Run for your life

Running isn’t meant to be fun.  Aside from the occasional injury, it isn’t meant to be dangerous either.  On Sunday, a violent storm wiped out the Brisbane Twilight Running Festival and left one man in hospital with critical injuries.

 

The 58-year-old man was struck by a branch as the storm swept over St Lucia at about 6pm.  He remains in hospital with severe head injuries.

 

Other people received minor injuries from debris or falling over on sodden paths in the dark conditions.  The race was finally called off about ten past six.

 

The organisers, Intraining, have been criticised for not cancelling the event before it started or calling it off when the first severe weather warning was issued at 5:20pm, twenty minutes after the half-marathon and 10 kilometre races began.

 

Another warning about severe weather expected to hit Brisbane was issued at 5:27pm.

 

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) had been issuing severe weather warnings all afternoon.

 

The first warning just after midday predicted storms in southern Queensland, beyond the range on the Granite Belt and along the Scenic Rim.

 

As the afternoon wore on, the storm cell moved in a north-east direction.  Updates from BOM showed the storm was getting closer to Brisbane.  By about four o’clock, the bureau was predicting storms for the Gold Coast.

 

Weather warnings are often heeded by the public but they are not always adhered to.

 

As the storm was drawing down on Brisbane, Andrew Blyth was preparing to leave Springwood for the event.  The sky was clear.  It’d been a perfect day, sunny and warm.

 

As Andy drove to Brisbane, ABC radio broadcast a severe weather warning.  A storm was predicted to hit Brisbane within an hour.

 

Andy has been running for years through heat, rain and the occasional storm.  He monitors the sky before embarking on a run.  If rain or a storm is likely, he’ll stay home and run the next day.  When rain hits, like most runners, he heads for home.

 

Rain during a run is aggravating.  Andy, like all runners, doesn’t like it, but rain isn’t normally dangerous.  At worst a runner might get a blister due to sodden socks slipping inside shoes.

 

Storms are different.  Despite the broadcast warning, Andy kept driving to Brisbane without thinking about going home.  The sky was still clear.  He’d trained for the event and paid the entry fee.  A storm wasn’t going to stop him from completing the half marathon.

 

Besides, runners live by the code; you don’t stop because you want to, you stop because you have to.

When BOM issued the severe weather warning for Brisbane at 5:20pm, Andy was about four kilometres into the race.  The southern horizon was darkening but conditions were fine.  Seven minutes later, when BOM issued their second warning, Andy was about six kilometres into the run.

 

He was settling into the run, feeling better than he did over the first five kilometres.  By six o’clock, when he was halfway through the race, the sky above St Lucia was dark.

 

As about 6000 people were puffing through a difficult run, the storm cell which originated hundreds of kilometres to the south-west was about to blast Brisbane.

 

‘It got dark and windy really quick,’ Andy said.  ‘Then then it pissed down.’

 

The wind blew horizontally.  Dust from a gravel path next to the course blew into Andy’s eyes.  Coupled with the rain, it made visibility low.

 

Andy didn’t think about quitting.  Those around him weren’t thinking about quitting either.

‘Everyone had their heads down,’ he said.  ‘We were making our way through the race, soldiering on to the end.’

 

Runners train for months to take part in organised events.  Andy has been training since Christmas.  To run a race is to make a commitment.  It is not uncommon for people to run about 400 kilometres in training for a half marathon.

 

‘I was thinking I don’t want to stop,’ Andy said.  He ran on, hoping the storm would pass.  After another kilometre the storm intensified.  There was water across the road, a foot deep in places.  Andy ran through it.

 

At a turning point, Andy slowed briefly, enough to hear an official yelling into his walkie-talkie, I think we need some help down here.

 

‘Tables were being blown over, it was pretty wild,’ Andy said.  ‘Branches were dropping everywhere.  I started having second thoughts when the wind was really severe but everyone kept running.’

