SAVANNAH, GA. – A group of runners traveled from Raleigh, N.C. to experience the fifth-anniversary running of the Rock n’ Roll Savannah full and half Marathon on Saturday.
In the end, what they returned home with was a variety of emotion – from the peak of exhilaration in putting all their hard work into going the distance, to the jaw-dropping disappointment of not being able to finish the full 26.2-mile course around the historic city.
Stacia Brink-Koutroumpis and Rebecca Clowes were running in their first Rock n’ Roll full marathon event.
They weren’t strangers to the series of races operated by Competitor Group, Inc. though.
Brink-Koutroumpis was running in her fourth Rock n’ Roll Marathon event, after completing halves in Raleigh in 2014 and 2015, and in Virginia Beach this past September.
Clowes had also previously run the half marathon course twice in Raleigh, and had run her first-ever marathon event last year, in a non-affiliated event in Richmond, Va.
As they walked to Daffin Square at 5:30 a.m., they were early arrivals amongsg a mass of humanity that eventually swelled to more than 20,000 runners from 21 countries and all 50 states – as per what pre-race media releases indicated.
They waited for seven of their friends, who also traveled from the City of Oaks to participate in the half-marathon, and were veterans of Rock n’ Roll events in Raleigh as well.
“Excited – a little nervous,” Clowes said beforehand.
“It’s gonna be a tough day, it’s gonna be hot, but it’s gonna be fun. It’s my second marathon. Savannah’s an awesome city, it’s a beautiful city, it’s a fun city. There’s gonna be good entertainment on the course and it’s gonna be a great time.”
“I feel really good – I feel relaxed,” Brink-Koutroumpis added.
“This is my first full marathon, so my goals are just to finish and have fun and feel good the whole time that I’m doing it.”
While they trained together as participants and mentors of running groups based out of the Fleet Feet Sports location in Ridgewood Shopping Center, the two hadn’t planned or known they would both take on the challenge in Georgia.
“We train together, we talk a lot during the year, but we didn’t plan to do it together – it just happened by coincidence,” Brink-Koutroumpis said while describing why she chose to run her first full marathon in Savannah.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Savannah. I’ve never been here before – a lot of beautiful stuff to look at. The Rock n’ Roll series (is good) because it’s so entertaining and there’s lots of stuff to see the whole time you’re here while you’re running. Also, with the chance of it being a pretty flat course (compared to Raleigh), as my first full, I wanted to take that big-hill factor out of it.”
The two runners were psyched and ready, and so was the rest of their group, a few of them even donning orange tutus to add some color and fun to it all.
They were all ready to hit the pavement and meander through the scenic streets of Georgia’s oldest city – taking a tour of the downtown, through charming town squares, past and around historical buildings under canopies of Spanish moss-covered trees, as well as through the rest of the city’s neighborhoods.
With the exception of some spots, according to the participants, it was all beautiful to take in.
However, as the temperature began to peak upwards of 84 degrees and coupled with nearly 100-percent humidity – in November no less – many experienced typical dehydration issues while running such an event.
It was under those conditions, coupled with thousands of runners moving elbow-to-elbow, that by the Mile-Seven and Eight marks, water supplies were running low, if not already depleted.
As runners progressed along the streets, it wasn’t unusual to see local residents who were cheering support also offering water hoses and ice for quick relief.
The sound of ambulance sirens began blaring repeatedly as the race medical tents and their personnel were getting calls to treat dehydrated runners simultaneously.
As a runner collapsed on the route under a railway underpass, an officer close by called it in while other runners, apparently possessing EMT and medical training, also helped to keep the woman conscious, offering water and comfort while waiting for the ambulance.
According to the Sheriff’s deputy onsite, four other runners had also gone down at the same time, so it would be a little while until the ambulance would arrive to transport her to the nearest medical station.
As neighbors brought a bag of ice to the scene, the race continued on with many looking on and offering help, if needed, but the situation was under control, with the participants helping each other until medical assistance arrived.
The woman looked much better than during the previous 20 minutes when she was barely talking, then writhing in pain due to experiencing painful cramps in her legs, to the point where she vomited after taking a salt tablet.
They were all symptoms of heat-related illness that resulted from the excessive physical strain the woman experienced under such hot conditions.
Many others, like Brink-Koutroumpis and Clowes, passed that point in the race and seemed to look good in form, and indicated so by waving and smiling.
They were just a third of the way through their journey to the finish line, but it was apparent that the four-plus months of committed training they completed, and the nutrition and hydration they had with them, was helping them fare much better than most.
