Race security still tight in 2014

Some officials expect security increases; runners still flocking to events

Updated: January 8, 2014, 9:08 AM ET
By Alison Wade | Runner's World

NYC Marathon SecurityStan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesSecurity at races is more visible, but the aim is to avoid overwhelming runners.
As anyone who has raced recently knows, the bombings at last year's Boston Marathon led to a collective tightening of road-race security throughout the country. And according to interviews with several event directors, race security will maintain its heightened post-Boston stance in 2014, even if there are no more incidents.

While terrorists have not specifically targeted road races in the way that they've attacked civil aviation, the Boston bombings exposed the vulnerability of large, outdoor events of all types, says Sal Lifrieri, owner of the security consulting firm Protective Countermeasures.

"When you're having an event as public as the marathons have become, generating the amount of people that show up, generating the amount of press coverage that they get as a result of the event, that becomes a soft target," Lifrieri said. "Our traditional thinking in terrorism is that [terrorists] would look for something that is a more high-value target. The reality is that they understand and they've learned that the soft targets are of equal, if not better, value."

Some post-Boston changes at races, such as using clear plastic gear-check bags and requiring runners to pick up their race bibs in person, have not required additional spending. Others, such as increasing the number of security officers along race courses, mounting video cameras along race routes, using patrol helicopters and restricting access to areas that were previously open, have come with a high price tag.

When asked how long the Boston Marathon would need to go without another attack, or if there are other benchmarks that would cause the race to re-evaluate the security measures planned for 2014, Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk replied, "It is matter of policy that B.A.A. officials, themselves, do not discuss matters related to security; rather, we cooperate with public safety officials towards the implementation of the plans."

[+] EnlargeMarine Cops Marathon
AP Photo/Cliff OwenThe Marine Corps Marathon's location and participants make it a visible target with plenty of strong security measures.
If there is a point at which the directors of large marathons are going to back off in their security measures and spending, it's unlikely to be in 2014. "The days of just handing out water and providing basic support are long gone," said Rick Nealis, race director of the Marine Corps Marathon, which spent approximately $1 million on security in 2013.

Nealis says that Marine Corps, run largely in Washington, D.C., went into "a whole different security posture" after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and essentially has not let up since. Nealis is acutely aware that his race is potentially an attractive target to terrorists both because it's in the nation's capital and is put on by a military organization.

"[Spending on security] has gone up, because each year it seems that we get either a little smarter or there are certain things happening in the world," Nealis said. "I actually told the staff that I would hope that we could start to scale back in some things, but I don't know if it's ever going to scale back."

Because the 2013 Pittsburgh Marathon took place fewer than three weeks after the Boston bombings, race director Patrice Matamoros and her staff had to work quickly to implement last-minute changes, including an increase in the number of security officers on the race course. She predicts no major changes in 2014.

"I expect that the security measures are going to be the same in terms of the amount of force we have in place," Maramoros said. "I think that with the first year of anything, you see your holes. We'll have the benefit of having a year under our belts, so I think those areas are just going to be tightened up."

Austin Marathon race director John Conley says that the 2014 edition of his race, the first since Boston, will feature beefed-up security, and if there are further changes down the road, they'll be in the form of increased rather than decreased security. "I can't see us going back, and I can certainly see us instituting more and more security measures," Conley said.

Because scaling back security -- and publicly admitting to doing so -- gives the appearance of risking the safety of race participants, mega-event race directors have little motivation to spend less on security, as long as they can afford it. Nealis speculates that as long as runners continue to flock to races, security spending will remain high.

"I think where it starts to play in is probably when the runner says, 'I can't afford the entry fee.' Without revenue, how do you pay the bills?" Nealis said. "But as long as we're able to pay the bills, and the runners are paying the fees, I don't see it changing."

Numbers holding steady

For now, runners are continuing to sign up and show up for major marathons in record numbers. November's New York City Marathon was the largest marathon ever, with 50,266 finishers. The Chicago Marathon also had its largest field ever, with 38,878 finishers.

Security adjustments haven't been limited to large races. Maureen Cox, race director of New York's Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, which had 939 finishers in 2013 (and 799 in the accompanying half-marathon), consulted with local law enforcement after the Boston bombings.

"We did not get any instruction to change the way we had traditionally been doing our race logistics," Cox said. Nonetheless, "based on prudence," Cox says the race used clear plastic gear-check bags and implemented stricter guidelines regarding race bib pickup. Neither change required increased spending.

Race directors are taking security cues from one another, and also learning from other professional sports. Carey Pinkowski, race director of the Chicago Marathon, says that his race benefited from security discussions with other members of the World Marathon Majors, which included observing the Berlin Marathon two weeks before Chicago. Chicago's operations staff also had the opportunity to attend Chicago Bears games and study the security measures in place.

