Many of us enjoy running, cycling, paddling or cross-country skiing sporting events, and I want to talk about a shared responsibility between event organizers and the participants. When it comes to our safety, while acknowledging that both organizers and participants share significant responsibilities, we (the participants) hold the ultimate responsibility and interest for our safety.
I say this because I am concerned that participants put too much mis-guided faith that every aspect of their care will be looked after by the organizers. I am usually a participant but I’m taking an emergency management perspective.
Cycling and running events are similar in many ways, and are the most accessible but cycling generally has higher speeds and longer distances, so I will look more at cycling events for this article. Many trail running races, such as the high mountains Mont aux Sources Ultra-Marathon trail run here in South Africa, can be equally extreme in terms of terrain and risks, though. Cross-country skiers might mention the Canadian Ski Marathon. Meanwhile South African paddlers could safely proclaim the difficulty of the Dusi Canoe (Kayak) Marathon.
The Nature of the Event?
Events vary so greatly from bare bones to “full care”. For cost, philosophy, or practicality reasons, some events follow a completely bare bones model with the organizers being simply informal conveners of vague participants and on open and shared roads. There might be no registration, no start numbers, no closed course, no food or beverages, no timing, no safety measures, no medical response, etc… At the other end of the spectrum, some events are highly organized with a real hands-on approach to looking after their full complement of participants, closed courses, highly experienced volunteers and staff, have emergency contact information about the participants, and a higher degree of care.
Do your research and planning about the event. An event’s webpage should hopefully contain a lot of the information you need to judge what type of event it is. Regardless of whatever they pledge to offer you (the participant), always remember that you are the one with the highest interest in your safety and well being!
1. Personal due diligence: The What Ifs?
You might have a number of past experiences to draw upon to know which “ifs” tend to happen to you in this or that type of event, weather, distance, and course. Perhaps you’ve seen others during these events and taken note of which problems they faced. All this to say that we can anticipate many of the crises we could face while taking part in these events. Some have a lower or higher likelihood of occurring. This process of assessing our risks is what’s called hazard and risk analysis. Make a list of anything that comes to mind and identify solutions.
Have some ID, a working charged phone (always ideal), money/credit cards(?), and a way to repair common mechanicals. I’m not an event organizer so I will not take the approach of saying that we, the participants, bear full responsibility for any problems we face, but we often do. I’m a big fan of wearing a wrist ID in case my wallet and phone go missing, an unfortunate possibility. For the United States, I recommend Road ID Bracelets and elsewhere, Performance Fitness ID Bracelets.
You can probably regroup potential issues in the following: (In the Comments section below, do you have another category to add?)
- Planning for the Expected and Unexpected Weather
- Event Nutrition and Liquids
- Minor to Serious Medical
- Mechanical and Gear
- What if you DNF (Did Not Finish)?
Planning for the Expected and Unexpected Weather
The weather conditions for an event can vary greatly from extreme heat or cold, sunshine, wind, and include precipitation like rain, freezing rain or snow, and the weather can change quickly! Do your weather checks and plan for the expected weather and temperature conditions. Also keep in mind how the weather could change and what weather conditions that could entail. What items could help you weather that weather?
I still recall completely misjudging my weather forecast 20 years ago when I planned a 4-hour mountain biking ride for the forecasted cool and likely dry weather. It went terribly wrong when wet flurries (snowfall) occurred while I was about 2 hours from home. The dry and cool suitable clothing set-up became soaked through. By the time I got home, I was so hypothermic that I could barely stand, I couldn’t move my fingers to pull the brakes, and I could barely talk. I’d misjudged and not been equipped to handle the potentially wet conditions. A compact waterproof jacket, a helmet cover and thicker gloves would have made such a difference!
Event Nutrition and Liquids
Experience will teach you what you need to consume in terms of foods and liquids before, during and after these events. If you tend to cramp (or hit the food-exhaustion wall), like I used to, try to get to the root cause and find some solutions.
Find out what the event pledges in terms of liquids and food but also think through what will you do if they have run out? Last year I was among the front runners in a trail duathlon (run/bike/run) and when I got to the sole drink station during the final 11km technical trail run, they had yet to set up their feed stand and I had to continue without the drink I’d counted on from them.
Minor to Serious Medical Issues
We tend to approach events that all will go well from a medical perspective. Generally (hopefully) it does! If it doesn’t usually go well from a medical perspective, I’d advise getting to the root cause of those medical issues, discussing things with our doctor, reducing the risk(s), or reconsidering our participation.
There is such a range of medical issues we can face and they vary in severity. Blisters on our feet, chaffing from our clothing, sun burns, muscle cramps, light sprains, and so on are on the less damaging end of the severity scale, and you can hopefully still finish the event. There are also the far more serious medical scenarios such as cardiac arrest, spinal injuries, broken bones, concussions, and so on that could be very serious or life threatening. Given the high mountains in certain countries, even altitude sickness can be a risk.
