CHAMPAIGN – Among dozens of calls, texts and emails Jan Seeley sent and received Monday as she tried to track down friends at the Boston Marathon, one stood out.
“I took a call from a very irate parent who screamed at me because I won’t cancel the race, because I’m putting her daughter at risk,” said Seeley, the director of the Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana. “And we’re anticipating more of that.”
The Boston Marathon bombings are forcing who run in and plan security for Illinois races, such as the April 27 Illinois Marathon, to weigh changes they never thought they’d have to consider: How can you secure a race course that’s more than 26 miles long? Is there any reason to cancel? And what’s the likelihood of another bombing, particularly in a smaller, lower-profile location like Champaign-Urbana?
“Running changed today,” Seeley said hours after Monday’s attack. “Forever.”
In Chicago, security has suddenly pushed its way into the minds of organizers of a 10-mile race along the city’s scenic lakefront.
“It’s always been road crossings and traffic control and medical safety but now we need to make sure of any potential threats to runners are being looked into,” said Wendy Jaehn, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association.
Within hours of the explosions in Boston, Jaehn said the organizers emailed Chicago Police to set up a meeting to talk about security for Saturday’s FirstMerit Bank Lakefront 10 Miler.
Jaehn said that in all her years running and organizing races, the closest she came to wondering about security was before last year’s subsequently canceled New York City Marathon, when runners were notified that they wouldn’t be allowed to check a bag of clothes to be picked up at the finish line.
“You question why they’d do that, and then you think it’s for the security reasons ... . But that is kind of a passing thought,” she said. “In something like a marathon, something that is pure sport, you don’t think that way.”
Jaehn said that now, there will not only be added security where runners drop off their belongings, but she’ll also try to add bomb-sniffing dogs. And organizers will ask runners before the race to keep to a minimum the amount of gear they are checking.
New security questions have to be answered quickly at the Illinois Marathon, too. The event consists of several races of different lengths over two days, April 26 and 27. Between them, they draw around 20,000 people.
It’s too early to say if any drastic changes will be needed, Seeley said, acknowledging that the differences between the Illinois Marathon and the much-higher profile Boston Marathon.
“We don’t want to overreact,” she said. “There’s no larger stage in running than the Boston Marathon.”
Officials in charge of race security, including local police, will meet Wednesday.
Almost certainly there will be changes, Urbana police Lt. Robert Fitzgerald said. The hundreds of race volunteers can expect to be briefed on how to keep security in mind as they help watch the marathon course — 26-plus miles of road zig-zagging through Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois that Fitzgerald acknowledged would be tough to truly secure.
“It’s difficult, but we’re going to have our officers out there,” he said.
Officials at the much larger Chicago Marathon, which last year had more than 40,000 runners, did not return calls seeking comment.
Seeley says it’s very unlikely the Illinois Marathon will be canceled, and Fitzgerald doesn’t believe it should be.
“I think it’d be a mistake to cancel something like this,” he said.
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Don Babwin contributed from Chicago.