 

He ran past a woman trapped beneath a branch.  The woman was surrounded by people and she didn’t appear seriously hurt so Andy ran on.

 

Beneath a bridge, a drenched huddle of volunteers flagged the runners down.  The message was clear.  The race was over.  Everyone had to stop running, but despite the storm and the apparent danger, some runners ignored the directive.

 

‘Some people kept running until we were all herded onto an oval, the main running track at St Lucia,’ Andy said.

 

As officials scrambled to get the cancelation message to the entrants, some of them kept running.  That provides valuable insight into the mindset of some of the entrants.

 

It’s just a storm, I want a medal and a good time.  Runners are like any athlete.  They are grimly determined and they take responsibility for their own safety during a run.

Andy said the race was called off between five and ten minutes after the storm hit.  As he ran to the main oval in St Lucia, he overheard other runners discussing the man who had been injured by the branch.

 

It was still raining as he collected the medal, his bag and fled the scene.

 

‘I got an amazing time of about 1:11 for a half marathon,’ he said.  Though he could’ve turned for home when he heard the warning on the ABC, he didn’t.  ‘I trained for months and committed to the race so you don’t really want to believe the weather warnings.’

 

In the aftermath of the event, Andy believes there was a breakdown in communication between the race organisers and the officials.

 

‘It looked like the officials were trying to work out what was going on,’ he said.  ‘I think it should’ve been called off about six, about ten minutes earlier.  There should’ve been more volunteers along the course and better communication.’

 

He admitted some culpability, having listened to ABC radio on the way to the race.  ‘In future, maybe I’d take a bit more notice of the weather warning,’ he said.  ‘But we were a bit like sheep really when the storm hit.  People around you are running so you just keep running.’

 

Intraining’s management of the event will be scrutinised.  A man remains in hospital with severe head injuries.  As Andy said, the race should’ve been called off earlier, but although the storm was predicted, warnings weren’t issued by BOM until after the race had started.

 

It left the organisers in a quandary.  Andy said Intraining should’ve gotten the message out earlier, that the race had been called off.  He also agreed that each race should have several congregation points along the course, a safe spot for runners to gather if there is trouble.

 

But the runners themselves need not be so blinded by the glint of a medal.  When a run turns to chaos, self preservation is much more important than a personal best time or another trinket.

 

‘I feel sorry for them in a way,’ Andy said of Intraining.

 

Intraining’s Steve Manning used Facebook to send his sympathy to the injured runner and his family.

 

‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the tragically injured runner and his family.  With respect for the family’s wishes we have not talked to the media and have no further comment.’

 

Andy is hoping to run the Gold Coast Marathon in July.  He was using the Brisbane Twilight Running Festival as training.  Despite the mayhem, he’ll be back next year.

 

‘I’ll be running it again,’ he said.

 

It is too simple to blame the organisers for Sunday’s calamity.  There must be fault found, but the blame is duplicitous.

 

Postscript

 

I have run through rain before, just like Andy and any other runner.  Before a run I usually monitor the skyline and check out the weather.  Occasionally I have mistimed training, hustling home beneath storms and getting soaked.

 

If not for a knee injury, I would’ve been running with Andy at St Lucia.  Like Andy, I would’ve run through the storm, provided I didn’t get clobbered by a branch.  It’s all about striving for a personal best and gathering another medal.

 

Though I’d been reading BOM’s severe weather warnings throughout the day, they wouldn’t have stopped me from running.

 

They probably won’t in the future, and there lies the problem.

 

Everyone is responsible for their own safety…

 

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. 1.11 is a bloody good time for a half marathon in those conditions.

    I know I would have kept going, I actually enjoy running in the rain, though wind bites. Good point about the difficult position of organisers. Duty of care ramifications but how do you physically prevent every committed runner across the course from continuing, especially when the end is in sight. I guess there’s disclaimers and the ‘reasonability’ test.

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