Let’s face it. The idea of receiving medical care at a race can be both discouraging and intimidating, regardless of your age, experience levels, training or current state of health. However, they’re there for a reason, and in the unfortunate case of an emergency, athletes should feel confident and comfortable approaching one, knowing relief is on the other side.
At the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, there are 21 medical tents spread across the course, along with two large main medical tents at the finish line. The two main tents are so large, in fact, that they can hold upwards of 250 individual runners at one time, as well as nearly 300 medical professionals.
Despite the tents’ large volumes, the Chicago Marathon’s medical team is a tightly knit and comprehensive unit. Featuring nearly 2,000 medical volunteers—including doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, EMTs, athletic trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists, psychologists and social workers—the tents operate similarly to hospital settings, which not only helps ensure runners receive the care they need, but the comfort they deeply appreciate as well.
“Over the last 10 years or more, we have had a tremendous amount of retention among our medical volunteers and leaders,” says Dr. George Chiampas, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgery, Northwestern Medicine, and overall Medical Director for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon since 2007. “This is critical, as the working relationships, along with the ability to continually advance our program, are firmly in place.”
A Rewarding Annual Homecoming
“Everyone looks forward to volunteering for the Chicago Marathon’s medical tents every year,” adds Rachelle Tulley, an ER nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who has been a member of the Chicago Marathon’s medical team for three years. “I help with nursing recruitment and I always have an overwhelming amount of responses from ER nurses who are willing to volunteer.”
She continues, “It’s a long day and hard work, but the day is so rewarding that you can’t wait to volunteer for the next marathon.”
Andrew Lundgren, Associate Professor of Athletic Training and Athletic Training Program Director at North Park University, completely agrees with Tulley, as he has been a member of the Chicago Marathon’s medical team for more than 15 years.
Describing the medical team as “the very definition of holistic sports medicine,” he considers the Chicago Marathon to be a “big homecoming” for the 2,000 medical professionals that volunteer every year—a homecoming that provides them an opportunity to work as a holistic sports medicine team and ensure all runners’ needs are met, no matter what they are. For these reasons alone, Lundgren believes nearly everyone decides to volunteer more than once.
“There’s something special about us coming together and working together. And there’s not a contingency that we’re not ready for,” Lundgren stresses. “Runners should know that we have the best medical care assembled—an unbelievably high level of care.”
The Proof is Under the Tent
John Moroney, a partner at Franco Moroney Buenik law firm, witnessed this unbelievably high level of care firsthand when his hamstrings, quads and calves cramped when he crossed the finish line at the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Unable to stand up, Moroney was placed into a wheelchair and transported to a medical tent, which he describes as an “oasis” with “fans blowing cool air, tubs of ice, refreshing drinks and really calm medical professionals.”
After receiving massages, fluids and recovery advice, Moroney was able to leave the medical tent; although his time as a patient was short, the memories of his experiences remain ingrained in his mind.
“The medical tent sped up my recovery and provided me important information about why I cramped, despite running at a comfortable pace on a nice day,” he says. “Whether runners check themselves in or they’re brought in due to an emergency, they will be cared for by competent, board-certified professionals.”
Mary Anderson, an attorney and mother of three children, had similar experiences last year while participating in her very first marathon. Yet her circumstances were much more pressing—life threatening, in fact. On mile 22, she began to feel hot and weak, as she was running without any shade (and at the peak time of the day for heat). Yet she didn’t stop running (not even for a moment) until her marathon came to an abrupt, involuntary end: she collapsed two and a half miles later.
A medic immediately placed her in a wheelchair and rushed her to an area along the course that had ice baths, which are virtually kiddie plastic pools full of ice. At the time, her body temperature was 108 degrees, resulting in a heat stroke. Anderson’s temperature slowly began to drop though, to the point in which she awoke and began to answer questions to test her cognitive state. Once she was stable, she was transported to a medical tent via an ambulance. Over the next few hours, she received fluids and a blanket until she was able to go home later that night.
“When my temperature was still very high but I was becoming more aware of my surroundings and what had happened, one of the doctors could tell I was scared and gave me his hand to squeeze until I felt better,” she says. “The medical personnel were wonderful—they were skilled, but also very compassionate, supportive and positive during what was a very scary, totally unexpected experience.”
After recovering from her heat stroke, Anderson spoke to Dr. Chiampas on the phone. While discussing potential tweaks she could consider implementing for future races, he encouraged her to race again four weeks later at the Indianapolis Marathon. Heeding his advice, she not only eventually finished the marathon, but felt wonderful throughout, as she tallied a total race time of four hours and 14 minutes.
“I cannot say enough wonderful things about the Chicago Marathon’s medical team,” she adds. “They have seen every type of injury and race-related medical issue and are always ready to provide prompt, skilled care.”
She continues, “I will always be grateful to them for saving my life and then encouraging me to not give up on my goal of completing my first marathon.”
Ending a Stigma Once and for All
From a healthcare perspective, Dr. Chiampas believes that the Chicago Marathon’s medical care is unique, when compared to any other type of medical care, for one primary reason: the medical professionals witness certain exercise-related illnesses (like heat stroke, salt decline and exercise-associated collapse) on race day that they hardly ever encounter the rest of the year. As a result, each volunteer is involved with a variety of routines, yet efficient communication and teamwork are the two most critical routines they must strive to achieve.
Lundgren believes the care that’s provided inside the medical tents is “outstanding,” as he personally observes it throughout the day while identifying potential runner distress, investigating it and then providing an intervention, if necessary, as a member of the medical response team.
“We want runners to know we’re here to help,” he says. “We’re also here to celebrate their accomplishments and all of the training that went into their marathon.”
In addition, he wants runners to understand just how efficient the medical tents are, from providing various levels of care, including ICU, to staffing Chicagoland’s best and brightest medical minds. After all, some runners fear that the medical tents are not nearly as efficient as hospitals and other medical facilities—a stigma the marathon’s 2,000 medical volunteers would like to end as soon as possible.
“We also look at the training and commitment you put into the marathon,” Lundgren explains. “I believe the least we can do is volunteer one day to provide you medical care so that you can celebrate your achievements.”
He adds, “Simply put, we want to ease your anxiety before, during and after you enter a medical tent. And, if you are a patient of ours, we want you to leave the medical tent as soon as possible so that you can have fun with your friends and family.”
Reduce Your Likelihood of a Visit to a Medical Tent
Sometimes a visit to a medical tent is unavoidable. Yet you can still decrease your odds of visiting one considerably if you implement the following pre-race strategies, according to Dr. George Chiampas.
- Know what your baseline feeling is, with regards to running a really good race. Understand what may (and may not be occurring) outside of your comfort zone so that you can quickly readjust your running methods.
- Develop an individualized nutritional and hydration plan—and then adjust it depending on the weather conditions. Be willing to be as flexible as possible!
- Listen to your body. Understand what feels normal and what doesn’t; in doing so, you may be able to avoid an issue before it becomes a potentially serious medical condition.
- Bring all of your daily medical necessities with you on race day, and take the time to use them as your doctor has prescribed (regardless of whether or not you need to stop racing momentarily).
- And, finally, once you arrive at the course on race day, don’t forget to utilize the Chicago Marathon’s medical resources, including Band Aids, Biofreeze and Tylenol.