As We See It

Preliminary testing does not point to water as source of marathon infection

Water, water everywhere: Was liquid relief for marathoners tainted?
Photo: Steve Marcus

Updated: 2:48 p.m., December 15, 2011

As we scream fire in the proverbial crowded theater about whether some Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon runners got sick from tainted water, maybe it’s time to recall the origins of the marathon.

In ancient Greece, Pheidippides was a kind of military messenger, like Paul Revere. He ran roughly 25 miles from Marathon, where the Greeks fought a decisive battle with the Persians, to Athens. And then he collapsed and died. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

To run a marathon is to bombard the body’s infrastructure with stress. So, a little sickness when running 26.2 miles should hardly come as a surprise.

In case you haven’t heard, the marathon on December 4 wasn’t exactly flawless. In addition to those who claimed the water made them sick, the huge number of runners—44,000, up from 28,000 last year—created some logistical problems.

Running lanes were crowded, which led to pushing and jostling and running outside the lanes on sidewalks. The finish line became a chaotic mess—or so I’ve read and been told—as a cold and windy rain had thousands of people jamming into Mandalay Bay right as the Michael Jackson Cirque show was letting out.

Put that aside for a moment and consider the people who run marathons and how they might be the kind of people who enjoy a fine whine.

I used to live in Seattle, so I know them. They went to Stanford or USC and work at technology or consulting firms or have already made so much money that they’re stay-at-home dads or moms or started their own nonprofit. They shop at Whole Foods but eat only 1,200 calories a day. They voted for President Obama and felt so darned good about it. They consider the twice-annual sale at REI a religious event. They are the modern Organization Man and so can’t understand why the marathon didn’t go off with the efficiency of their second child’s midwifed home birth. They are the anti-Las Vegas. So, let’s be skeptical of their complaints.

Still, the snafus are inexcusable, especially for a city bent on persuading tourists that this is a great place to come for once-in-a-lifetime events.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak represents the Strip and has been fielding complaints since the marathon and wants the problems fixed: “When you bring them here and promote them, there’s a responsibility that goes with that.”

Pat Christenson is the president of Las Vegas Events, which approves big events and their promoters, in this case Competitor Group. He blamed the bad weather and the huge number of runners.

Las Vegas Events has asked Competitor Group to produce a report in the next few weeks that would detail the problems and lay out a plan for solving them. Christenson said he expects the biggest challenge will be finding a way to lessen crowding at the start and finish.

As for tainted water, using fire hydrants to fill lined trash barrels is standard procedure for marathons. To maintain water pressure, our hydrants use only potable water, and the water was tested in the days before the race.

The Southern Nevada Health District should have completed water quality tests soon. Of 1,000 people who completed a health district survey, 500 said they experienced some sickness. If you’re scoring at home: 500 of 44,000 is a bit more than 1 percent.

A water district spokesman notes that the water district has no idea what happens to the water once it leaves the water district’s valves. So, if there was contamination, it seems likely that’s where you’ll find it—after it left the water district’s control.

Sisolak and Christenson have confidence that Competitor Group, which promotes marathons over the world, will fix any problems because they have a record of doing so in the past.

Lee Haney, a spokeswoman for Competitor Group, told me: “We’re committed to reviewing all the issues and making the race better so it’s a great experience for the participants and the town.”

Marathoners, a little piece of advice: Even our potable water is terrible, so next year go to REI, get yourself a Camelback and fill it with bottled water.

Update: The Southern Nevada Health District has released a preliminary report on reports of sickness from the marathon: “While our initial testing has been unable to identify the pathogen, our initial analysis of the survey data indicates that the outbreak is most likely infectious in nature,” said Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer. “We are continuing to test the samples we’ve received from runners to identify the cause. At this time, our investigation does not point to water given to runners as the likely source of the infection. Although we might be able to identify the pathogen, we might not be able to identify the source of the infection.”

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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