CPD Chicago Police monitor security at the Chicago Marathon. (Walljasper/MEDILL)

Chicago Marathon balances security and patron experience

Dogs. Dump trucks. Camouflage.

These were some of the signs of security measures put in place by Chicago Marathon organizers on Sunday, part of a comprehensive plan to ensure a safe and successful marathon in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing last April.

The heightened security presence during last weekend's race offered impediments to spectators and runners, especially at the start and finish line. But standing on Michigan Avenue Sunday morning, complaints about bomb-sniffing dogs and patrolling SWAT teams were nowhere to be heard.

“The police presence is visible. I think they've definitely discouraged people from trying anything.” Danny Gill came from Indianapolis to cheer on his fiancee, but due to increased security measures at Grant Park, he watched expectantly from Halsted Street in Pilsen. He was satisfied with his view of the route. “It's still great for people to cheer, because they're still able to have access to the runners.”

The majority of visible security was downtown. A maze of metal gates created four checkpoints for entry into Grant Park, where runners, volunteers and guests showed credentials and the contents of their official marathon clear plastic bags before heading off to stretch and find their starting corrals.

Without a guest ticket, volunteer credentials or an official race bib, no one was getting anywhere near the start. Bulldozers blocked cross streets, offering a commanding deterrent to any driver not realizing that the park was off limits. Not that you could miss the Chicago Police SWAT team in fatigues perched on a pneumatic lift or the red jacketed private security agents milling about each gate.

One security guard, who did not want to give his name, explained his confidence. “I'm not worried about anything. Security is so heavy down here. You've got FBI, ATF, Chicago Police undercover. You've got us as private security, which most of us are in law enforcement.”

"The only thing I haven't seen is CIA," he laughed. "You wouldn't see them, because you don't know who's undercover!”

Clyde Coleman, an information volunteer, explained the marathon's rationale for the tight security downtown. “The main protection is for the runners. It was the runners that were bombed in Boston. If they keep the crowd away from the runners, then the other security – the dogs sniffing, the helicopters, it gives the runners a sense of security.” Coleman is a runner, so he knows the pressures of race day. “You don't need to be running with that kind of stress if you want to get your best time.”

Lauren Wilgus, a three-time Chicago Marathoner, said police were taking a firm hand along the course. “It seemed like they were being cautious that only runners were on the course. They were pulling people off quickly if they jumped in to run with a friend.”

While Wilgus noticed the authorities on the route, the mood at the starting gate was untainted by the precautions. “Running a marathon is so exciting, with 40,000 people all crammed into a relatively small space, the vibe is just so exciting anyway.” Wilgus said the added protection didn't interfere with the experience. “They do such a great job of creating a fun and exciting atmosphere for the runners at the start line anyways, if felt pretty lively.”

Marne Smiley, a newcomer to the Chicago Marathon, completed the Boston Marathon before the bomb detonated. While she welcomed the added security, it did have its challenges, especially at the end of the race.

“When we finished the race, getting back was a painful endeavor.” Smiley said.

She ran for Ronald McDonald House Charities, and getting back to their tent proved a challenge. “My muscles were kind of seizing up. If it'd been a hundred yards away I'd have been fine. But it was like a mile away. I was crying, I was in pain, I was cold, I was seizing up. Very painful and a little unnecessary.”

Smiley was pleased with her marathon experience, but found the hurdles in Grant Park too heavy handed. “I think the event should still be approachable and enjoyable. It's kind of tough when you get to the starting line and there's only 15 or 20 bathrooms for 600 people. There's enough stress going on.”

Standing at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Michigan Avenue, Laura Galvan had a chance to see the heightened security force in action.

“We saw someone leave a black suitcase and we went ahead and told the cops.” Galvan said with tension in her voice. “They brought a sniff dog right away. The guy just walked away, it was weird.”

Her brother, Salvadore Galvan wore a Boston Redsox ball cap. He was impressed by the prompt police response. “She noticed a guy drop it off at the trash over there.” It was evident that Boston was on his mind as he paused, then explained, “After what happened, she decided to tell the authorities.”

Fortunately, the dogs and officers found nothing but discarded clothing in the bag. But seeing something so similar to the events of last spring's Boston tragedy weighed on the family.

“You would think after all that, people would have more common sense.” Laura Galvan added, shaking her head in disbelief. “I used to volunteer every year, but after what happened [in Boston], I didn't want to.” Her sister, Abby, volunteered at the finish line Sunday.

Salvadore Galvan noted the lasting impact of the Boston bombing, saying “something like that, happening a couple months earlier, it's going to change the way any marathon is set up from now on.”

Wilgus commended the Marathon organizers for their approach. “When something happens like at Boston, your immediate reaction is to cancel things or call things off or go overboard and be frightened by it."

Wilgus thinks the event organizers handled the day with grace. "I was glad that things went on as usual, that they took a lot of precautions and just made sure that runners could still have an incredible experience. And it definitely was.”

Coleman said he realizes keeping spectators and runners safe this type of event is a difficult balance. “You never know until the race is over if it was effective enough." He chewed on the thought a moment, then added, "You'll never know if it was too much, but better too much than not enough.”

-Christopher Walljasper