UNSECURED: the ruse of marathon security

It’s been three years since the Boston Marathon bombing killed three spectators and injured 264 others. Since then, officials at major marathons have instituted stringent, new security measures. From bomb-sniffing dogs to metal detectors, runner-only zones, and clear plastic bags for runners’ extra clothes or gear, the focus on security can be intense. It is also misplaced and ineffective in preventing havoc.

In September, a would-be copy-cat narrowly missed harming scores of runners at a local 5K on the Jersey Shore by placing a bomb in a trash can along the race route. Officials say an unrelated delay to the start of the race saved hundreds of runners from passing the trash can as it detonated. The next day, a major half-marathon took 12,000 runners through the streets of Philadelphia. Hundreds of uniformed Police lined the route – all watching the race. They were watching the runners – their backs to thousands of spectators – even though there is no history of race participants causing harm or mayhem, anywhere in the world.

Before the start, most runners strip down to thin layers. It’s pretty hard to hide anything under most runners’ race kits. Major marathons tend to happen during the cool months, with morning temperatures often in the 20’s to 40’s. Because spectators are standing still, sometimes for hours, waiting to see their friends or relatives in the race, they’re wearing coats, hats, gloves. That’s why the Boston bombers blended in. They looked just like everyone else. And the Police weren’t watching the spectators.

Major marathons require thousands of volunteers at the start and finish line areas and along the course. Marathon volunteers have near total access to the runners. At most races, volunteers have no security checks, no screening, no proof of ID, not even a name on a list to be verified. They don’t hand over their backpacks for examination. Most volunteers walk into their roles with no official orientation. They just show up race morning and get a minute or two of “training” from another volunteer. They’re not trained in observing crowd behavior, how to spot someone acting strangely, how to spot a suspicious bag – they’re not even told that they should.

If race directors really want to protect the tens of thousands of runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators at major marathons, they need to focus on the most vulnerable locations and moments of the race. First, the start corrals, where runners are packed like sardines. Runners are focused solely on the challenge ahead. They are nervous. They are fidgeting with their shoes, clothes, and watches. They are not on the lookout for dangerous people or objects.

Race directors need to post trained, diligent volunteers at the entrances to the start corrals, or they need to post paid security, or Police. Runners are required to wear race bibs with their individual race numbers, clearly visible on the front of their bodies. This makes it very easy to make sure no one gets into the race’s most vulnerable zone without the credible appearance of a legitimate runner. As it is, at most large races, just about anyone can walk right into any start corral, unchallenged by untrained volunteers.

Race courses are porous. There is no fence along most of a marathon course. Anyone can jump into the middle of the crowd of runners at any time. At prime spectator locations along a course, thousands of spectators can be packed together, like they were at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Everyone is watching the runners flow by in the street. No one is watching the spectators. Remember: the Boston marathon bombers looked like spectators, not runners.

After finishing the race, runners gather in recovery areas to reunite with family and friends, retrieve gear bags, and refuel after the race. Although not as tightly packed as in the start corrals, recovery zones have thousands of tired runners, along with families and friends. They are not on the lookout for dangerous people or bags.

There is no way to prevent every imaginable attack on crowds of runners or spectators. But for race directors and security officials, an important first step would be to spend less energy on disarming runners – who have no history of causing mayhem – and more energy on the non-runners along the course.

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