London, England — The second lead story from yesterday’s Virgin London Marathon — the first was Mo Farah’s half-way test run — was the collision between wheelchair record holder Josh Cassidy of Canada and 2012 Women’s Olympic Marathon gold medalist Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia at an aid station at 15K. Hardly the headline race organizers would have hoped to generate after they’d invited the best race fields in event history. But that’s the point, they did it to themselves with an asinine starting schedule which sent the 5:20 per mile women runners out 20-minutes before the 3:30 per mile wheelers. Do the math.
As the course twisted toward the 15K mark through the Rotherhithe neighborhood, the lead women came up to one of the eight elite aid stations set up every 5K throughout the course. The 15K drink station was set up on the left hand side of Quebec Way, a narrow lane as it is. Furthermore, the athletes had just gone through a series of twists and turns as they made their way on an inside loop between the eight and 12-mile marks. Suddenly from behind the men’s lead wheelchair pack came rushing on headed for the same aid table.
As Tiki Gelana cut left to grab her bottle, Josh Cassidy was caught with a veering runner in his path. He tried to angle by but had nowhere to go but the table itself, which he hit after colliding with Gelana who went down, causing the rest of the two packs to scatter like blown leaves.
After finishing in 20th position, Cassidy angrily lashed out at race organizers for the race set up.
“It’s something I have mentioned before,” he told the BBC. “I don’t know who’s responsible but every year we come to overtake the women, there’s 10 chairs going at 20mph and the poor women are scrambling to find their feet.”
Winner of the 2010 London Marathon and 2012 Boston where he set a world best time of 1:18:25, Cassidy suffered a few minor scrapes and bruises, but was more upset about the condition of his racing chair. “I have a brand new $2,000 pair of wheels that are damaged. Who’s going to pay for them? Things have to change.
“The safest thing would be to have the chairs start first because one of these years a woman is going to have a leg broken, a career ruined. It’s just not worth having this program if the races are going to suffer.”
What’s key there is that the wheelers have told organizers about the problem before, but to no avail. Then last night, the London Marathon released a very tepid statement of its own, making the incident seem like an act of God that no man could have foreseen or controlled.
“In the 33rd Virgin London Marathon today, an unfortunate accident happened between Olympic champion Tiki Gelana in the elite women’s race and Josh Cassidy, the world’s fastest wheelchair racer, next to a feeding station.
“We regard this as a racing incident which happened in the midst of two fiercely contested battles between some of the best marathon competitors in the world.
“We understand that the athletes involved were very frustrated by what happened as it clearly had an impact on their prospects in the races, but we believe neither competitor was to blame.
“We have spoken to both athletes about the incident and are satisfied that they accept it was an accident and do not hold any person or organisation responsible.
“It’s against this background that we will consider any future improvements in consultation with our athletes and all the relevant partners and stakeholders.”
No organization responsible? Who put the aid station there? Who arranged the start times that put the two packs at the same station at the same time? Are they serious?
The whole thing reminds me, in some ways, of one of the early Los Angeles Marathons. In that race organizers started the challenged athletes ahead of the mass foot race by ten minutes or so. As any five year-old could have predicted the lead pack of runners travelling at sub-5:00 per mile pace, along with the array of police and press vehicles, quickly came up on those brave souls walking significantly slower down Figueroa Street.
Riding in the lead TV vehicle giving commentary for KCOP-13, I spat out something intemperate like, “It’s a very simple proposition in this sport: fast in front, slower to the back. That way nobody runs up anybody else’s backside unless it’s in competition. You want more people competing in the challenged division? Fine, then just keep the starting order the way you’ve got it now.”
Needless to say, the followers of the challenged division called into the TV station by the dozen to register their complaints against the Lemon Drop Fool making such commentary, somehow taking it as a slight against the walkers. But, though my wording might have been suspect, the message was not. Fortunately, the bosses at KCOP stuck up for me, and very quickly race organizers altered the arrangement of start times for future races.
Yesterday’s tangle between the lead wheelers and the lead women was inevitable, especially given the increased number of chairs competing in the new Boston-London Wheelchair Challenge which awarded bonus money to the top wheelers based on their finishing places at last week’s Boston Marathon and yesterday’s London. While the organizers of both races should be applauded for this new enhancement to the chair division, they can’t then set the event up in a fashion that muddles the results and jeopardizes the athletes.
While I hadn’t covered the Virgin London Marathon for many years until yesterday, I’ve been told this system of start times has long been in place without incident. But looking at the nature of the course itself, it was just a matter of time before such a coming together was bound to occur.
This could well be one of those situations where an old schedule is maintained for no other reason than “we’ve always done it this way, and it’s always worked”, regardless of the wisdom of the set-up. That it hadn’t caused an incident before is no excuse to have allowed it to continue until it did.
In the end the wheelchair world record holder was left with a damaged piece of equipment and the women’s Olympic Marathon champion was eliminated from the competition by something other than her competitors. It’s not the legacy one would have anticipated for London 2013.