you, but I trust them. Ah, you say, but someone could disguise themself as a soldier, carry that big backpack, and… Well, let’s face it. if someone really wants to stage an attack, they’ll find a way. Barring soldiers won’t stop that.

But if the BAA doesn’t trust soldiers, who do they trust? Apparently, mall cops. Security personnel will be doubled, including a mix of police and private security. Bring on the cops, we love and respect them. (Though apparently the idea of someone impersonating a cop and carrying a weapon doesn’t raise an alarm like someone impersonating a soldier and carrying a backpack, but I digress). But private security? Exactly who are they? Have they, like our soldiers, taken an oath to uphold the Constitution? So we trust them, but not our soldiers?

And finally there is my favorite. Besides telling spectators basically not to bring much (who’s going to hand out beers to the five-hour-crew? …they deserve them!), there will be a significant increase in crowd barriers, both metal and ropes. Now that makes me feel a thousand percent safer. After all, we know how effective those barriers are at containing a bomb blast.

Or maybe it’s to protect me from those evil fans? We’ve all seen the pictures of the Duel in the Sun and earlier days of the Marathon where the crowd closed in so tight that there was barely room for the runners. But that’s just not the case today. The crowds are well behaved (yes, even at the beer-fueled colleges) and respectful of the runners. Never once in seven years have I been impeded by a spectator. So what’s the point in this? Just to keep those unauthorized people off the course? And what happens if they, like the chicken we watched amusedly in Key West last week, need to cross the road?

Clearly some increases in security are in order. Searching bags, even runners’ bags, is not unreasonable under the circumstances. A security perimeter around all spectator areas on Boylston Street as well as key locations like Kendall Square makes sense. More video surveillance, no matter what your opinion of the NSA, offers both preventative as well as forensic benefits. Significantly increased police presence, bolstered with the National Guard, to patrol the entire route would not only help prevent a repeat tragedy but enhance both spectators’ and participants’ feeling of safety, since no matter how strong, we must be vigilant. As we saw with the brilliant police work following the tragedy, human intelligence, backed up with technology, is key.

And some of the restrictions they’ve place on runners, like banning weight vests and large backpacks, are common sense moves. Last year while marshalling at the Groton Road Race, just two weeks after the Boston bombing, I chased down a runner wearing such a vest. I assumed – and sincerely hoped – it was a weight vest, but who could be sure? It looked like what a suicide bomber would wear. It was frightening. We don’t need that.

But theatre security is nothing other than theatre. It doesn’t solve anything, and it only creates skepticism among the public as to the efficacy of the efforts. Worse, targeting and unnecessarily restricting the actions of the runners is simply wrong. Separating runners from the equipment they need to perform at their peak is wrong. Putting runners at risk of hypothermia is wrong. Assuring us that we will adapt strikes me as odd; evolution to withstand hypothermia takes many generations. Adding insult by telling us that we have to take personal responsibility is infuriating. Yes, we need to be vigilant. But we are not criminals. We are runners, we are resilient and strong, and we don't want to see our event reduced to a choreographed dance where we are the mice in the maze.

I love the Boston Marathon. Let’s not cripple it. Please, let’s have clearer heads prevail.

1 comment:

  1. Gary, thank you. This post covers everything that has been running through my head (pun intended) over the past couple weeks. I too am running. I am in the close to 5-hour crew. Last year's Boston was my first marathon (memorable experience for my first, huh?). I live close to the start. I am lucky enough (I guess) that my brother works a block away from the finish and I can give him clothes to stash for me at his office. But for others....wtf? They don't have that.

    The BAA's actions are classic reactionary - not proactive to best accommodate the 36,000 reasons why we actually have the marathon - the runners.

    Thank you for this post. And best of luck in Boston.


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