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The Toronto Marathon: a series of unfortunate events

How I and thousands of runners managed to survive the Toronto Marathon

Toronto Marathon Photo by: Karin Chykaliuk

When I signed up for the Toronto Half-Marathon, I was excited for the chance to embark on another race—an experience I have come to love over the past five years of half-marathon running in my home of Vancouver. But my excitement vanished when I entered Toronto’s chaotic streets of North York on Sunday morning. 

Start-line scavenger hunt 

I had arrived at the bus stop at Yonge and Bloor with ample time. A dozen other runners lined the block. After waiting approximately 20 minutes, scanning anxiously down the road for an oncoming bus, I started to get worried. Luckily, an Uber packed with runners pulled up to the curb. “Get in—the buses are full,” said one of the runners. 

Photo: Katrianna DeSante

After weighing the odds of getting kidnapped with my desperation to make it to the race in time, I hopped into the front seat. Thirty minutes and around 30 blocks later, the Uber suddenly stopped. We were stuck in a congested swarm of honking horns and runners jaywalking left and right, just two blocks from the start line. 

With only 14 minutes left, we bolted from the car and frantically began surveying the street for a bathroom. There were no porta-potties in sight, and long lines of runners waited to use bathrooms in Whole Foods, MacDonalds, and Pizza Pizza. “This is a nightmare,” said one of my carpool comrades as we hurried to a bathroom on the fourth floor of a shopping mall. 

Photo: Katrianna DeSante

Survival of the fittest

The start line was packed with runners standing shoulder to shoulder, forcing many to stand outside the barricades. In a desperate bid to join the race, I was forced into being a steeplechaser, leaping over a barricade and into the craze of elbows and ankles. There was no time for a warmup; the race jolted to a start, and the sea of runners surged forward.

Spectators and pedestrians darted along the route, cutting runners off and tripping some. I nervously watched for a scooter, person or stroller to come lurching onto the course. After the initial chaos subsided, I focused on the task at hand—getting to the finish (a challenge on its own with the rainy weather and unexpected tummy troubles due to mild food poisoning). But when I finally reached the finish line, it was anything but welcoming.

Dehydrated and starving, I squeezed past runners into a building where I hoped there would be food and refreshments. But I found hundreds of runners vying for limited bottled water, and food that was nowhere in sight. “Who organized this?” I thought to myself as I marched away hungrily, clutching an absurdly large medal the size of my head. 

Photo: Katrianna DeSante

Who is to blame? 

When I returned home, I opened up my social media to look at race coverage. “So disorganized,” “30 min to get in the washroom”, “a waste of money,” “left with NO medal,” and “this race embarrasses our city” were among the many complaints I came across in the comments section of @torontomarathon’s Instagram. This feedback is nothing out of the ordinary, it seems; for years, runners have complained that the Toronto Marathon falls short in various ways.

This year, the chaos appeared to reach unprecedented levels. According to participant comments online, not only were bathrooms scarce, but the bag drop was chaotic, the course was inconsistently marked, post-race conditions were poor, and co-ordination with the city seemed lacking. At the finish, some runners had to wait well over 60 minutes before receiving water, while others waited up to two hours before they could retrieve their bags.

Marathon of no hope 

Marathoners reported pedestrians, cyclists, and walkers criss-crossing the route around the 27 km mark. On the way back from the 35 km mark, the marathon route crosses over itself, causing those going out and those coming back to collide. Zachary Morgan, a marathoner with Toronto’s BlackToe Running, managed to run a sub-3 despite the chaos, he says “there’s no segregation between the different events and the general public, it’s absolutely horrific.”

For this year’s marathon winner, Alex Bernst, who ran 2:29:31, his triumph at the finish line was anything but celebratory. When he broke through the finish-line tape, some thought he was a runner in the 5K, and shouted “asshole!” at him. “Once I got dropped off into the final chute I was mixed in with runners from the other events, which obviously makes it tough to see who was in what race,” says Bernst.

To make matter worse, a number of events in the city (Toronto Met Film Fest, The Scotiabank Contact Photograph Festival, and the Etobicoke Khalsa Day parade) were happening simultaneously with the marathon. This is beyond organizers’ control, but it seemed other events were not even taken in to account. 

Photo: Katrianna DeSante

No medals to spare 

Worst of all, after navigating through the frenzy of runners at the finish line, runners were angered to learn the race had run out of medals.

While Morgan was one of the lucky ones who received a medal after waiting in line for 15 minutes, he felt bad for those who didn’t get one. “A lot of runners work so hard to get here, and it’s really disappointing to hear so many of them didn’t even get medals,” says Morgan. “It’s safe to say that I won’t be running this race anymore.”

Runners who left the race empty-handed were told to email their bib number, name, and mailing address to info@torontomarathon.com. A day later, organizers issued an apology on social media for the inconvenience, explaining that this was because of last-minute transfers from the marathon to the half.

The Toronto Marathon is an experience I will never forget, but not for the reasons I had hoped as a visitor to the city. This type of massive disorganization is a testament to just how bad a race can be when there is little attention and care to the safety, health and well-being of runners. More than that, it raises the question for runners: when is enough, enough?

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