Boston has changed the game for road running

2013-04-20 00:00

PRESIDENT Obama received a standing ovation after saying the perpetrators of the double bomb-blast during the Boston Marathon had picked the wrong city.

It was also the incorrect sport for anyone to target in this way. A photo circulating on a social network says it all: “If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target!”

This maxim was demonstrated seconds after the blast. Bill Iffrig was blown into the air, landing metres from the fencing. Three burly Boston police officers rushed to his aid, but he climbed to his feet, dusted himself off and then ran the remaining metres to be one of the last official finishers before the race was closed 700 metres before the finish.

The determination and commitment of marathoners are encapsulated in this one act. Iffrig is 78 years old. He had just run the marathon in four hours and three minutes and secured second in his age category.

Other incidents saw runners who had already completed the race, despite tired legs and bodies, running back through the finish to help the injured.

The aftermath of the bombs saw many touching moments, such as the finisher who found a fellow runner, Laura Wellington, sitting on a curb, overcome with tears of relief.

She had just finished phoning her family, who had been waiting at the line when the blast occurred, to find they were safe and well.

The runner took off his medal and presented it to Wellington, saying that all runners were finishers today.

In the following hours, what had started as a dozen or so runners who wanted to run the final 700 metres turned into a mass of runners who covered the final distance “for those who couldn’t”.

The shock waves from the bombs reverberated around the world, with support, condemnation and condolences for the people of Boston coming from nations, international associations, marathons and individuals.

People all over the world are running some form of support race. Today, as you read this, South African runners will be wearing black ribbons at the N3TC Loskop 50 km.

Tomorrow the organisers of the London Marathon have pledged £2 (about R28) for every finisher towards a Boston memorial.

These are the public images of the impact, but below the surface Boston has changed the game for major participation events.

After the attacks at the Athens Olympics in 2004, the focus has been on preventing spectators interfering with runners. The plan must now be to get spectators out, and typically the most open space is along the running route.

Race organisers will review the footage to avoid the mistakes of that day. The wooden and wire fencing used with scaffolding sections caused considerable delay in getting the injured out. It took more than a dozen burly policemen, soldiers and marshals to remove that fence, which had to be lifted shoulder high.

Although the whole route of a road race is vulnerable, the start, finish and designated spectator points create the most risk. At most major events the route is swept, manholes are marked and taped for movement, crowds are monitored and helicopters patrol not only for TV but to observe suspicious activities. But how do you stop a suicide bomber who is an official entrant? A liquid bomb in a water bottle is impossible to detect.

Runners packed in at three to four per square metre at the start is a real concern. Does a number on a vest ensure the person is a runner? In 2008 a suicide bomber at the start of a Sri Lanka marathon killed dignitaries and runners and injured over 100 other people. The coverage was low key as people tried to come to terms with how you can prevent such a situation.

In 2006 the Beirut Marathon was postponed by one week because of the assassination of the minister of industry. As organisers we reviewed everything and worked out a Plan B for evert conceivable “what if”.

Thankfully those plans were never needed. People from all walks of life and of different religions and political affiliation united in running.

Unfortunately one can’t always rely on such unity, and right now my thoughts are with the organisers of London. Have they overlooked anything?

Boston has changed the future of road-running events.

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