Friday, May 25, 2012

Protecting Us From Ourselves?

Due to the extreme heat on Sunday at 9:25 a.m. the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon’s medical director made the decision to shut down the course for the safety of the runners and volunteers. Within ten minutes of this decision all water station and timing personnel were notified of this decision. At 9:35 a.m. the finish line was shut down. Participants who crossed the finish line after that time will not receive official results.
“Our medical resources were being heavily utilized and we reached a point that the safest decision was to shut the race down,” said Dr. Jeremy Metzler, medical director of the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon. “Runner safety is our first priority and we had to make that call for our runners.

When the race was shut down, the marathon implemented its contingency plan and deployed shuttles to all the water stations to pick-up runners on the course.

“Despite the closed course and the urging of public safety, our operations team and volunteers, some runners chose to stay on the course,” said Sean Ryan, race director of the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon. “We would like to thank the community members, medical staff and volunteers who stayed on the course to provide water and support to these runners.”

A total of 3,622 individuals finished the half marathon before the shutdown. Only ten elite marathon finishers received official finisher results based on gun time, not chip time, per USATF guidelines regarding marathon prize money.
Posted at 12:47 pm in Race Day
There's been lots of discussion on this issue recently. Many runners agree that sometimes RDs have to make decisions that are difficult and close the course for the sake of public safety. Others contend that the course should not be closed, and those who choose to run should be allowed to continue, and if they finish they should receive an official finishing time.

I'm with the second group on this.

First, Let me clearly state that I am not a libertarian (I believe that those who need help should receive help) but I do subscribe to the view (presented by John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty") that we should suffer fools, perhaps not gladly, but allow them to do the things we may deem stupid nonetheless. J.S. Mill argued that each of us should be permitted to do what we wish as long as we do not harm another. May we harm ourselves? Sure. May we suffer the consequence of our unwise decisions? Sure.
"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." ~ John Stuart Mill
Now this may sound overly "legalistic" and official, but Mill applies it to all aspects of life. The theory basically rests on the belief that each of us are happiest when we are permitted to pursue our own good (interests, desires, dreams, goals) in our own way. We don't want to be told, and made to do, something "for our own good". There are some necessary conditions (for Mill and for me) that must be met: This applies only to mature, rational human beings capable of caring for themselves. This implies that one needs to be able to weigh the risks and benefits of an action and can then rationally determine whether the action is worth it.

Concerning Green Bay, stories are flying around, fast and furious, about runners collapsing from the heat. These stories are used to illustrate why it's obvious that the RD did what he had to do and that we need to be protected from ourselves. But I don't see how the stories themselves illustrate that. Shouldn't we be allowed to take responsibility for our own choices?

One of the problems, as I see it, is cultural: People seem to think that they will always be safe and/or taken care of and therefore there are no risks. 

I'll give a couple examples:

Example #1: Many years ago my husband and I spent a couple weeks in Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park. Camp 4 is a rustic 'climber's' camp located near the start of the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls. This hike and trail is fairly long and arduous for the uninitiated. What we saw everyday were families embarking on a day's long hike, sans water, food, clothing for possible weather changes, etc. They took off in flip-flops and tank tops. Every single day that we were there, there was a 'rescue' where Rangers had to go retrieve an unprepared hiker.

Example #2: In Rocky Mountain National Park, visitors love to go see and take pictures of the elk. What you end up seeing are mothers holding their babies standing 15 feet from a huge bull elk for the sake of a picture. People! That's crazy.

So why does this happen? I believe it's because we don't really grasp the risks we face. I like to call it the "Disneyfacation" of recreation and athletic pursuits. We believe that everyone can do anything and if it's an organized event, or a park, or a trail, then it's gotta be safe. We believe everything is 'safe'. It's all just like a trip to Disneyland!  Just last night I had a guy laugh at me when I somewhat jokingly pointed out to another climber that he was "gonna die" if he continued doing something (stupid) that he was about to do because he wasn't paying attention. The other climber laughed at my remark, and said 'you can't die in the gym". Ummmm. Yes you CAN!  

Our culture has tried to make everything seem safe. But the fact remains that some things are inherently dangerous to some degree because we will never be able to control all the variables in all situations. We are lying to ourselves if we believe that everything is safe. Add to that the fact that people are sometimes stupid and you have a bad situation. Instead of trying to protect ourselves from dangerous situations we should work to instill a degree of respect and understand of what we are getting ourselves into.

In 2009 I ran a very hot marathon and I didn't do it well! Part of the problem rested with the RD's negligence (inadequate fluids, given the conditions, at aid stations). But it was also my fault. I didn't drink enough. I didn't have a clue how much I needed to drink or what to drink. And, I ended up hobbling the last 6 miles, every muscle in my body cramping with every step and breath. But here's the thing: I learned SO much from that experience. I did things right at Boston this year because of the lessons I learned during that horrible marathon. Granted I survived to use the lessons learned, but the fact remains that even in organized events I need to understand that I am responsible for the choices I make.

Many argue that the RDs job is to make sure everyone is safe. Is that the RDs job IF the RD has fulfilled his/her responsibilities? Where does my choice, my liberty, my individual sovereignty come in? Should I be permitted to do something stupid if I decide that , for me, it's worth it? I understand why RDs do it. You want your race to have a positive reputation - with fun and PRs not suffering and death. But that is a different issue then whether it's an RD's job (duty?) to make sure we don't do something stupid.