We may be able to equip ourselves with the first aid items to deal with certain minor health crises. Your event may require you to be equipped so make sure you have a solid kit! Even if you aren’t required to have first aid items, you can still carry a blob of skin lube (to deal with chaffing), some wound closing strips, some extra sun cream, etc… Some duct tape? These don’t have to be bulky.
You should be wearing a simple wrist ID bracelet or a form of medical alert bracelet to make it clear to anyone assisting you that you have specific health issues? Give a bystander some information to go on as to who you are, who to contact, and any medical conditions that first responders need to know about you. There is a Better Preparedness episode and article on that!
Do you have the necessary identification, credit card, health card and insurance card required for you to receive care by the local hospitals? What good is that documentation doing in your car if you are halfway into your marathon and have a heart attack? Running shorts have great pockets these days and you might be able to make some colour photocopies and put them in a little Ziplock-style baggie. Include a bit of money.
Mechanical and Gear Issues
Good gear preparation is important and even doing a pre-race bike wash can help prevent certain failures.
Depending on the sport and the types of gear used, you can likely predict many of the gear problems or failures you can encounter. Experience from years of training and racing will also give you an idea. Perhaps a friend of yours can fill you in on their experiences and their hacks and solutions.
For a broken bike, sometimes the bike is only partially broken and still somewhat usable. A broken derailleur or broken cable can render a bike unfunctional for normal riding but perhaps we can coast down hills or use it as a glorified kick scooter. You could have a spare gear and brake cable, too, and know how to repair it. Punctures do not have to be race-ending if you are equipped. In a marathon mountain bike race in Kenya, I had three punctures, but I repaired each one using my pump, 2 spare tubes, and my patch kit. Sure, it sucked loosing so much time when I was aiming for a top-10 but at least I go to the finish!
If we are equipped to perform certain repairs, perhaps you or someone else can fix it and get you going again. Maybe you will help out another participant?
A major mechanical, though, such as a broken wheel or frame can render that bike useless and headache to get back to the finish and you might need to be creative or carry it out.
In long distance cross-country skiing events, a broken ski or ski pole is always a possibility. Are there some hacks and repairs that can be performed out on the trail? Know in advance what equipment you need to have with you to do those repairs and learn how to do them. You might be surprised by how compact those repair items can be.
What Happens if we DNF?
A DNF is a “Did Not Finish”. The longer the event, the more extreme in all aspects, the more challenging than we are ready for, the worse the weather, and the more technical the terrain, well, that can increase the possibility that we aren’t able to finish the event.
If you DNF, especially in longer and more remote events, remember to report to an official that you are okay and that you will not be able to finish the event. Remember to tell them your start number. This helps prevent the organizers searching needlessly for unaccounted for participants, especially for more extreme events.
If you DNF for whatever mechanical or physiological reasons, how will you get home or back to the finish if cannot finish? There can be a number of options depending on the type of setting and event:
- Public transport is sometimes an option, especially in city events.
- Taxi or ride share options like Uber.
- Family or friends to collect us.
- Sometimes the event organizers have vehicles to collect those participants stranded. You might have to wait a while. That jacket you brought will pay off now!
- Hey, sometimes we just have to walk or push our bike home or back to the finish.
Knowing in advance what we will do if we have a mechanical or a minor-serious medical issue
It’s one thing to anticipate all these types of mechanical and physiological issues but the point is to do something about them and understand what works best for you in terms of solutions and items to have with you. Consider learning and practicing the skills. Take a 1st Aid and a CPR Course! Ask your local bike shop about any bike repair courses offered in the region.
2. Other Competitor and Participant Due Diligence
When we take part in these events, we are the collective of participants and competitors. We share the space and the event. We can both cause incidents and be victims of other participant actions. In the 2019 Cape Town Cycle Tour (112km road bike race), another rider suddenly veered 1.5m to the left and into me while we descended at 60km/h. His rear quick release went into my front wheel and ripped out 1/3 of the spokes on the right side of my front wheel. I somehow stayed upright but my wheel was massively damaged. I wrapped the damaged spokes around other spokes and I was just able to ride the bike slowly for the remaining 14km, so I still finished.
A Whole Lot of Strangers
This is a tough category of due diligence as we are dealing perhaps with a few people we know, but overwhelmingly, it’s with a vast range of people, race experience levels, levels of respect shown to others, and so on. Remember to give others space. I do find, though, that deeper into longer races, you tend to have the same people around you and you will have learned if you can trust being close to them or if you feel they are an accident waiting to happen.
