I didn't run either of the above mentioned races, so I cannot comment first hand about what the situation was, but it seems clear that many runners had horrible experiences. Crowds and poor management/planning caused dangerous and uncomfortable situations. Many runners immediately jump to the conclusion that mega-organizers, like Competitor and their Rock n Roll series, is the root of these evils, and while I'm not super psyched to see the evolution of marathoning moving in the direction of the mega-corporate route, I'm not sure that that is THE problem.
Instead, I believe that greed plays a greater role, and greed is something that may plague both mega-races as and smaller, local races. Greed does not simply concern money and sponsorship. Greed also includes the desire for establishing a reputation - Dreams of Grandeur. Both these races were probably too big, and the organizers were ill equipped to deal with the sheer number of runners. They should have capped the races at lower numbers. Why they bit off more than they could chew is the real issue here.
Though mega-races have more issues to deal with. Let me offer my experience with two smallish Colorado marathons, one a nightmare and the other a fantastic experience that will keep me coming back for more. What makes the difference? Well, in one case the race director wants to create a world class marathon, and in the other case the race director hopes to run a really good Colorado Marathon. Both are admirable aims if approached realistically.
In the fall of 2009 I ran the Boulder Marathon. It was local, on the roads I train on regularly, and small - all things I find appealing. It was my hometown marathon! I had to run it, right? I trained through the summer and felt ready to run the race. Race week was HOT, hitting the mid-to-high 80s all week. This did not bode well for me because I hate the heat. SO be it, I can do this things as long as I drink and account for the heat. Race morning dawned warm, as expected. By the 8 a.m. start the sun was already high and hot and a desiccating wind blew across the plains east of the Rocky Mountains. I peeled off as many layers of clothes as was legal. I brought a small hand held water bottle to fill at each water stop. This was going to suck, I told my husband, but I can do it.
What I didn't plan for was that some of the aid stations would run out of water and Gatorade - that is, they had NO Fluids. At about mid-race the temperature was 86 degrees.The last hour of this race was a death march for me. Cramped up runners literally littering the sides of the roads. Ambulance sirens rang out from all direction. Cars drove around picking up distressed runners. At around mile 23, a Subaru pulled up next to me. I was walking, the first time I have every walked in a race, my legs cramped in an agonizing, unrelenting spasm. Someone from the Subaru asked if I wanted a ride. Oh jeeze, I look that bad, I thought to myself. I looked into the car and saw it was full of half-dead looking runners, and shook my head defiantly, laughing a little at the absurdity of what I found myself in the middle of, and said "No thank you". I should have taken that ride. I made it to the end, barely. Looking back, I realize now that my symptoms were fairly serious and this could have been worse then just an awful race. By the time I reached the food tents, there was none - well, there were some banana halves left. And all the available water had been trucked out to the course. There might have been some beer. Somehow, I just wasn't in the mood.
Initially I swore I would never do another marathon. The experience rivaled the pain and effort of childbirth without the happy ending. But of course, that resolution was forgotten after the week of cramping subsided. After doing meticulous research and reading scores of reviews on Marathon Guide, I signed up for the 2010 Colorado Marathon...
On Mother's Day 2010, the buses ferry us up the Poudre Canyon at 4:30 a.m. to the start of the race. The race begins at a chilly 6 a.m. The sun is just rising as we make our way down the canyon serenaded by the bubbling rumble of the Poudre River. What a wonderful way this is to start the day.
Big or small, when a runner signs up for a race, pays the entry fee, trains for the race, etc. they are expecting, and have a right to expect, that they will be given what the organizers say they will offer. If there are aid stations, then those aid stations should be equipped with aid! Duh. Runners make their plans (ie. should I carry my own water/fuel) based on what organizers say they will have available on the course. Running out of water, or anything else promised is unacceptable. Period. If the organizers have failed to keep their end of the agreement it seems that they owe something to the runner's who they've let down. It's simple: They've violated their end of the agreement and the runner has not received what she paid for.
In response to the 2009 Boulder Marathon fiasco, the director responded with (lame) excuses: He explained that they ordered enough water but it wasn't all delivered., and, that the weather was hotter than expected. To both weasily excuses I say "Piffle". Who's job is it to check on supplies? And, the weather reports for the entire week clearly predicted very hot (80s) conditions for a marathon and half marathon.
We all sign waivers when we register for races, and I suppose that I have been remiss for not reading them very closely. My bad. But regardless of the stated legal responsibilities that races may or may not assume, it seems there is some moral demand to do what you promise to do. Failing to do so puts runners at grave risk that they can not anticipate. So what do we have coming to us when we sign up for races? Is it up to the race directors what we have a 'right' to with our registration? Do the races have no moral and/or legal duty to deliver what they assure us they will offer? My main gripe is with for-profit groups like Competitor, RAM Racing, and other non charity races (big or small) that seem to be offering a 'product' (as much as I hate referring to races that way), but it looks more like a case of "bait-and-switch".
We probably won't see this issue discussed in the pages of Runner's World or Running Times. These magazines depend on the advertising dollars and are unlikely to bite the hands that feed them. But it behooves us, as the runners, who actually run these races, to get the world out and tell our stories. Support well run races, large or small. And to the race organizers who fail to meet their end of the bargain: I think you owe us our money back, at least.