The 2015 Savannah Rock n Roll Marathon left many hot under the collar and not just because of November temperatures in the low to mid eighties. Runners who started in the early corral numbers near the start of the race were able to finish both the half and full marathon course, but runners in later corral starts were diverted with marathoners being turned around at the 21 mile marker and later the 15 mile marker, causing many to feel cheated and wondering why?
As marathon runners in corrals 12 and 13 began their descent upon the Truman Parkway exit toward Savannah State, they noticed a number of other dejected runners coming back the other way. One man yelled out that we would be stopped up ahead and we wondered if there had been a traffic accident or perhaps the runners were so spread out that police were stopping them to allow traffic through. It was not until we actually reached the turn around point that we saw traffic blockades with a serious looking official telling us we had to turn around.
When one woman demanded why, we were informed that the weather was too hot which drew a series of disgruntled replies. Two ladies from Florida were agast that temperatures in the upper seventies were considered too “extreme” considering both Floridians and south eastern Georgians had been training for this race in ninety degree temperatures and 100 percent humidity for months in advance.
One poor woman broke into sobs and physically shook and stopped running all together as she called her husband on the cell phone to tell him that the race had been cancelled. Many people mistakenly believed that the race was cancelled and that it was no point in running further. Dejected walkers slumped their shoulders and shook their heads wondering what else could go wrong.
Before the marathoners broke off from the half marathon group to head toward the south side of town for another 13.1 miles, they had been met with apologies at water tables that had run out of water and were filling cups from a lawn hose donated by a neighbor living along the course route. Another water table had pitchers of water but no cups and again the volunteers apologized. There was supposed to be water every two miles and bands about the same distance, but it seemed that there were not as many bands the further in the race went and water tables seemed less extensive, causing many runners to have to stop and wait or snatch and grab cups, causing a bit of a back up.
While many complained about being turned back, others were glad that the Rock n Roll officials were looking out for people. While it was not really that hot to locals who were used to the temperatures, the previous years of the race saw temperatures in the fifties and sixties, not the upper seventies and with a thick fog that blocked the sun from shining, it was hard to tell if you were sweating or water vapor was condensing on your skin.
We learned later that a 35 year old man died at the six mile mark of the half marathon. A Savannah Strider runner said he passed by as medics were giving him CPR. The man was later taken by ambulance to a hospital but reportedly did not recover and there was no word at the time of this writing over what caused his death but many believe it was a heart attack. It would mark the third death over a series of five years the race had been run in Savannah.
Reports had it that there were so many people falling out of the race due to heat exertion and exhaustion, that area medics were not able to keep up with the calls. We later learned that race officials had decided that if the combined air temperatures and humidity reached a certain level, the race would be shortened, but many found this to be ridiculous as some were turned back at the 21 mile marker, just a few miles short of the 26.2, while others were turned back at the 15 mile marker, running only about 18.5 miles. Their times were listed at 15 mile marathon diverted and 21 mile marathon diverted.
To their credit, race officials had multiple ice buckets available as well as iced towels and iced sponges along the Truman Parkway section which was the hottest part of the course with no shade. Just as soon as the 15 mile diverted crew arrived on the long stretch of pavement, the sun broke through the clouds causing the temperatures to rise in the low 80s with nearly 100 percent humidity and no breezes so that sweat soaked bodies were not able to cool using evaporation, though ninety percent of the runners or more were feeling fine and those who weren’t simply took walk breaks or slowed their pace to accommodate
For many running their first marathon and especially those who had traveled cross country to get here, it was a huge disappointment. Runners were turned around on the Truman Parkway with many falsely believing the race was cancelled and their times would not be counted. It was disheartening seeing so many people walking back after running over 15 miles keeping a steady pace to finish the race in under five hours, though many bravely ran on, trying to make the most of it and at least get back in time to see the featured band. Rascal Flatts perform in Forsyth Park.
The final miles back seemed futile as the marathoners rejoined the half marathoners and a very few marathoners at the back of the pack, who obviously did not check the course map in advance, actually thought they had run the entire route and were not aware the course had been diverted. At two miles out from the finish it was hard for many to stay motivated and one lady said she did not even want to accept a medal because she did not earn it. All of the diverted runners still were given marathon finisher medals and jackets despite not having run the entire course, so it was a bit of a hollow victory with medals being handed to them rather placed around their necks and a bottleneck at the finish which caused those who pushed it over the line to feel trapped as aching muscles cramped at having to stand still and wait to get through the crowds.