As Brink-Koutroumpis and Clowes approached the Mile-12 point, the intersection where half marathoners and full marathoners separated, the smiles on their faces were still there as they consumed some added electrolyte liquid and nutrient bars.
Almost halfway along, they were ready and excited to take on the final half of the marathon course that was now under nothing but bright sun as the morning’s fog and cloud cover had finally burned off.
Off they went, but not for long, nor too far in distance.
A look ahead at the intersection saw them standing and talking.
Did they take another quick break to get that last chew and sip in, or did one of them all-of-a-sudden not feel good?
No, it was something else.
As they continued along the course, they saw a barricade in front of them and were directed by security officials to turn back and complete the half-marathon course.
They asked why and were told that all remaining full-marathoners were to be rerouted due to the excessive heat.
Both stood in shock, trying to process everything, and realized that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish the goal they set out for themselves.
“They said to run the half like everyone else,” Brink-Koutroumpis said in a disappointed tone.
“Yeah, we’re gonna finish the half for sure,” Clowes added.
They took off and crossed the finish line just over a mile away, at a sub 10-minute pace, much quicker than the comfortable 12-13-minute pace they were keeping throughout while enjoying it all up to that point.
Their goal and motivation was to go the distance and experience everything that came with it.
Instead, it was all taken away in an instant, and the reasons for it were provided by race officials via the event’s blog by mid-morning.
“This morning in consultation with local officials, we made the difficult decision to divert runners along the course due to the health risk posed by over-exertion in the unseasonably warm and humid conditions,” a pre-prepared statement read.
“As previously communicated, we did implement a comprehensive heat plan, which included water misters, sponge stations, and air-conditioned cooling buses along the course. Unfortunately, these tough running conditions were deemed excessive and dangerous by our medical officials and their consulting team, including the Southside Fire Department, St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital, Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management. While we want to provide a fun and memorable experience for all runners, our number one priority is to maintain their safety at every event. We greatly appreciate your understanding, and we sympathize with you that you were unable to finish the race you worked so hard to prepare for. We know that nothing can replace crossing the finish line in Savannah over the weekend. We will be in touch via email with all affected participants.”
“I’ve been training for 17 weeks to do my first full marathon and then not get to be able to do it…,” Brink-Koutroumpis said, almost speechless and with emotion – a tear slowly falling from her eye.
Both she and Clowes understood why the decision was made, but were also confused as to how others may have been allowed to complete the full marathon, if they made it past a certain point along the route.
Or why or how water supplies had dwindled to non-existent while a majority of the participants hadn’t even made it a third to halfway through the course.
It seemed that the air-conditioned buses, misting tents, and cooling sponges – additional precautions that race personnel had set out – were laid out too far along the course – past Mile-12.
From the race website it read:
“Keep an eye out for the following cooling elements on course:
- Ice/sponge stations at approximately miles 12.7 and 23.
- Cooling buses located on the latter part of the marathon course near water stations: Southbound Truman at Victory on-ramp, Memorial Hospital Parking Lot on Lexington Dr. Approaching Reuben Clark Dr (in parking lot) and at Skidaway & Timberline Dr in Church Parking Lot.
- Ice towels available in the Finish Line Secure Zone.
- Cool drinks available in the Finish Line Secure Zone.”
Brink-Koutroumpis and Clowes, as well as thousands of others, never saw any of those amenities.
They didn’t make it that far before being turned around.
It’s unknown how many completed the full course as race organizers did not respond to that inquiry when requested.
Unfortunately, it was later announced that for a 35-year old local man, the half-marathon course was too much, and as a result he passed away.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon medical director P.Z. Pearce released the following statement:
“We regret to confirm that a race participant passed away at Saturday’s half-marathon. We are saddened by a heartbreaking and tragic loss. Our deepest sympathies and prayers go out to family members and loved ones of the runner.”
The entire morning turned out to be quite an emotional one for many.
Some completed their goals, some didn’t, and one suffered the ultimate consequence while trying to do so.
Being mindful of everything that had happened, and as race organizers held a moment of silence for that man on Sunday as part of the final set of events that took place for Rock n’ Roll Savannah, Brink-Koutroumpis and Clowes, along with their friends, vowed to continue running and complete what they set out to do.
Yes, they still had marathon medals and jackets in hand, but their task wasn’t yet completed in order to truly wear them with any sense of pride.
After taking a day to process it all, they added themselves to the list and will be running Saturday in Richmond – determined to finish what they started – and prepared for the highs and lows that may come with it all – again.