President Obama received a standing ovation his comment that the perpetrators of the double bomb-blast during the Boston Marathon had picked the wrong city!

It was also the incorrect sport for anyone to target in this way.  A photo circulating the social network says it all; “If you’re trying to defeat the human Spirit, Marathoners are the wrong group to target!”

The culprit’s error was seen seconds after the blast!  Bill Iffrig was blown into the air landing metres from the fencing. Three burly Boston Police rushed to his aid, but he climbed to his feet, dusted himself off, and then ran the remaining 4-5 metres to be one of the last official finishers before the race was closed off 700m before the finish.

The determination and commitment of marathoners is encapsulated in this one act. Bill is 78 years of age, had just run the marathon in 4 hours 3 minutes, and secured second in his age category.

Other incidents saw runners who had already completed the race, despite tired legs and bodies, running back through the finish to help the injured.

The aftermath of the bombs saw many touching moments, such as the finisher who found a fellow runner, Laura Wellington, sitting on the curb where he had been stopped, overcome with tears of relief.  She had only just finished phoning her family, who had been waiting at the line when the blast occurred, to find they were safe and well. The other runner took off his medal and presented it to Laura, saying that all runners were finishers today.

In the following days, what started as a dozen or so runners who wanted to run the final 700 metres, turned into a mass of runners who covered the final distance “for those who couldn’t”.

The impact of the bombs reverberated around the world with support, condemnation and condolences for those in Boston coming from Countries, International Associations, major Marathons, and individuals.

People all over the world are running some form of support race: Today, as you read, South African runners will be wearing black ribbons at the N3TC Loskop 50km, tomorrow London Marathon organizers have pledged 2 pounds (R28) for every finisher towards a Boston memorial.

These are the public image of the impact, but below the surface Boston has changed the game plan for major participation events:

Organizers will review their disaster management and the risk assessment of events will change forever.

At the time of writing it appears the perpetrators are a couple of individually motivated ethnic Chechens, rather than under instruction of a formal organization.  This will be a more welcome outcome for London organisers  as it reduces the likelihood of a coordinated attack on the marathon.

The universal nature of running means suggests that organizations would be less likely to target mass participation sports due to a higher probability of injuring their own support base.

The Boston bombers timing targeted the mass of runners (just over 4 hours): the choice of the tightest packed spectators, with buildings close enough to reflect and maximize the blast, and the delay of the second blast seems calculated in the hope of catching runners and spectators fleeing from the finish. They perhaps underestimated that most involved in this sport would run to assist the injured rather than look to their safety.

Its not only Boston organizers, like all of us involved in race organization and event safety, will study the footage looking to improve and avoid mistakes of that day.

The wooden and wire fencing used with scaffold sections caused considerable delay in getting the injured out. It took a dozen or more, burly policemen, soldiers and marshals to remove that fence, which had to be lifted shoulder height.

When Bill Iffrig went down three police where there.  How many events have this number of police or army lining the route?  London has stepped up the police presence to 700 over and above the commitment of transport police and other authorities. Is that a realistic expectation for all city marathons?

The access for emergency services in Boston initially came from the finish line, as the other fencing prevented access through to the route.  The design of many other finish lines will need review if this is to be a standard practice.

Whereas, (particularly after Athens Olympics 2004), the focus has been on preventing spectators interfering with runners, the game plan must now consider getting spectators out and typically the most open space is the running route.

Although the whole route of a road race is vulnerable it is the start, finish and designated spectator points that create the highest risk.

Internationally organizers have always had plan B up their sleeves.

London has, amongst other things, alternate routes primarily to cover cases where terrorist attacks are made on a landmark along the route rather than the marathon itself.

Needless to say, most major events sweep the route, manholes are marked and taped for movement, crowds are monitored, helicopters patrol not only for TV but to observe the out of place or oddity that opens suspicion, but the reality is that with distances of 42km or longer, these events are vulnerable.

This is not the first bomb attack on a marathon. In 2008 a suicide bomber at the start of a Sri Lanka marathon killed dignitaries and runners and injured over 100.  The coverage was relatively low key, perhaps intentionally, as people tried to come to terms with how you can prevent such a situation.

How do you stop a suicide bomber who is an official entrant? A liquid bomb in a water bottle is impossible to detect.

Runners packed 3 or 4 to a square metre make the start a real concern. Does a number ensure the person is a runner?

In 2006 the Beirut Marathon was postponed by one week because of the assassination of the Minister of Industry.  World news was predicting a civil war, but the people saw the marathon as nation building and wanted it to go ahead. As organizers we reviewed everything. The route changed to avoid a protest point.

The start was located on a dual carriageway directly above a 3-storey car park, which allowed us to marshal 17000 runners into the structured start. The most obvious danger was a car bomb below in the car park.

For the full week we worked on plan B’s for each conceivable ‘what-if.’  We considered the most pessimistic outcomes, and negative of thoughts, then planning a way out.

Over and above sweeping the car park and restricting bags and bottles from the start, any clear and present danger was communicated to both the head of security and myself, who would instruct the playing of a specific piece of music, which signaled the opening of all gates, the removal of front barriers and the immediate start of the race.  Removing the runners was the safest and quickest way to defuse the risk. Thankfully the plan was never needed. The spirit of running won the day with people from all diversities, religions, and even political affiliation unified in participation.

Unfortunately one can’t rest on that assumption and right now my thoughts are with the organizers of London.  Although they are sure to have been thoroughly briefed on the Boston events, you can be sure they are asking themselves – Have they done enough? Have they overlooked anything?  Boston has changed the future of road running events

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