I'm sure these situations will only continue as more people take on challenges that perhaps they are ill prepared for.
"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." ~ John Stuart Mill


  1. You can clearly see the cultural element of that whole complex of personal responsibility/individual freedom/safety when you travel abroad... Many times in Europe, I thought, "The US would have put a guard rail here!" or something along those lines. Also, did you know that in Pamplona, there's no waiver or whatever for running with the bulls? Either you stand and watch or jump in and run-- I can't imagine a similar situation in the USA.
    Yes, we are not a collectivist society but I wouldn't say that we're totally about the rugged individual either as it seems we strangely want to be protected...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I support many of the principles of Communitarianism - but even there my freedom is limited by the interests and liberty of others and the notion of the common good. I am not a rugged individualist at all - because I do believe that those who need help should receive it if that's possible (ought implies can) - But in this case I don't see how my decision to run effects (negatively) those around me (except perhaps my family). And yes, Ive had many similar experiences in Europe.

  2. My husband and I went to west South Dakota a couple years ago in the summer. We drove through Custer Park, just outside the park were a few grazing full grown, fully intact male bison. The car in front of us was honking and hollering at the large bison to do something other than graze. Needless to say, Hubby and I just went around them asap!

    Last summer I ran a 13.1 in very hot weather. Hubby was out on an endurance cycling race and I found this half to do. 85 by 7am for the start, I think they said the humidity was 80-85% and by the time I finished, it was worse. Over a mile at the end was all on concrete road, no shade whatsoever. I was pretty disappointed in my time, as I had walked quite a bit, but I also knew I was playing it safe. My time as about fourteen minutes slower than normal, so not too bad. After I read the Runners World calculation for heat/humidity, adding about a minute per mile in this type of weather, I felt that I did pretty okay.

    Istill have no idea how the elite people managed to run so well/fast in the heat that was there in the first part of the day.---but that's why they are the elite, right?

  3. Enjoyed your blog. Don't agree with you on "First, Let me clearly state that I am not a libertarian (I believe that those who need help should receive help)..." That implies that you mean to force your belief on others by confiscation of their capital through the force of government. I'm not in favor of that. Instead, I am in favor of the free market meeting that need where people help each other directly. It works. We see fundraisers daily for those undergoing medical care. The USA is the most generous nation in the history of man with its charitable giving. The US government is notoriously wasteful in how it reallocates dollars, no matter whether the administration is Democrat or Republican.

    Relative to running, I agree with you. There are inherent risks in everything we do, and running is no different.

    I used to be very active in overseas missions trips. When I would take new team members to other countries, they often remarked at how few safety features there were in the other countries, e.g. guard rails. I would respond that these people learn how to live without them. I have read elsewhere it being called the "wussification" of America. Look at how many stickers are required on a simple step ladder.

    A buddy of mine earned his master degree in economics. He jokes often that the solution to making driving safer in the USA is not airbags but replacing them with steak knives. That's a gory visual to be sure; however, it illustrates the point that if people bear the risk themselves, they have incentive to make much better decisions.

    Happy trails.

    1. I'm not going to get into a big political philosophy debate right now - the only point of that statement is to point out that I can value liberty without accepting the libertarian position (which is both very popular and misunderstood in the current political climate). Let me just say that politically and ethically I believe in both liberty rights and welfare rights. Enough on that ;)

      My point is that we are all happier when we are allowed to pursue our own good in our own way - even if others think we're being stupid. Life is richer when we are able to do this. Does this mean that there are risks - sure. I accept them and my own foolishness if that's what it comes to. The only way to avoid this possible outcome is restrictions that I find unacceptable.

  4. I support anyone's right to do whatever they want, and at whatever level of risk it may place them, as long as it doesn't place me at risk. Want to run 26.2 in 90 degree weather, even when the organizers have canceled the event based on sound medical and public safety opinion? Do it. If they have a medical emergency, public safety people will respond. They always will. They're not paid by the organizers. They just do it. I did it often when people were injured or had medical emergencies from a lack of prudence. When the exercise of one's rights is imprudent and deleterious to others, then yes, perhaps we need to protect them (and others) from themselves.

    1. Yes, I agree Ken, and I tried to emphasize this, that the line is drawn when others are harmed. My rights and liberties are always limited by your rights and liberties. Then I am protecting others - but for no other purpose.

  5. This was a good post. I can understand calling a race if medical resources were being so overtaxed that people were, well, dying. In this age of lawsuits (i.e. participants NOT taking responsibility for themselves, but blaming an outside party when things go ill), I can see how that would make a race director very nervous. That said, I'd also be very upset if I'd trained for a marathon and weren't allowed to finish it (even with a bad time).

    1. Well, if we could all take responsibility when the responsibility lies with us then that would help. My complaint is twofold - a) canceling races for unnecessary reasons, b) a culture that expects everything to be safe and taken care of.

  6. Nice read! I definitely agree that many people don't understand the risks involved with their actions. When I first started running a few years back and thought I knew everything, I found out the hard way I didn't...Trying to run my 20mile run in 95 degree weather was not smart at all, but luckily nothing too serious happened from it and I learned a lot.


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