28 March 2014

Placing Blame

A couple of weeks back I penned my intense dismay at the security-driven changes to Our Beloved Marathon, and squarely placed the blame on the backs of the Boston Athletic Association and the race director, Dave McGillivray, starting that he should have known better. I did feel some remorse about singling out Dave, but to be Harry Truman about it, the buck stops there.

In the weeks hence, I’ve heard from several sources that the changes were driven by law enforcement, not the BAA. I don’t doubt those statements, but I’m not retracting my targeting of the blame. It was – and still is – the job of the BAA to work with law enforcement to ensure reasonable safety (remember, total assurance is unreachable) while not interfering with the runners’ ability to run their race. As I stated a few weeks ago, I’ve got no issue with having bags searched, being asked to minimize gear or carry it in clear bags, arriving a little early, and so on. But I’ve got a huge issue with being separated from the gear that I need to run my best race.

For the moment, I’ll ignore issues like the insult delivered to our soldiers being excluded as if they were ‘common criminal bandit runners’. I’ll focus on the practicalities: having the right attire, no matter the weather, when the gun goes off, and having the right attire, no matter the weather, at the far end so as to avoid hypothermia. I think those are fairly basic needs in any marathon, and they are basic needs I expect race organizers to take into consideration and not compromise on.

As it stands now, I can’t take anything into the Athlete’s Village that I can’t wear or I can’t fit into a five-by-five-by-fifteen inch fanny pack. The BAA’s web site makes clear what is allowable in that fanny pack: “food, nutritional products, medicine, identification, cell phone, home/hotel key or other similar and necessary small items”. I can’t check any gear at the Village, so whatever I don’t run with, I have to throw away – including the fanny pack. And I can’t check warm, dry clothes for after the race unless I board the buses at the Boston Common at six in the morning. For those already in Boston, this works, even if the clear plastic bag is small. For those of us who live near the starting line, that makes no sense. To get to the Common (and find parking) means leaving at a ridiculous hour…just so we can get on a bus back to our home turf? Wear me out before the race!

When this was announced, I sent a very respectful email to the BAA. I acknowledged their need for more security, accepted it, and focused only on the gear check policy: why those who live or stay near the start were excluded. No response.

I followed up several days later with a Facebook post on the Marathon page. I received a number of likes from runners, but from the BAA? No response.

Two weeks later, the BAA sent an email asking me whether I’d use the gear check service – yes, the one on the Common at six AM. I wrote back, this time a bit tersely, that I couldn’t tell them until they addressed the fact that there was no realistic gear check available to me. No response.

A week later, the BAA sent another email again asking whether I’d use the gear check. My response this time lost some points for tact, but still, I requested an answer. No response.

A week after that, now a full month since my first message, I wrote again. No response.

Two days later, the BAA emailed more information on the new security, including the allowable contents of the fanny pack which I noticed did not include shoes. I wrote one more time – fifth try, sixth if you count Facebook – requesting the courtesy of a reply. Finally, yesterday, they called me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t home. But I called them back today, and ran into the maw of a shredder-chipper. I came out the other end stunned at how I was treated by the people to whom I spoke.

To be fair, I didn’t hide from them the fact that I was highly dismayed by the changes. But I told them, as I have said all along, that while I understand the need for more security, not allowing runners to bring what they need was the real problem. I held no fantasies that I’d get any big changes, but I asked that we try to fix the problem at least in terms of clearly understanding what would be allowed. I figured it was better to be clear now than to have a debate when boarding the bus in Hopkinton – at which point, of course, it would be too late to make any adjustments. The conversation, recounted here, was astounding. I’ve shortened it to spare you pain, but most of what I attribute to the BAA reps are direct quotes I jotted in my notes. Hang on for this ride…

First, I explain that I don’t mind discarding old clothing at the start, but if the weather is iffy, I may not even know what good racing clothes I’ll need until the last minute, and I don’t want to discard good racing clothes. I don’t expect to get anywhere with this, but I’m really surprised where it goes.

BAA Rep A: Then wear old things.

Me: I race on a team. I wear a team jersey, not old things.

BAA Rep A: You don’t need to wear that.

Wow. What can I say about that? On to the next topic: If it’s wet or raining, I’ll need dry shoes at the starting line. I don’t mind discarding an old pair, but your guidelines say I can’t bring anything but the fanny pack, and your list of the allowable contents of the fanny pack doesn’t include shoes.

