Several runners hospitalized following Summerfest race
Some are outraged that runners weren't provided enough water
More than 20 runners were taken to the hospital and about 50 received emergency medical attention for heat-related problems during Summerfest's inaugural Rock 'n Sole event Sunday.
The half-marathon and 10K race turned into a full-fledged emergency when early hydration stations ran out of water and cups. Runners started collapsing in the humid 85-degree heat, and some were unable to get immediate help because of a lack of medical aid stations. No medical aid was available on the 2.5-mile-long Hoan Bridge.
Organizers ended the race around 10:30 a.m. because of dangerous conditions, although many runners had crossed the finish line by then.
The Milwaukee Fire Department provided about 15 runners with intravenous fluids and took them to Columbia St. Mary's Hospital and Aurora Sinai Medical Center. Bell Ambulance transported 6 to 10 more, Milwaukee Fire Department Deputy Chief Jack Christianson said.
"We saw a lot of IVs started, just to get fluids back," Christianson said. "I don't know the number of IV bags we went through, but every patient we transported had an IV.
"Dehydration was a big problem. I was looking at people there and you could tell, 'Keep an eye on that one.' Next thing you know, there he went. It was very hectic for about an hour, a little more than an hour. It did put quite some stress on the area hospitals. The emergency rooms were inundated in pretty rapid order."
Multiple runners said hydration stations as early as 2.5 miles into the course ran out of water and cups. The next station, a mile away, had no cups. Volunteers had to pour water straight into runners' hands.
Race officials acknowledged their failure to provide enough water in the right places and apologized.
"I think, overall, there are 10 different things you need to focus on (when organizing a race), and I think we got one very wrong, and that was water on the course," said Tom Schuler, race director and president of Team Sports Inc., which served as the race organizer. He issued a written apology to participants Sunday night.
Schuler admitted that hydration stations along the Hoan Bridge, one of the first parts of the course, did not have enough water, but said other later stations were more heavily stocked.
"We had enough water, but not in the right place," Schuler said. "We tried to get water up there as fast as we could, but we couldn't get it up there fast enough."
He largely blamed the lack of water on the little time his crew had to prepare. Drivers said the Hoan Bridge was closed to traffic about 6:30 a.m. Schuler said the bridge was closed at 7 a.m., which gave his 250-volunteer crew less than 45 minutes to cover grates and set up and stock hydration stations before the half-marathon began at 8 a.m.
While some runners said volunteers did a great job and the event overall was good, others were outraged. They called the lack of water, medical aid stations and shade along long stretches of the race "inexcusable" and "appalling" and criticized organizers for gross management failure.
"They should be embarrassed. They're completely culpable for any heat-related incident that happens," said half-marathon runner Daniel Otto of Chicago, who said he saw two runners collapsed along the course - one right in front of him at mile marker 12. The half-marathon race was 13.1 miles long.
"I saw the guy collapse, maybe 100 feet in front of me. Within five seconds, two runners were over there checking on him," he said. "They took off their shirts and tried to flap cold air on him, kind of shelter him from the sun. They tried to sit him up. Some more volunteers came over."
At mile marker 11, another man had collapsed and was lying prone and motionless as four to five paramedics tried to resuscitate him, Otto said.
Many runners demanded a refund, saying organizers didn't deliver the promised basic services for runners, who paid between $40 and $70 to run the 10K or $60 to $100 for the half-marathon.
Edwin Thaves, who ran his 12th race, said he was shocked and called it "inexcusable."
"I was quite surprised for an event that was promoted as being iconic and world class that there was no water on the course after that first station at mile marker 1.5. No water along the rest of the course, at least for the 10K," Thaves said. "It doesn't take a lot of effort to plan an event where there's water. That should be a minimum expectation as far as I'm concerned."
Runners said bystanders offered their garden hose to allow volunteers to fill up water jugs for the runners. Firefighters also set up a fire hose to spray runners around the 13-mile marker to help cool them down.
Some runners said the race should have started earlier, when temperatures were lower. The original start time, set last year, was 10:15 a.m. but was changed to 8 a.m.
John Boler, vice president of sales and marketing for Summerfest, said the start time for the 10K run was pushed back 15 minutes, to 8:30 a.m., to accommodate the large number of participants in the 8 a.m. half-marathon.
Despite the extra time, the large number of half-marathon runners meant that the understocked - and according to some runners, understaffed - hydration stations were out of water before the first 10K runners reached them.
Several runners complained that throughout the morning the race's website listed conditions of the race with a green flag and low risk. It wasn't until the afternoon that the page was updated with a "severe" level and black flag, which advises runners to seek immediate shelter because it's considered unsafe to proceed along the course.
Schuler, who himself has run five marathons and two half-marathons, said after the race that, besides issues with water, the course was "very safe" and it was "overall, a phenomenal day, with people doing something healthy."
According to race results, 5,348 of the 6,567 registered runners finished the race. The half-marathon had 3,762 runners, and the 10k had 2,805. Organizers initially said finishing times would not be kept for the runners, but ultimately did list the times on the race website.
"It was a heck of a thing," said Christianson, the deputy fire chief. "Let's just hope everybody is OK and that people learn from this."