Organizers of the Madison Marathon were at the mercy of Mother Nature during a heat wave that produced sweltering conditions for the May 30 race.
But there were some things officials could control that weren’t handled well and led to a sour race experience for some runners.
Madison Festivals Inc., which organizes the Madison Marathon, acknowledged as much in an 800-word e-mail sent last week to the roughly 2,150 people who competed in the full marathon portion of the event, which also featured a half-marathon, quarter-marathon, wheelchair marathon, kids’ race and half-marathon walk.
The message, which was co-signed by Madison Festivals event director Keith Peterson and president Rita Kelliher, was in response to negative feedback the organization received from some participants in the weeks after the race.
“We want them to know we’ve heard what they have to say, we know that there were these problems and we’re going to fix them,” Peterson said this week.
Many participants were annoyed even before the race began.
Cari Teff, 33, of Monroe, described the scene at the Madison Marathon Expo at the Alliant Energy Center on May 28 as “a complete disaster.” She said it took her an hour to pick up her race bib and timing chip — and even then her name had to be hand-written on the bib because she was considered a late registrant even though she had registered online several weeks earlier.
“You could sense the tension with all the workers,” said Teff, who competed in the half-marathon. “Everybody was frazzled. You could tell the whole thing was a mess.”
According to Peterson, the problems were the result of a new chip pickup system being implemented by J-Chip USA, which served as the Madison Marathon’s timing vendor for the first time this year.
“It probably wasn’t a smart move on their part to try a new system at a race with over 8,000 people,” said Peterson, who added J-Chip USA was hired after it received rave reviews from other races.
The e-mail to the marathoners addressed other issues associated with the Portland, Ore.-based timing vendor, including a significant delay in posting participants’ results online.
“Coupled with an inadequate number of bibs and neoprene straps, lack of a timing mat and screen at the Expo to verify your chip, no text messaging services, and insufficient bandwidth on their server to handle your results inquiries, we were hugely disappointed and embarrassed,” it read.
Confusion on course
Problems arose on race day in the aftermath of the officials’ decision to stop timing due to potentially unsafe conditions caused by the heat. While that decision was a sound one — by mid-morning temperatures had reached the mid-80s with a dew point in the mid-60s, creating a sauna-like atmosphere for participants — the execution was flawed.
At 10:15 a.m., officials decided they would stop timing the race 45 minutes later — 4 hours after the start of the race — and encourage runners to board buses back to the start line or slow down their pace considerably. That message was sent out to volunteers on the course, Peterson said, but a communication breakdown led to problems.
“One volunteer broke protocol,” Peterson said. “Rather than just encouraging runners to board the buses, they embellished and directed volunteers to start collecting timing chips.”
That led to some tense moments on the course, particularly at the 23-mile marker, where Peterson said a different volunteer was “adamant with the runners to try to get them to give up their chips.”
It also appears there was confusion that resulted from a decision at 10:30 a.m. to change the four-tiered flag alert system on the course from yellow (moderate) to red (high).
The raise in alert should have been moot because officials had decided 15 minutes earlier to stop the timing of the race at 11, but it led to disorder at some areas on the course.
Lucas Gustafson, of Sun Prairie, said he even heard the potential of a “black flag” being tossed about. At black, the highest level reserved for extreme or dangerous conditions or a course emergency, the event would have been canceled.
Gustafson, 24, was at the 20-mile mark at the time and had a decision to make. He could leave with his family, which was nearby, or continue on and be forced to stop when the race went to a black flag, which seemed like an inevitable result based on what he was hearing.
“I was under the impression that they were not going to let us finish,” said Gustafson, who was competing in his third Madison Marathon. “A day or two later, I heard people were allowed to finish and I was rather upset. Now I have a blemish on my marathon record.”
‘I was just mad’
Gustafson wasn’t the only runner who was confused. Some simply followed orders to quit the race.
Among them was Edmund Loy, who traveled to Madison from Honolulu hoping to make Wisconsin the eighth state in which he completed a marathon. His goal is to do one in all 50 states.
Loy, 30, wasn’t moving at a fast pace — he was in last place among the marathoners and was roughly at the halfway point of the 26.2-mile race when officials decided to stop timing — but he was determined to finish.
He said he was told to stop, only to find out later he could have kept going.
“I was just mad that I could have went on and finished,” he said.
Still, Loy intends to return to Wisconsin to cross the state off his marathon list and said he might even consider the Madison Marathon despite this year’s issues.
Some, like Michael Millard, of St. Augustine, Fla., had no intentions of stopping despite being encouraged to do so. Millard, who is from Madison, finished the race roughly six hours after he began it, albeit without an official time.
“The volunteers were kind of pressuring me to stop, but I just kind of ignored them,” Millard, 58, said. “I pretty much knew what I wanted to do.”
There were other complaints from runners on race day. Some thought there weren’t enough aid stations on the course, while others were disappointed to find warm water being distributed at some spots.
Susie Frey’s biggest complaint was congestion near the end of the race when marathoners had to dodge participants in the half-marathon walk, which was new to the event this year.
“There were many times there were walkers that were in the way,” said Frey, 40, of Prairie du Sac. “Or when you got to a water station, there’d be a bunch of walkers standing there and you’re trying to get water, and that I was not very happy with.”
Peterson said several changes will be made in 2011 as race officials try to learn from this year’s mistakes.
For starters, the event likely will have a different timing vendor next year. “I seriously doubt we will use them again,” Peterson said of J-Chip USA.
Peterson said the cap for participants in the event will remain at 8,500. He mentioned the possibility of the marathon’s cap being lowered to 2,000.
“We want to stay with that (overall) number, we want to correct these problems, and we all want to make all these things work correctly and show the runners that we can do that,” Peterson said.
And while the event had enough volunteers (1,100), Peterson admitted they need to be better prepared. He said Madison Festivals has decided it needs somebody working year-round to recruit and train volunteers.
Some runners have inquired about changing the date of the race to avoid the heat — timing for the 2006 race was also stopped early because of the heat — but Madison Festival officials view the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend as an optimal date because it can draw tourists to the city.
One solution may be an earlier start time. Peterson said officials have discussed starting as early as 6 a.m.
“Our goal is to present the best race possible,” Peterson said. “We want people to walk away and say, ‘Hey, I want to go back and do that one again.’
“That’s why we sent this letter, to say, ‘Hey, we know that there were some problems. Let’s be up-front and honest with you and tell you what we’ve learned so far and here’s what we’re going to do about it.’”