BAA Rep A: You can carry them around your neck. They can’t be in a bag.

Me: Um, if it’s raining, they’ll get wet around my neck, especially if they can’t be in a bag. Can I put them in the fanny pack? And can I put them in a bag in the fanny pack so they don’t get wet? (About this time BAA Rep transfers me to BAA Rep B.)

BAA Rep B: Sneakers (yes, she called them sneakers) in a bag are not allowed. If you can fit them in your fanny pack, you can bring them.

Deep breath. OK, that was crystal clear. I don’t want to have this debate at the bus in Hopkinton, so I try for more clarity. Right! So if I’ll have to discard the fanny pack (we debate about running with the fanny pack, I try to explain that racers don’t race with luggage), what exactly constitutes a fanny pack? Can I make one out of a bag? Does it have to be strapped around my waist?

BAA Rep B: (Starts accusing me of harassment and other mean nasty things.) No, the fanny pack doesn’t have to be around your waist.

Me, befuddled. So if the fanny pack doesn’t have to be around my waist, isn’t that just a bag?

BAA Rep B: Why are you splitting hairs? Bags are not allowed.

Me, utterly lost: What is the difference between a fanny pack and a bag that fits your dimensions? Does it have to have a zipper? Please, I don’t understand the rule and don’t want to get stuck when boarding the bus.

BAA Rep B: I will not tell you if you can bring a bag. It may work, it may not. She proceeds to berate me again for harassing her, and hangs up on me.

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but when I get to the shuttle bus loading point, I don’t want to have a debate with a Blackwater-lookalike private security guard about whether my homemade fanny pack meets their definition (I have no intentions of throwing away a perfectly good real one). It makes sense to be certain up front. So, like a marathoner – we never give up, right? – I call back. I get BAA Rep A again. Look, I say, I really want race day to go smoothly. All I need to know is if I show up with a dry pair of shoes in a bag that fits within your fanny pack dimensions, are you or are you not going to allow me to bring it to the Village?

BAA Rep A: Please hold….three to five minutes pass…You can bring your shoes in a bag no larger than that size. Stop harassing us. Hangs up.

Wow. I feel like a valued customer. I left out plenty of this conversation. I won’t claim to have been angelic throughout, but I will certify that I kept my cool the whole time. Dearest Spouse, who can be rightly harsh on me when I’m not nice to people (which, sadly, does occur), overheard a decent portion of this conversation. I pleaded with her for complete honesty, not that she wouldn’t offer it anyway. Was I OK on that call? Yes, she assured, and noted that the speakers on the other end clearly sounded like they’d had enough of these questions. That’s probably true, we both agreed, but it was no reason to treat the customer – the runner – the way they did.

So if it’s wet, I think I can bring dry shoes in a bag the size of a fanny pack. But I’d better duct tape it around my waist to be sure. You never know. You’ve got to hand it to them; this is unique. I’ve never worried about having access to shoes for a marathon. I’m sure gaining experience. And I still don’t get why baggage buses have been banned by law enforcement. If the BAA is willing to accept (presumably searched) small clear plastic bags of dry clothing before boarding the bus at the Boston Common, why can’t they accept them before boarding the bus in Hopkinton? Yes, they’d have to bus them to Boston, just like they’ve done for years. Except there’d be a lot less of them, they’d be a lot smaller, and they’d be pre-searched, safe cargo. Go figure.

Let’s face it: law enforcement doesn’t know about running marathons, nor do I expect them to. But the BAA does. The process of developing the new security guidelines should have brought together these two fields of expertise. It didn’t. The BAA gave in where they shouldn’t have and didn’t need to. Preventing me from checking dry clothes for post-race doesn’t make me any safer. Making it difficult to have basics like dry shoes doesn’t make me any safer. All of this theatre security doesn’t make me any safer. If someone is determined to stage an attack, they will. And treating me poorly because I question these basic errors is inexcusable.

The result is a race where elites won’t notice the difference, with their needs attended to (as they should be), and the marathon-as-a-life-goal runners won’t care, because they feel no pressure for time performance and inconveniences aren’t so critical to their success. But the competitors – of which Boston has a higher percentage than any other major marathon – will find it a hostile place.

The BAA should know better.

1 comment:

  1. I don't envy you Gary. I'm glad that I ended my marathon career back in 1986 at Boston. One does not have to go through so many hoops for track racing.

    Jon Berit


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