This year’s Marathon gig started like any other for us. We got to our assigned location at Mile 18.1 at 7:30 a.m., received our diesel generator, setup our p.a., did a little soundcheck, pounded some breakfast from a nearby Mexican joint, and got ready to start playing when the elite wheelchair athletes and runners came into sight around 9 a.m.
But one thing really differed from our past Marathon performances: We were sweaty just from setting up! In 2006, race-day temperatures were in the 30′s when we arrived, and we were struggling to keep our hands warm enough to play. This time it was in the 70′s when we arrived, and had broken into the 80′s by the time any racers reached us. This was going to be a day of intense, abnormal autumn heat, no doubt about it.
So off we go, tearing through extended versions of song after song as throngs of mostly happy runners made their way round the bend at Ashland and Taylor St. Kip was out of town for this one, so Ryan, Billy and I all did a little more singing than usual, and we had fun throwing some new tunes into the set (Billy sang “The Crawdad Song”, Ryan did “Ain’t it a Shame”, and I did “Friend of the Devil”). A good sized crowd assembled along the street and the energy level was solid for a nice sustained period, with a few really great peaks. Most notably, I thought most of the runners looked remarkably good considering the conditions. I only saw a few looking really stressed or weak as they passed, which seemed pretty amazing, esp. after we later learned that many of them couldn’t even get water at some of the support stations…
We were on the southeast corner of Ashland/Taylor with the racers passing about 3 feet in front of us as they made the turn, which I hope will make for some interesting video. I ran my camera during peak-times facing directly into the race from our stage area on the sidewalk. I’ll post some to Youtube if it’s any good. As in past years, it was definitely a thrill to make eye contact with tens of thousands of runners at close proximity like that. We got lots of waves, thank you’s, mini-jigs, and blown kisses as usual, and we did our best to keep the music upbeat and flowing for the runners and their many supporters.
Then about 11:20 or so, fatigue started hitting the band. Ryan and I were in just about full sun by this point, sweating from head to toe, and were starting to cramp up in the hands. I was downing whole bottles of water between songs and could feel it racing directly back out through my skin. I could only imagine how the runners were dealing with personal hydration issues and cramping at this point. Billy and Paul were still enjoying a bit of shade, but they too appeared to be heating up, so we took a ten minute break to catch our breath and get our hands relaxed, then started back up for what we assumed would be 90 more minutes of music. We knew the runners had it way harder than we did, so if they were still running, we fully intended to keep playing until the sweeper van came through for the last of the stragglers.
But only about 20 minutes went by before a police officer told us the race was canceled and asked us to stop playing. We were not entirely sure what to make of this, but we did as we were told, and started making announcements to the runners that they should stop running and make their way back to Grant Park, and/or hop in a transport bus. To my eye, the runners were mostly unable to process this news, and who could blame them? Many of them just kept running. Others asked questions we were unable to answer. And one even told us that he was listening to the news on his headphones, and they said anyone who made it past mile 13 by then could actually finish the race.
At this point our certainty about the news from the police and the one race employee on hand eroded considerably, so I asked the race guy to get us some definitive scoops. Not only were we unsure whether to keep playing or not, but the racers were dependent on us for information and we didn’t have anything solid to deliver. So off he ran with radio in hand, and we never saw him again…
About 15 mins. go by and we get no new info from the local authorities, so Paul starts calling our booking contacts, and quickly gets detailed confirmation that the race is canceled, all runner support is being terminated immediately, and we should wrap it up. Word was they were out of water, the local ambulance fleet was taxed, racers were dropping all over the course, and things had hit a dangerous condition, so they were pulling the plug, even though they still had 10,000+ racers on the course.
As the news started spreading among the racers and the crowd, the trail of runners slowed quickly to a trickle and the crowd began breaking up. By the time we had our p.a. torn down and packed into our cars, local merchants were out sweeping up cups and restoring Taylor St. to normal. The great positive energy of the race was quickly erased, and a somewhat alarming number of ambulances and helicopters were traversing the area, sirens blaring everywhere. This was beyond anti-climactic – things seemed pretty dire, and in our semi-exhausted state, we were not entirely sure what to make of it all. This was clearly a big deal and not what anyone had hoped for…
As we prepared to leave, Alisa saw an ambulance from Stickney, and I saw one from Summit, confirming that the local ambulance supply was indeed running low. We just hoped not too many racers were in crisis situations. The wife of one my good friends had run the race, and while we were getting word of the cancelation, I got a text from my friend saying his wife was at Cook County Medical Center, having passed out not long after Mile 18. Thankfully she just needed fluids and a good cool-down. Sadly, we later learned that the one racer who lost his life also collapsed just down the course from where we’d been playing… Our heartfelt condolences go out to his friends and family.
So that was it – the organizers called the race off, lots of people didn’t get to finish, and I’m sure a lot of lessons were learned by the city and the organizers. They deliberately schedule the race in October with hopes of having cool, manageable weather, but that didn’t come through for them this year, and after it became apparent that they’d bitten off more than they could chew by even starting the race in the first place, they felt they had no choice but to back out. Can’t say I blame them – the safety of a lot of runners was in question by then. But then I didn’t train for months and travel from afar to run the race, so I’m sure there are others who just couldn’t see it that way, and had to have left the day hugely disappointed. Our sympathies go out to all the runners who were deprived of their finish, whether through collapse or cancellation. I’m sure in 5 or 10 years this whole thing will make a great personal story for you to recount, but today it’s got to sting.