[+] EnlargeNYC Marathon
Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesThe NYC Marathon set records in 2013, but having so many people out in the open is a security challenge.
This year's Running USA Conference, which is attended annually by many race directors, will feature an emergency-planning panel. Race directors are also sharing information in less-formal settings.

"We have a group who looks at what are best practices in our industry, and it's really about developing best practices that are consistent amongst the industry," Matamoros said. "We meet with other races periodically to discuss what security measures they're doing, so we can be in line with what are best practices."

As they discuss security, race directors are acutely aware of the need to balance the runner experience with keeping participants safe.

"The ultimate goal for us [is] the best possible runner experience that we can provide," said Chris Weiller, vice president of media and public relations for New York Road Runners, the organizer of the New York City Marathon. "Safety and security is a big part of that, and it's a big concern of ours, but so is how quickly [participants] move through registration, how quickly they can get to their starting point, or what they do with their baggage."

Race directors are conscientious about the visibility of their security efforts, trying to find the right balance between helping participants to feel safe, while not making them feel like they are in a police state. "Much of the work on [the security] end, the runners never see, unless something happens to them where there's an issue," Weiller said.

"Our customers really won't notice any of the things that we've implemented [at February's Austin Marathon], and that's really by design," Conley said.

Laura Dempsey, of Watertown, Mass., says she was not inconvenienced by the security measures in place at November's New York City Marathon. "I really felt like there was this great balance in attitude of the volunteers and the security team," she said. "I really felt like they took it very seriously, but as long as you followed instructions, it didn't affect you at all."

Dempsey and other runners have accepted the idea that being subject to additional security measures is a non-negotiable part of the big-city marathon experience now. "I'm running Boston in the spring and I have to assume that it's going to be a very different experience than the other Bostons that I've run," she said. "They have to respond to the events that have happened, and we have to respect that if we want to be a part of the event."

Kenny Yum, of Toronto, Ontario, says he believes he spent less time waiting for the start of the New York City Marathon in 2013 than when he ran the race in 2010, and that long wait times will not deter him from signing up for other big-city marathons. "The spectacle that is the big-city marathon is worth it, in my opinion," he said.

Alice Toyonaga, of Toronto, Ontario, says that though there were security-related delays at the New York City Marathon, she expected as much going in.

"It was upsetting that our running community had to now employ all these security measures, especially because races are all about positivity, overcoming adversity, accomplishments, and giving back, but I knew that by picking a world [marathon] major, and running New York City the year after it was canceled, and the same year as the Boston bombings, would mean additional security," Toyonaga said.

"I would actually be more concerned if a major race did not undertake security measures and received scrutiny for it than those that are putting them in place."

Jim Weatherly, a veteran marathoner from Missouri, says that while Chicago Marathon organizers did a good job of making him feel safe, he noticed an absence of spectators at the race's finish line. While race officials reported a record number of spectators, Weatherly said that they were, for the most part, not at the race's finish line.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Marathon
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicLimited course access was part of the short-notice security plan at the Pittsburgh Marathon in May.
"Race officials kept everyone a safe distance from the finish area -- friends, family, everyone -- so there was no cheering and celebration from the thousands of people you typically hear as you cross the finish line. Literally, the only people you saw were race volunteers," Weatherly said. "It was a little surreal -- such a big race, but no one at the finish line."

Weatherly said that he was more conscious of security at Chicago than he had been at his previous marathons.

"My wife and I actually discussed a 'disaster plan' just in case something happened," he said. "We just wanted to make sure we had a plan in place so were weren't desperately looking for one another in the large crowds." He adds that the increased security and more complicated logistics related to running a bigger city marathon will not prevent him for signing up for the big races in the future.

Scott Partenheimer, of New Jersey, ran November's Philadelphia Marathon and says that while he felt safe at the race, it was not necessarily due to the enhanced security. Partenheimer described the security measures in place in Philadelphia as "nothing more than a giant inconvenience to runners and spectators."

Nonetheless, Partenheimer says, as he chooses his future races, "The additional inconveniences of security will just have to be a part of those overall experiences."

Lifrieri says that keeping marathons safe will be a continuing challenge for race directors and local law enforcement.

"What the Boston Marathon did was it showed that somebody with very little technical capability can become incredibly effective," Lifrieri said. "All you need is one or two lunatics that have a mission and have a drive, stay within their technical capability, and they can disrupt, to a great degree, these events."

For the most part, however, fear is not keeping runners away from these events.

"The thought did cross my mind that something could happen, but only in the same sense that I sometimes sit on a plane and think it could crash," Partenheimer said. "Yes, it is a possibility, but ultimately a statistically improbable one, and I can't live my life fearing every single thing out there just because it could happen."

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