One police officer admonished those who were trying to cut through the finishers to have some respect for people who had been on their feet running for nearly four hours and let them pass through. His words were a blessing to those who felt like passing out and just wanted to get to water and refreshments and take a break in the shade. There were plenty of goodies at the finish including protein bars, chocolate milk, Gatorade and cold water, but many people were still disgruntled, even down to the fact that the portable johns at the start of the race ran out of toilet paper and that had it not been for the generosity of many individuals living along the route who passed out ice, cut fruit and water, many would have had to wait nearly four miles to get more water.
The salt packets that were supposed to be at many tables along both the half and marathon courses turned into one person at the halfway point of the marathon handing out table salt im corrugated paper packages like the type you sprinkle of french fries at the fast food stands, but there was a lot of ice and some paramedics actually packed tie bags with ice and tossed them to runners so they would not have to stop and wait for refills in the paper cups many now carried for fear other water stations would not have any left.
On the Savannah Rock n Roll Facebook page, a representative stated, “We always strive to deliver a fun and safe race experience to all participants. We would appreciate if you directly messaged us so we can address your concerns and answer any questions you have. Thank you.”
To which one reader replied, “I was attempting to address you through several social media sites, and this is the first to which you have responded. I am extremely upset (obviously) at your cancellation of my wife’s first full marathon. Shall we discuss this?”
The Rock n Roll moderator goes on to say that the race was shortened to protect the health and well being of all runners. Runners who were turned back were promised a free entry into the Rock n Roll of their choice and were awarded medals and jackets, so it was not all a loss, even though many felt the proverbial rug and been pulled out from under them. When you train for three to four months for an event and especially if you are running in memory or honor of someone and want to push yourself beyond limits you never knew you could achieve, having your vision cut short is more than disappointing, it is disheartening as well. Many felt more sickened by this foreshortening of their lifelong dream than were sickened by the supposed heat, yet again, most understood the necessity to protect other runners who might not be as well prepared and acclimatized to a typical fall day in the south.
At least four people (all middle aged men in apparent good physical condition) were seen lying on the side of the road along the first half of the full and half marathon, surrounded by a team of paramedics, so it was easy to see why they might not have enough people to respond to all the calls. Later it turns out the half marathon was also diverted, cutting the mileage short as well, though more half marathoners were able to finish before being diverted. Close to 1, 800 marathoners were diverted. Nearly 20,000 people ran in both the half and full marathons.
Nate Woods, who had friends in the Florida Ironman that ran on the same day stated that conditions were even more humid and hot but that it was well supported and everyone had a great race, making some question whether race planners had gone far enough to support runners, but again, most people felt it was a necessary evil to divert and shorten the course to protect lives and to be fair, many people running in the half and even the full, were not as well trained as those competing in an ironman might be.
The general response from most runners was that they were bummed and upset at first, but glad that no one else had to die so that they could finish the distance. Still, many felt that running out of cups and water and not having enough cooling stations on the half marathon route was inexcusable for a race this big.
“You expect that kind of thing for a small race,” said one woman who wished not to be identified, “but in a race this big on a national level, you would think they would have planned better.
Those experiencing any problems or who just want to vent have been requested to contact event organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org rather than post them on the Facebook page. Sandy Gomo probably mirrored the opinions of a number of people by saying, :Canceling a marathon is not okay. The runners trained specifically for this date and can’t just try again next week. They spent lots of money on travel. RnR didn’t just screw up. You failed epically and should be put out of this business.”
Some people even called for a boycott of further RnR races and wanted reimbursement not only for their entry fees, but for hotel and travel expenses as well. The guidelines for Rock n Roll races clearly state that they have the right to cancel any event without a refund based on inclement weather, so in their defense they are doing well to offer a free entry into another event and while training for a marathon is a lot different than training for a 5K, it is nice to know they are making an effort to rectify the situation. In the meantime, Savannah natives have expressed sorrow over the death of the runner and hope that no one’s experience was so tainted that they will not return next year to support the race and the city that did a fine job hosting such a major running event.
Rock on and keep running. It is better to be safe and cut a race short than allow it go on and risk more people becoming sick or facing another person dying, so we hope the event organizers will learn something from this and come back even stronger next year and maybe we can keep up our training long enough to take a second shot at a first marathon!