We Are All First Responders
You or those other competitors can easily become first responders, as we are generally the first ones able to assist someone or for them to assist us. A successful outcome to a major crash or a major health incident can require swift assistance by others. As learned in your 1st Aid Training, while some bystanders can assist the victim, you may need to dispatch other participants to call for help by phone or getting to the next checkpoint to advise officials. Remember to take note of important information about the victim(s) and incident:
- Condition and nature of the person’s crisis
- Start #
- Emergency contact info
- Nature and severity of the incident
- Exact location
The Headphones Controversy
Listening to music via headphones is often forbidden by event organizers. Why? Having a person’s hearing incapacitated can lead to incidents and crashes, and very importantly prevent us from hearing other competitors, event vehicles, or dangerous wildlife. In a long-distance trail race last year, I had to call out five times and each time louder and louder to alert an earlier start-wave participant that I was trying to go around them on that single track. Despite it being forbidden by the organizers, that person was wearing headphones and it was not the only time that event. We risk spraining an ankle or falling in trying to get around them, rather than that person hearing the other participants and sharing the trail.
In major road races such as marathons and half-marathons, there can be race vehicles, media motorcycles, ambulances and law enforcement vehicles circulating on the course and headphones can prevent the competitors from hearing that traffic and being hit.
This is a personal opinion but I gave up wearing headphones when biking or running decades ago. I just felt it prevented me from hearing so many dangers, such as vehicles and other cyclist, but especially off-leash dogs.
3. Event Organizer Due Diligence
Last but not least are the event organizers. Hopefully you’ve seen from the above that we, the participants, have a large responsibility for our safe and successful participation, regardless of the nature of the event. But what about the organizers? The organizers are the conveners of us participants with a degree of support on a particular route. They will generally give the entrants an explicit and implicit description of what kind of environment and services they will offer. Ask questions if anything is unclear. As a participant, understand that pledged package and remember your preparations and strategies for it to hopefully go well.
What Degree of Support are the Event Organizers Offering?
Find out what support such as liquids and food they are offer, if any. Is that enough for you and your needs, and for the event conditions? Should you bring some of your own drinks and food in case they run out or your tummy does not agree with those unfamiliar liquids and foods?
Will they provide any repair stations? Any 1st Aid Stations? If so, where will they be?
The Nature of the Route?
Keep in mind the condition of the roads (type of surfaces, potholes, etc…), degree of difficulty of the terrain, condition of the trails, and so. Has the recent weather been kind on the route?
Will the route be well marked and how? Are there stream or river crossings? Do you need to carry a map or download the GPS data for more extreme events?
The nature of the route can lengthen the time it will take to finish and increase the degree of difficulty. Plan accordingly.
Closed or Open Course?
Ideally their website makes it fairly clear if the route is on or off road, and if:
- completely closed to other forms of traffic,
- shared to a degree with other forms of traffic, or
- on completely open road.
The degree of road closure will really depend on the size and nature of the event, the number of participants, the willingness of local government to agree to closed or partially blocked roads, and so. The more open the road, the more we as competitors need to acknowledge and respect any other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Even if it is a closed road, we need to be mindful of others by staying to one side and allowing others a safer way by.
Emergency Contact Information?
If the organizers do not provide an emergency contact phone number, ask for one and write it down. It might be listed on your start bib. This is particularly useful in unfamiliar or foreign event environments. Mobile phone signal availability can vary depending on the event location.
Is there Mandatory Gear and Supplies you Need to Have?
Using the event information and your experience, are there lists of mandatory items to have with you for the event? If they require you to have a minimum of certain items, it’s probably for good reason. This can help your slight issue out on the course becoming a catastrophe and you becoming a victim. Maybe you can assist another competitor with your mylar emergency blanket or first aid kit.
Be One of Those People: Thank the Organizers and Volunteers!
All those people who make it possible for us to be out race after race deserve a friendly smile and thanks. When you pass a volunteer or official out there, when you are at a feed stand, or when you successfully arrive at the finish, thank those people who made it possible.
A “thank you” or thumbs-up to any spectators along the course is a nice gesture of appreciation of their support.
Hey, why not get out there and volunteer sometime. Perhaps you have a light injury that is preventing you from participating or you have other events scheduled. You could take the opportunity to volunteer for some events and see these events from their perspective.
Packing Lists and Emergency Kits
Develop packing lists and pre-assembled emergency kits. Tailor your kits to the specifics of the event and conditions. Be able to bounce back from many potential minor scenarios and hopefully avoid or be able to deal with certain more serious ones. Here is a Better Preparedness episode and article on compact emergency kits. Develop your own kits! Help others develop theirs.
We participate in these events because we love the challenge and camaraderie. If we all acknowledge our responsibilities and take responsibility, we, the participants, and organizers can have safer and more successful events.
What tips, hacks and experiences have you learned?